“Position Battles” are a big talking point in sports right now, as the NFL begins training camp and many players are competing for starting spots on their respective teams this season.
Interestingly enough, Minnesota United has a “position battle” of its own to keep a close eye on at right back, as the increasingly impressive incumbent D.J. Taylor and newly signed Alan Benitez have both proven capable of holding down what’s become one of the most important single positions in Adrian Heath’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
While some competitions can become hostile, both Taylor and Benitez find value in having someone there to challenge them.
“It’s a very healthy competition here,” said Benitez. “Whoever the coach sees is playing better will play.”
“At this level you’re going to have competition, and I embrace the competition,” added Taylor. “I want Alan and myself to compete for the spot, and us competing for the spot is just going to push each other better.”
Filling the Void
Right back has been an influential piece of the puzzle for Minnesota over the club’s MLS tenure, and that’s almost exclusively due to the play of Romain Metanire.
In addition to his contribution to a stout Minnesota backline that helped carry the club to three consecutive playoff runs, Metanires biggest contribution arguably came in the attack.
During his three years starting at right back for the Loons, Metanire consistently ranked near the top of the league in crosses, progressive passes, and passes into the penalty area. His overlapping play with right wingers Ethan Finlay and Robin Lod was a crucial element to the Minnesota attack.
Early this season, with Metanire having only played 22 league minutes due to a hamstring injury, there was an obvious void in that attacking presence down the flanks, and it showed in the Loons’ inability to consistently score goals, finding the back of the net just 17 times in their first 16 league matches.
Then, the switch flipped.
Minnesota signed Taylor from then USL Championship side North Carolina FC in February of last year. Having won the league’s Defender of the Year award the season prior and holding a developmental pedigree that included multiple appearances and a goal with the US U18 Youth National Team, there was a lot of optimism about what Taylor could bring to the table.
However, the Raleigh native’s impact wasn’t felt immediately, with no real contribution to the stat sheet in 624 minutes of action in 2021.
With Metanire’s absence looming large as the calendar turned to June, it was time for someone to step up into that void, and the timing couldn’t have been better for Taylor to do just that.
The defensive workrate has grown, but just as importantly, so has his presence in the attack.
According to Taylor, it’s been a culmination of a lot of hard work.
“I think the attacking part of it, it’s been a lot of work with Adrian [Heath] and having off-field conversations with him,” said Taylor. “For me, the main focus this year has been how can I be much better in my attacking play and creating opportunities for the strikers. I know I have the technique to play wonderful crosses, but can I be perfect with every cross is my goal this year.”
Those “wonderful crosses” have become more frequent as the season has progressed. In fact, Taylor has the best crossing grade in MLS at 86.4, according to Pro Football Focus FC.
The New Guy
Back on July 12, Minnesota signed Benitez from Paraguayan First Division club Cerro Porteno, and the conversation immediately began as to who was going to get that right back starting spot.
In 65 previous appearances in that position, the 28-year old has notched four goals and seven assists, while also making 13 appearances at right midfield and two at right wing.
Benitez and Porteno took home the 2021 Clausura Championship. He’s made multiple appearances in the Copa Libertadores and for the Paraguayan National Team alongside Luis Amarilla.
That’s a level of experience and positional flexibility Adrian Heath is particularly excited about.
“[Alan] has played hundreds of league games,” said Heath. “He’s played for the Paraguayan national team. It’s not like he’s coming in here and we have to try and implement him in a system that he’s not used to…Anywhere down that right hand side we feel he can contribute for us.”
For the Loons, Benitez made an impressive debut in the second half of their friendly with Everton, notching an assist and showing his ability to get forward.
For the Good of the Team
You could make an argument either way for Taylor or Benitez to get the consistent nod in the starting XI. DJ has been in fantastic form and is only getting better with each game, while the Paraguayan brings a different level of experience that more aligns with what the team had in Metanire.
For both players, their mindset remains that the competition in practice will not only raise their individual game, but overall collective quality they’ll bring to an important position in this lineup.
In that shared vision, it seems as if a friendship is budding between the two defenders.
“We’ve grown our relationship off the field and obviously on the field we help each other out,” said Taylor. “Me speaking Spanish, I can help him out in training. I think us both competing for the spot is going to push us to be the best that we both can be, and that’s the ultimate goal to help the team.”