Welcome to the Wednesday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being the transfer window – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.
Here is something you probably did not know: Fabian Espindola has been one of the league's best attackers, on a per-minute basis, over the last two years. Whenever he's been on the field, D.C. United have gone forward with a bit more of a cutting edge and a bit more of a creative bent, and as such, he's been their best field player since his arrival in 2014.
I don't say that lightly. Perry Kitchen, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum and Sean Franklin have all been good-to-excellent, but Espindola's been the difference-maker for a team often too light on attacking talent. The numbers back that up:
Despite only starting 49 of a possible 87 games, Espindola has scored or assisted on 37 of DC United's 113 goals (33%) during that time— Seth Vertelney (@svertelney) July 20, 2016
The "despite" part of Seth's tweet explains a good bit of why Espindola was moved from "core piece" to "trade block" this year, and his age (he turned 31 in May) suggests that his bouts of good health will continue to be fewer and further between.
That, of course, makes Wednesday's gambit a risk for the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are reportedly about to acquire the Argentine veteran from D.C. for allocation cash (not clear at this time whether that'll be GAM or TAM). If the move comes to pass, they're getting a fantastic chance creator, individualist and fierce competitor, as well as guy with 100 combined MLS goals and assists and gas left in the tank. But it's unclear how much gas, and how long the car will stay on the road in the first place.
It's also unclear just where Espindola would fit for the 'Caps. He became expendable in D.C. as head coach Ben Olsen switched his long-standing 4-4-2 to a 4-1-4-1 (that, to me, still looks like a 4-3-3) over the last two months. Espindola can't play as a target forward, and he's definitely not a midfielder. That basically leaves him only one flank or the other, and while he's made a go of it – he's a gamer and a pro –- he's still been a fish out of water, at least a smidge.
His skillset is that of a second striker in that 1) he prefers combining in tight spaces rather than either going directly at a defender at pace, or trying to shoot the channel off the ball, and 2) he always, always loves to start his runs inside and then flare out to the flank (that's a second forward's movement) than the opposite (what modern wingers do).
Most will look at this and say "yeah, he crossed like a classic winger." But look at where he started -- how deep and central -- before eventually finding the space on the flanks. This is called playing off a center forward, and Espindola does it well:
He can also play with a center forward, but again his starting position is deep and central:
The 'Caps have mostly been a 4-2-3-1 team under Carl Robinson, and on the face of it Espindola's been brought in to replace the productivity of the injured Kekuta Manneh. Manneh is a pure winger; Espindola is decidedly not.
That, however, doesn't mean he's destined to be a bad fit. The 'Caps have experimented with myriad lineups this season, including a surfeit of 4-4-2 looks. The best of those particular looks might be a "box" 4-4-2, with primary playmaker Pedro Morales sitting deep alongside Matias Laba, and two more attack-minded midfielders midfielders who aren't quite goal-dangerous enough to be second forwards -- let's say Christian Bolanos and Nicolas Mezquida -- more advanced and toward the flank, if not necessarily with chalk on their boots.
The danger of this formation is that it can become an empty bucket with no central creator, but the beauty of Espindola's game is that he naturally drifts into those abandoned spots and does work from there. The bucket will not be empty if he's on the field, and what's nominally a 4-4-2 box will probably look more like a 4-2-3-1 with Espindola often in the middle of that "3" line.
Three other things to consider here:
• Conventional wisdom has said that the 'Caps need a center forward rather than a second forward. But Masato Kudo has been very, very good since returning from a broken face, Blas Perez has played well all season in his limited, off-the-bench role. Filling the cap space of the departed Octavio Rivero with Espindola would be a curve ball, but it's also a vote of confidence in Kudo and Perez.
• This might also be a vote of confidence in recently signed 15-year-old Alphonso Davies. He's not going to fill Manneh's shoes completely, but he's already earned minutes in both MLS regular season play and the Canadian Championship. If you're good enough, you're old enough.
• Prior to 2016 the 'Caps had been happy hunters of the South American market for their big moves. But Espindola would be the third significant piece (Perez and Andrew Jacobson are the other two) to come from within MLS, while other imports have come from Europe (Fraser Aird, Bolanos, David Edgar) or Japan (Kudo).
Could this indicate a longer-term organizational shift, or is it just be an active club kicking over every stone in search of a bargain? Hard to say until it becomes a two-(or more)year trend, but it bears watching.
As, of course, do the 'Caps. They may have gotten more interesting today, and if so they've probably gotten better as well – provided they figure out the right fit.
Ok folks, thanks for keeping me company today!