Next man up. That is a cliché bandied about by coaches in every sport. They hope it inspires the youngsters and the journeymen buried deep down the rosters that their dreams of competing at the highest levels could come true. For most players, it is an illusion. Their chances of playing are slim with established stars or rising prodigies blocking their path, but every once in a while, a rare opportunity arises and these players must be ready to prove they belong.
When Aiden McFadden began his 2022 season, he probably expected another long year of development in the USL Championship alongside his fellow draft picks, academy prospects, and reserve players. He was on his second year of a USL contract with Atlanta United 2 after being unexpectedly drafted the previous year, and the second year playing his new position at right-back. At Notre Dame, McFadden had played a more advanced role as an attacker and a wide midfielder, scoring goals and creating assists, but his new defensive responsibilities were something that challenged him early and often in 2021. Despite growing pains on that side of his game, he never lost sight of his love of attacking play and by the end of his first professional season, he held Atlanta United 2’s single-season scoring record.
As he trained alongside his MLS teammates at the club’s preseason camp, he probably measured himself against the two more established right-backs ahead of him, both of whom had national team experience. He could see his own progress and so could the coaches. He probably thought his chance might not be in 2022 but it very well could be in 2023. Well...plans change.
Minutes: 639 (11 matches played, 8 starts)
What went right?
When McFadden finally got his chance at the end of June against Toronto, the main directions he seems to have gotten were to fight hard, defend, and don’t get beaten. To his credit, McFadden did just that and quickly became a fan favorite for the blue-collar underdog way he went about filling his role. He wore his passion on his sleeve and could never be accused of quitting and that was a highly endearing quality considering the lack of enthusiasm by some of his more expensive teammates. He threw his body around and selflessly made himself big to block shots in the box.
As the speed of the game became more manageable for him, he began to shift from his defense-first assignment. He showed his speed and range to run into open space up his flank on long switches and line-breaking passes from the midfield. Unfortunately, his flank partner Luis Araujo often ignored his presence and refused to include him in the kinds of passing combinations that are common in the attacking third.
The most important thing that McFadden did was prove that he belonged and that he can be counted on in 2023 and beyond. He didn’t do anything spectacularly but he still held his own.
What to improve on?
McFadden showed a lot of potential this season. When playing up with the first team, the coaches tried to keep his responsibilities simple to allow him time and freedom to adjust. That seems to have worked for what they needed from him. Fans of the 2s know about the attacking side of his game and his strength in the air. As he gains more confidence at the MLS level, he should begin incorporating these strengths into his game.
He also needs to continue the hard work he is already putting in on defense because he still has room to refine this side of his game. Coaches should work with him on positioning to adjust for different types of wing players that he is likely to encounter over an entire season. He has decent speed but he will need to make up for being slower by using his above-average IQ to be a proactive defender. Michael Parkhurst prolonged his career thanks to a strong mental side of the game so a similar approach could help McFadden use an existing strength to improve or mask other areas.
What role will he play in 2023?
This is a key question. To many, McFadden proved he deserves a contract with the first team next season. He should begin the year as a backup and should be given the opportunity to compete every day for the starting spot. He is not my day-1 starter but could become an MLS regular by the time he reaches his prime in 2-3 years. McFadden can play four positions at the corners of the formation so his versatility is useful in a tight situation, so he could shift into Mikey Ambrose’s roster spot after Ambrose leaves in free agency.
My greatest concern is that he will be this year’s Jon Gallagher, traded away after showing a glimmer of promise in a lost season.
Overall Player Grade: B-
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