In Defense of Sanna Nyassi
Sanna Nyassi, along with Adam Jahn, probably rates highest on the team for combition of playing time and really frustrating performances.
Whether it's his weirdly indelicate touch for a winger, meidocre interplay, or merely the fact that he would seem to (at least in part) stand in the way of homegrown hero Tommy Thompson's playing time, the Quakes vox populi is crying out for a change. I can't say I disagree with them; his name is the one I find myself cursing most frequently.
However, I also think that people usually have good reasons for doing what they do, most especially a coach like Dominic Kinnear who has multiple MLS cup titles, a decade-long track record of sucess, and impressive returns already turning around a moribund Quakes team coming off a last-place season. The fact that he picked Nyassi in the waiver draft and has continued to write his name in the starting XI means that there's something that fans, myself included, weren't seeing on first blush. That's why I went back to my recordings of interviews with Dom, game tape, and my match reports to try and figure out Dom's logic and see if the choice was defensible.
It all starts with Kinnear's intrinsict adaptability, which leads him to respond to his personnel when drawing up a system rather than the other way around. That being said, there are certain traits he clearly values, which is part of the reason that regardless of formation, he wanted wide men who would 1) track back 2) press 3) stretch the field and 4) score goals. That's why, while he has gone with a few different looks (4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond), they've all utilized two wide men beyond the defense, and they've played more like midfielders than forwards.
The concept of the system is that there would be a line-leading forward (either a big guy like Jahn/Sherrod/Lenny or a speedster like Innocent) creating space underneath for central guys (MPG, TT, Wondo, or even Koval) to create chances and push forward with the ball at their feet. Wide guys would be tasked with stretching the field, and providing the only real press in the team to slow down counters and create chances. They would be opportunistic taking their own goalscoring opportunities, but with all fullbacks on roster (Cato included) offensively-oriented, they would be the ones tasked with putting in service from deeper and wider areas. They would have to be effective without spending much time on the ball.
In part, by the way, this explains why Innocent was originally looked at as a left winger, since he stretches the field and scors goals. He even did an excellent job tracking back in the Seattle game. Shea Salinas is a bit less natural of a fit for that profile, but as he learned Dom's system and Dom began to adapt to what Salinas offers, he became a better and better fit. Now he's a mainstay.
So what of Nyassi? Let's break it down by those four major areas. I think that "stretching the field" goes without saying since no one doubts his track speed.
As for tracking back, my impression from the film is that he's been pretty good. He was particularly good in the epic Seattle game at doing so, staying very deep throughout and only breaking forward on the counter. One of the reasons he's been good cover on the right flank is that he seems to complement right back Marvell Wynne well, and has a bit of pre-formed chemistry too, having played for a year with him in Colorado.
This position, as noted above, is pretty much the only one in Dom's current set up that has any press responsibilities. The CDM (usually Alashe) is all about positional discipline, so can't step up from his pivot, and neither of the attacking central mids (Wondo and MPG) are particularly good at it. Koval, when he played up there against TFC and Vancouver, actually did some good pressing, but he's clearly not the best option at the position, so I doubt this will become a regularity. Nyassi, for what it's worth, is a darned good presser. He's bigger than most of the other wide players on our roster, and a willing tackler.
Good pressing is actually really hard to identify if you are only watching casually in part because it can be effective with no tackle put in (simply by positioning correctly) and in part because pressing is a collective endeavor and therefore the good and the bad results thereof frequently appear to be the responsibility of a player who was not in fact responsible. Similarly, tracking back is almost never shown on a TV feed (it's much easier to see in the stadium) and the result of good tracking back is a play NOT occurring, rather than occurring.
Sanna only has one goal, but I think he's at least a decent goalscorer given his role. He has put in some decent efforts from distance, which forces defenders to step to him, and opens up space for other attackers. He has had very, very few clear chances on goal but his one finish was excellent so I think we have to be satisfied with it.
Given that I remain frustrated with what he can do with the ball at his feet, then why might he still be worthwhile over other options? Cato, MPG, and Thompson are all SIGNIFICANTLY physically smaller than Nyassi. That's a huge limitation in effective high pressing. MPG and TT are also probably a step slower, and while Cato might match Nyassi stride-for-stride, I don't think we can say with confidence that his offensive game (particularly goalscoring) is much more refined than Nyassi's. I also question the wisdom of shoe-horning Thompson into an unnatural position just in the name of getting Nyassi off the team sheet.
The real clincher, as far as I can tell, is who is tasked with shouldering the creative load. For Kinnear, he wouldn't want another ball-dominant right midfielder with slightly better creative skills than Nyassi but far worse than MPGs if it came at the cost of pressing and defense that would otherwise free Wondo and MPG to do almost nothing defensively. When they're free in that sense, they're at their most effective, and we'd much rather have them running the offensive show than Cordell Cato. Essentially, it's like in the NBA when you pair an offensively minded point guard with a defensively minded shooting guard to cover for him on the other end of the floor: That no. 2 will probably look pretty sorry to fans but will be essential to freeing up the main event.
Nyassi, then, not unlike Jahn, is one of those guys who can be effective without the ball and in fact precisely because of how little of the ball he uses, plays a role of which its primary virtue is how much it improves those around him rather than what he does himself. No doubt that makes for a frustrating man to watch, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to upgrade the play from his position, but I hope at the least this piece will make people appreciate Dom's decision just a bit more.