Up a goal. Down a man. The temperature well below freezing. And a windchill in the single digits. These were the rather tumultuous circumstances in which 23-year old Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu made his MLS debut. But the Harvard Crimson man rose to the occasion after coming on for the injured Jeff Larentowicz, maintaining his composure and discipline at one of the most important positions on the pitch.
While we’ve grown accustomed to the beautiful, fast, attacking football of Tata Martino’s side, this match was anything but the norm for the Five Stripes. After going up early behind a Francisco Calvo own goal, the match turned on its head after Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was sent off for a second yellow card in the 38th minute.
And then, disaster seemingly struck when Jeff Larentowicz hit the deck with an injury, setting the stage for the young Wheeler-Omiunu in the 74th minute of play. It was big shoes to fill for the second-year player, who played only a few US Open Cup minutes at right back during his rookie season.
Extensive Defensive Duties
Filling Larentowicz’ critical role mid-match would be a daunting task for any young player. But being down a man only compounded the pressure. To combat the man disadvantage, Martino was forced to change from his 3-5-2 formation to a 4-4-1, subtracting a center mid to make four across the back. This meant added pressure and responsibility for the two center midfieders. And we saw an example of AWO’s range of duties immediately after he entered the match.
As we see above, everything seems calm at first. Wheeler-Omiunu comes on and signals to Nagbe that they will be the duo in the middle. Then, he drops next to Nagbe and defends the space in the middle. But things get more frantic once the ball is switched, and this is where we see the extra ground he has to cover.
Watching here, it’s safe to say that Wheeler-Omiunu was immediately called upon. And he passes the test, getting back to cover, and making the all-important clearance. Notice that Nagbe is just behind AWO at the conclusion of the play, also fulfilling his role to a “T.”
The below frame provides us with a clear look at the added responsibilities for AWO and Nagbe. With a third center mid and 11 men, there would likely be cover behind the two CM’s. Instead, both of them had to recover immediately in front of the back four.
Let’s take a look at one more example of this demanding center mid role, and perhaps Wheeler-Omiunu’s finest moment of the match. This time, the play actually begins in the attacking half for the United man, who provides token pressure, before retreating quickly into defense.
Then, things get crazy quickly. Just watch as the play finishes below. AWO is called upon to perform several crucial defensive actions in a matter of moments.
Take your eye off the ball and watch Wheeler-Omiunu as Minnesota transfer into attack and switch the ball to the right side for Ibson (No. 7). First, he cuts off a potential through ball to a wide open Tyrone Mears, and Ibson opts to move to the middle. AWO recognizes this and alertly moves centrally to front the dangerous Miguel Ibarra, before finishing the play by covering for Greg Garza to make the clearance.
As we discuss above, much of AWO’s work won’t show up on the stat sheet, but comes in the form of effective positioning. The numbers do indicate that he performed his role effectively and efficiently. For example, the substitute made five clearances (shown below.) And he was not dispossessed in his time on the pitch either, a number that would’ve made Larentowicz proud.
Five clearances in just over 25 minutes of play certainly catches the eye, and all five were vital in a match where Minnesota pounded the Atlanta 18-yard box by attempting a whopping 58 crosses in the match.
A Future Option?
A lack of depth at the CDM spot was a worry coming into the season, with AUFC seemingly 100% reliant on the 34-year old Larentowicz. Bur AWO’s performance to some degree quells those worries. In his time on the pitch against Minnesota, he played an important, multi-faceted role in a game state where any defensive error could mean an equalizer.
Whether the 23-year old can truly fill Larentowicz’ shoes when called upon, or if the team even plans to use him frequently in such a role, remains to be seen. The Five Stripes are rumored to be in the market for another CDM, with Martino himself admitting the team are looking. If that possibility comes to fruition, it’s more likely we see Wheeler-Omiunu getting valuable professional experience with Atlanta United 2.
We’ll see what the future holds for Wheeler-Omiunu. But the young player must be credited for doing all that was asked of him in his MLS debut, performing a difficult defensive role during a time of great adversity for Atlanta United.