I’ve been observing Adrian Heath’s press conferences for a while now. I get the strong sense that the MNUFC manager always knows what he’s after, in communicating through these situations. He comes across as frustrated sometimes, or pleased, but not always when you’d expect him to be. He also never, ever lambastes players in the media, and will tell you straight out that he won’t criticize players in that way.
So any time Heath says something that can be interpreted in any way as a criticism, my ears perk up.
But at the same time, pulling a criticism out of what he’s saying also feels like building the proverbial mountain out of the proverbial molehill. So if you’re not interested in watching me try to construct a big ol’ hill, maybe skip this.
Here’s what Heath said after Saturday’s game against Nashville: “As we are at this moment in time, the team is picking itself. When we get to Friday, I feel as though this is our best group at this moment in time.”
On the face of it, this is a comment about the Loons’ injury list. Heath was missing both starting fullbacks against Nashville, as well as Kervin Arriaga - who started in week one - and Abu Danladi, a veteran forward.
And if you run down the Loons’ bench on Saturday, you see what he means. DJ Taylor started six games last year, and ended up playing fullback in the second half as MNUFC looked for more speed on the wings. Niko Hansen had five starts last year, and was one of the backup forwards. Five of the seven other outfield players didn’t make a start in 2021. You can see how the team picks itself…
… except for Adrien Hunou.
The French striker, the team’s marquee signing of 2021, the man who was brought in to lead the line for the Loons, has been on the field for less than a quarter-hour in the first two weeks of 2022. He came on in the 84th minute against Philadelphia; against Nashville, he didn’t play at all. Not after a 70-minute weather delay, not as Minnesota searched for an equalizer, not as the Loons later pressed for the winner.
Obviously, there’s a lot more competition for Hunou this season than there was last season. Last year, the team’s injury crisis was such that the options were:
1) Play Hunou. 2) Play Robin Lod up front and try to fill in behind him with whoever was able to walk on that particular day. 3) Play Fanendo Adi up front (tried once, never tried again).
That’s not the case now! Luis Amarilla is back in Minnesota, and is first-choice. Abu Danladi is back in Minnesota, and there was some preseason evidence that he’s second-choice right now. And option #2 above seems a lot more attractive when you can pick Franco Fragapane and Bongokuhle Hlongwane, or Niko Hansen, or any of a number of other options as the wide forwards.
Not only is Hunou not the automatic first choice this year - as players return to health, it’s starting to look like it’s a battle for Hunou to even get into the 20-man squad for match day, because at the moment he might be as far down the list as the fourth option at the number-nine spot.
I think, for the most part, fans want to see Hunou succeed. There’s no reason to root against him, and last season was a tough ask - to come to a new country and slot right into the lineup, all during a pandemic.
But the one thing MNUFC has this year is the luxury of not needing Hunou to succeed. And if the team is “picking itself,” without him in it - that’s some bad, bad news.
Part of the weight that the Designated Player tag carries is an absolute and cold-hearted need for production. Using those three DP slots well is important for every team in the league, but even more so for teams like MNUFC that aren’t major destinations for overseas players. The Loons aren’t going to have Designated Players they can just offload and replace; they’re going to have to make those big acquisitions count.
If Hunou can’t get to the point where the team is picking itself, with him in it, then Minnesota United is going to have to make some tough decisions.