We’re a long, long way out from seeing any live soccer. In the meantime, let’s take a look at two young prospects on Nashville SC’s books, currently out on loan to Charlotte Independence. I took in their first (and to date only) USL game this season in painstaking detail. Here’s what I saw.
Position: Left centerback (four-back system, 4-4-2 formation)
Strengths: Maher’s ball skills have been and will continue to be the strong point of his game. On the ball, he’s very comfortable making a variety of different passes, whether the safe CB-to-CB pass, or trying to advance the ball. He’s also pretty calm under pressure. SKCII wasn’t pressing all the time, but when a forward was sent to harass Maher, he did a good job seeing where the heat was coming from, adjusting his body to shield the ball, and either making a safe backpass or using his quality on the ball to make a turn and, having bypassed the pressure, pushing back upfield via the pass.
That comfort with his feet also showed defensively. Maher is very capable of quickly getting a foot out to deflect an attempted pass or shot (sometimes not for better!), and does an outstanding job of making tackles when a player is trying to box him out back-to-goal.
Physically, Maher has much better makeup speed than you might expect from a player with his physique. He’s able to close down from behind with recovery runs – something he had to do a few times in this game – and he uses his intelligence to use that athleticism to get into a position to disrupt play. He also flips his hips reasonably well. That allows him to change directions while dropping into a defensive posture, and also to fire when he figures out how best to approach an onrushing attacker.
Maher is comfortable in the air, and willing to get up to win balls with his head. He didn’t have many opportunities to do that on the offensive end of the pitch, but should develop that as the season (if the season?) goes along.
Areas of improvement: Much of my initial breakdown of Maher’s game mentioned that his weaknesses came in the physical maturity department. It should come as no surprise that something so apparent against fellow collegians sticks out like a sore thumb against (mostly) grown men. While he’s willing and able to get up for headed clearances in his own penalty area, opposing players were pretty easily able to muscle him off the ball on a couple occasions.
That lack of overall strength also manifests itself in his mobility. While Maher has good speed and quickness, he carries himself like, well, like a guy who’s still growing into a long, lanky frame. His explosiveness will benefit as he develops strength in his core and lower body, as he won’t be trying to move all that length without the muscle mass to push it efficiently.
Of course, Maher’s ability to deflect balls on defense worked out… very poorly for his team on one occasion: he was responsible for Sporting KC II’s only goal when he directed a ground cross into the back of his own net. On the bright side, failing to deflect the ball would have been a tap-in goal anyway, but a guy with his quality on the ball should be able to be better in that situation, too.
The rest of the areas of improvement shown in this game were a little more worrisome, though hopefully come down to a simple matter of being a 20-year old kid playing his first game as a professional. His spacing and movement in transition showed plenty of room to get better. Some of that probably also comes down to team circumstance: the Independence backline was something of a mess organizationally, and you hope that his confusion was a symptom, not the cause, of a greater team issue at the back.
Overall: A one-game sample size didn’t change much of the way we think about Maher: skill-wise, he adapted to a higher level of play as well as you could possibly expect. Physically, it’s going to be a yearlong process (perhaps even longer) to get his body where it needs to be.
Some of the things that didn’t go well for him individually were probably the result of first-game jitters for the whole team: we have a big body of evidence that indicates Charlotte right back Joel Johnson is at least a replacement-level fullback in the USL, but he got abused time and again, exposing both Maher and Hugh Roberts to a lot of two-on-three transition moments before Kevan George could recover to help. (Roberts, an established elite CB in this league, didn’t look any better than Maher).
Team-wide improvement in defensive organization and communication – the sort of thing you expect to see after the first game of live fire – should help Maher look quite a bit better in short order, as his physical maturity catches up to his soccer ability. The mental side of the game was just too difficult to evaluate on an individual basis in this one.
Position: Left midfielder (4-4-2) or left winger (4-2-3-1), also folded inside when he was ball-far because Charlotte was chasing a winner. 63′ sub (31 total minutes)
Strengths: I’ll be honest here: Haakenson had extremely limited opportunity to be involved in the game for much of his time on the field. Charlotte didn’t have a lot of the ball (combined with what we saw in evaluating Maher… this better have been an uncharacteristically bad game, or this team is going to struggle if and when the season resumes), and defensively, the Independence dealt mostly with central attacks or down the defensive right side.
He showed some decent burst up the left side on the rare counter-attacking opportunity. He’s not going to fly by high-level fullback/wingback types, but if provided an opening, he can get in behind.
He’s a willing defender, and had a nice quick poke to get the ball free in a counter-press. The desire to defend can be more difficult to ingrain than the physical and technical attributes to get it done, so that’s good.
When he came away with the ball, whether through his own defensive action or receiving a pass from a teammate, he wanted to initiate offense. He’s forward-thinking, and wants to attack on the dribble or get off a quick penetrating pass. He also had an MLS Kobe assist on the game-winning goal: He played in a pretty nice crossed ball on which Dane Kelly had his shot blocked, before dunking home his own rebound. Haakenson did little more than put the ball into a dangerous area, but, uh, that’s an important part of the game.
Areas of improvement: Haakenson’s running style and his posture when setting up defensively showed him displaying “heavy feet.” They hit the ground laboriously, and he’s not going to be accused of gliding over the turf, no matter how fast he moves. Unlike Maher, he already looks like a million bucks physically, so it’s not a lack of development with lower-body strength and explosiveness, either.
On the rare occasions he had the ball at his feet, he was reasonably good in space – pushing forward to take what was given him and get into dangerous positions – but he had the ball easily taken away when he got closer to a defending player. As with some of Maher’s minor misfires, it’s likely this was a “welcome to the pros” shock of sorts that will work out of his system with a little more experience at this level.
Even with his physically-imposing frame, he didn’t show great instincts to get after the ball in the offensive zone when there were opportunities to win 50/50s. There was one instance on which his teammate was boxed out from the ball, and Haakenson put in a half-hearted effort to try to beat another defender one-v-one. Showing tenacity there could have produced another offensive opportunity. He was also muscled off the ball in his own end on one occasion.
Overall: Despite the final score, Charlotte was by far the weaker team in this game, so we didn’t get a ton of opportunity to see what Haakenson can do. Much of Sporting’s offense and possession came down the defensive right flank (away from Haakenson), while the limited opportunities on the ball produced both positive and negative moments, without enough context to know which is the exception and which is the rule.
The front four was relatively fluid (with Charlotte pushing for a winner on the counter and eventually finding it) when the rookie was in the game, so he did get a bit of time centrally as well as in the most-advanced position of anyone in the attack. That displays versatility, but also made it tougher to get a feel for how he’d perform in any particular position.
There’s an even bigger caveat for this one-game sample-size, though: Haakenson came up lame after making a tackle in the 77th minute, so more than half his time on the pitch was post-injury (he stayed on the field, but it’s worth noting that any lack of explosiveness came with that important context).
All told, his athleticism is probably better-fit for a less speed-dependent position should he make the jump to MLS.
Luke Haakenson header image via ESPN+