Kervin Arriaga and MNUFC’s strength in depth

Of all the international players that have come in Minnesota United in the past three years, Honduran midfielder Kervin Arriaga might have had the least hype.

Emanuel Reynoso and Franco Fragapane arrived with an impeccable Boca Juniors pedigree. Adrien Hunou landed straight out of Ligue 1. Bongokuhle Hlongwane was young, speedy, and absolutely nobody saw his signing coming, all combining to raise the level of excitement about the young forward.

Arriaga, meanwhile, seemed like he was about on par with Thomás Chacón or Joseph Rosales – a midfielder, maybe even just a depth move, from a relatively un-exciting location. 120 appearances in the Honduran league and a dozen caps for his national team, even at age 24, didn’t get the pulse racing; there are an awful lot of guys from an awful lot of CONCACAF nations that have been something other than successful in MLS.

According to head coach Adrian Heath, it took only one training session after Arriaga arrived in the final week of preseason for the club to start thinking that “El Misilito” deserved more hype. “I think we might have unearthed one in him, I really do,” said Heath.

Courtesy MNUFC

The 24-year-old was a surprise starter in week one of the season – mostly because his clearance paperwork only came through when the team was on the way to Philadelphia. At 6’3”, and playing next to Hassani Dotson, my expectation was that he’d be almost entirely defensive-minded, almost like a third center back against Philadelphia’s swarming attack.

Instead, Arriaga turned out to have a never-ending motor and plenty of offensive talent. He, not Dotson, was the chief connector between defense and the forwards, while also doing his fair share of defending and ball-winning in midfield.

He missed week two with what he told the Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda was a “cardio problem with my heart” – a problem that the league’s official injury report memorably described as a “thorax” injury – but returned to the starting lineup in week three, and might have been the best Loons player on the field that wasn’t named Dayne St. Clair.

Asked what he likes about Arriaga so far, Heath had nothing but praise. “At this moment in time, everything,” he said. “Great size. Athletically very, very gifted. He’s good on the ball, great range of passing off both feet. And obviously, his physical presence.”

Arriaga is an example of MNUFC’s strength so far in 2022: roster depth. It’s already been an ugly year for the team and injuries. Michael Boxall is the only defender to go the full 90 in all three games. The midfield pairing’s been different in all three, and both goalkeepers have started at least once. And yet, despite two difficult road trips, the Loons are undefeated.

(And who knows, Arriaga might even get better as the weather gets less punishing. Asked about the cold he said, “Honestly, I’m dying. The last match, I could not hold on, I had two pairs of gloves on and I was freezing, but that’s part of the job.”)

Over the past decade, it’s been widely agreed that the difference between MLS teams and teams from Liga MX is not a disparity at the top of the roster. Thanks to the Designated Player rules, most MLS teams can bring in top-level talent to occupy those top three slots. It’s as you start to run down the rest of the starting eleven, and especially as you look at the backup options for the squads, where the talent difference begins to become apparent.

In the long term, fixing this might mean developing more talent from the youth ranks, but in the short and medium term, Minnesota United is developing a decent track record of getting high-value players from low-cost means.

Arriaga was a cheap signing, according to Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press. Dotson, St. Clair, and Chase Gasper were all acquired in the same MLS SuperDraft. Hitting on enough of these moves – the college guys, the high-upside internationals – is what makes a middling team into a good one.

Depth is not exciting, in and of itself. It’s not something you can market, and it doesn’t factor in when we endlessly debate the team’s best starting lineup or its most effective formation. But as we’ve seen over the past few years, depth is the difference-maker. Finding a player like Arriaga, who gives the team options even when there are injuries, can be just as important as finding the right Designated Players.  

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