Heath: Nicholson signing to boost internal competition for Minnesota United

Sam Nicholson - Hearts - Close up

BLAINE, Minn. – Minnesota United have had an up-and-down first half-season in Major League Soccer. While they stabilized after two historically poor results, the team has been forced to test their depth due to injuries and international duty. With Monday’s signing of Sam Nicholson, Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath is hoping to add a true starting option.

“He’s a 22-year-old experienced player,” Heath told MLSsoccer.com after training on Monday. “He’s been at Hearts – a proper club – since he was 9 years of age. He has over 100 league games at his age. It’s not very often that you get somebody who’s played that much football in a competitive environment like the Scottish Premier League at his age…on a free [transfer]. For us, we think it was really worth the pickup.”

Heath mentioned that Nicholson has been on his radar for a few years. When the player was playing with the Scottish youth national teams, he was coached by Ricky Sbragia (now with Manchester United). Sbragia and Heath worked together at Sunderland. This direct connection was vital in Minnesota’s pursuit of Nicholson.

“You can watch from afar, but when you actually know someone who’s worked with him day in, day out, you get a feeling of what his personality is like.” Heath said of the connection. “Like a lot of clubs, they’ve had a look in England or Scotland. You look at how well Bradley Wright-Phillips has done. Philadelphia was probably thinking 'Is Jay Simpson the next BWP?'"

This move also comes on the heels of the team’s 1-0 home loss to Columbus. After the match, Heath was asked why regular starter Miguel Ibarra had been on the bench for the fixture. Heath replied that Ibarra -- “as well as 3-4 other guys” -- had failed to show hustle in the team’s previous loss in New York City. That said, Heath was careful to clarify that Ibarra's prospects are permanently dented.

“It means the same [for Ibarra] as it does for everybody else,” Heath warned. “I don’t think we’ve had enough competition on what the eleven starters will be...I mentioned Miguel because that was the direct question. This is the start of that. Hopefully, we can bring three or four more down the road.”

While Nicholson has primarily featured as a left winger – also Ibarra’s main position – the two players do offer some flexibility. Heath told MLSsoccer.com that he thinks Nicholson can play on the right wing or underneath the striker. Likewise, Ibarra has been deployed at right wing for several matches this season. 

Meanwhile, this changes the prospects for three other players. Copenhagen loanee Bashkim Kadriii has seen his playing time slashed in recent months and now faces even stronger competition to get back on the pitch. Young Ish Jome has been a candidate to go on loan since April; this move may ensure that a move happens in this window. Rookie Abu Danladi has been a regular for Heath, but a string of injuries and inconsistent form may knock him down the pecking order, as well.

Attacking stalwarts Christian Ramirez and Kevin Molino seem the safest bets to start as Minnesota resume their season on July 19 (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE) against the Houston Dynamo. It’s most likely that two of Nicholson, Ibarra, and Danladi will start on the wings as Minnesota looks to get back in the win column. Nicholson joined the team for training on Monday; whether he starts next week or not is in his hands.

“It’s up to Sam to prove it now,” Heath affirmed. “It’s a different league, and it’s a huge move for a kid at 22. He chose this move – he could’ve stayed in Scotland, he could’ve gone to the [English] Championship. He made the choice. He’s been over here and watched us a couple of times, so he knows what he’s coming into. If he gets into the team and stays, then good luck to him. That’s what he’s been brought into do.”