Wed. Feb 8th, 2023

There’s no season quite like MLS SuperDraft season.

All the lights on houses, gift buying and giving, the caroling and warm beverages — what a way to mark the Dec. 21 event. It seems that a lot of folks had their draft parties three or four days late this year, but perhaps the matching blizzards of draft buzz and snow were a factor. Or maybe the Philadelphia Union actually using a pick just demands 96 hours of festivities.

But now we’ve packed our reckless draft speculation into boxes until we hear “All I Want for the SuperDraft Is You to Give Me Allocation Money” trickle through department store speakers once again.

It’s time, frankly, to get real. And that means looking up the price of the SuperDraft gifts we received online to gauge how much we’re liked. The bulletin board material makers at good ol’ MLS Dot Com value Minnesota United’s two selections at a C+.

Let’s hope they’re gonna curve it. The Loons’ second-round pick, nabbing hometown product Emmanuel Iwe from… Minnesota United 2… seems exactly like a short answer response that uses big, safe words like “plethora,” “therefore” and “thusly,” so what did we really expect?

He’s a known quantity, so there is thusly a plethora of intrigue around Minnesota’s first round pick, Ryen Jiba, therefore we must dig into what he brings to the club.

Jiba, 21, is listed as both a defender and a midfielder, depending who you ask — unless you ask one of the places that lists him as an attacker. Luckily, Loons technical director Mark Watson gave the team website a look at where they see the prospect fitting in:

“We had him as the best left back in the entire draft,” Watson said. And that’s only worth a C+? Someone’s getting a mean course evaluation.

Given some extra time on my hands, I ventured into the virtual rabbit hole of Jiba’s bag to determine what, exactly, Minnesota United might get out of its draft pick.

The TL;DR up front: Jiba is an attack-oriented fullback who presents familiar skills (dribbling) for Loons followers. His pace and weak side man-marking present positives on the defensive end, though defending space is more of a question mark. Also, the positional ambiguity might lead to a Hassani Dotson-esque role.

Stay tuned, there are video clips and some numbers to back that up. But first, the usual analytical disclaimers!

First: I watched precisely very little of Jiba’s game — some community college-level highlights, plus most of a Union Omaha game from last season that I found on YouTube, and some of Omaha’s victory against United in the Open Cup. I’m probably wrong on some things, so if you’re Ryen Jiba reading this, I apologize for that and look forward to seeing actual examples with United this season. Second: Player tendencies and the opportunities to show off certain skills are sometimes more indicative of game plan than actual player quality. If you played Messi at centerback, he would probably look… really good, but maybe not as good as normal. You get the point. Third: Players develop! And get better at things over time! And can learn new things, especially when they’re coached at them! So all of this might change with a few Adrian Heath Pointers, TM.

Enough preluding. It’s the SuperDraft and we wanna open our present. Let’s dive in.

Dribbly dribbly

It’s the first clip in his Salt Lake Community College highlight montage that really pops: Jiba, wearing No. 11, takes the ball from the right wing and works it inside. He bypasses three defenders before getting fouled at the top of the box by a fourth. Oh, and his run prompts one of those fruitless defenders to slide from behind and… trip his own teammate. Nice.

It’s clear that Jiba is abundantly comfortable with the ball at his feet in the opponent’s half. His reps at winger reflect that. It works at the USL League One (where Omaha plays when they’re not beating Minnesota) level, too. (Jiba is No. 27 now.)

This foul drawing playbook just feels familiar, a la Reynoso, does it not? It’s a valuable addition. It probably becomes less effective against better defenders, but maybe Jiba levels it up, too — we won’t know until we know. And maybe it’ll catch a few defenders by surprise — a la D’Angelo Russell asking Jose Alvarado if he can shoot.

Indeed, dribbling is one of two areas where Jiba brought statistical goals added value to Omaha last season, according to American Soccer Analysis’ model. (The other is interrupting, which we’ll get to in time.)

Off ball attacking

While attacking fullbacks are vital to modern soccer, it seems safe to say that Minnesota’s game plan will not be focused around Jiba on-ball production. (Unless it is, in which case you heard it here first!) The runs he makes off the ball matter, too.

In this sequence, Jiba runs into wide open space (good), draws a second defender out wide (good, just look at the space on the near side of the box behind them!), overlaps to force a switch, then cuts into the box for his teammate to make a relatively simple pass and produce an on-ball dribbling opportunity (good, even if the pass didn’t work).

This jury is out on his crossing ability, though he apparently led Omaha in crosses. Some seem to end up low or short (a potential game plan side effect), but then there’s an assist like this one, the product of a good run and dribble to make a little bit of space for the cross:

Speed & Positioning

Pairing well with the dribbling is some speed. Spot Jiba going down the far sideline here:

It also shows — and matters — on the defensive end. Here, Jiba is able to close down an attacker while moving to get goal side of him, poke the ball free and get to it first. Again, that kind of play becomes more difficult against quicker and better MLS wingers, but it’s a defensive highlight that might normally fly under the radar.

The worry is that Jiba’s pace could help him recover from flat-footedness or poor positioning at lower levels but not be enough in MLS — again, that remains to be seen. His positioning is interesting to watch at times.

This, especially, could be reflective of game plan, but: Jiba seems to drift centrally a lot for a left back, especially when he’s the weakside fullback. It’s probably related to the high interception rating.

This sequence is a prime example of how it can help and hurt. It’s a transition opportunity that Omaha is defending with Jiba as the weak side fullback. He tracks back almost exactly to the penalty spot with eyes on the ball. This means he’s in prime position to head away the cross that develops from the sequence — not your typical fullback transition defense.

But a runner — the presumed target of the cross — slips through Jiba and another defender. And there’s a runner with plenty of space behind, even if that’s a difficult pass to make. Again, this could be game plan. But it happened in Omaha’s cupset of Minnesota, too:

In this match, Jiba was tasked with defending speedy Bongi Hlongwane. A sequence in which Minnesota scores on Omaha doesn’t seem like a highlight for Jiba, but it actually is: Bongi tries to make a run to crash the far post, but Jiba sticks with him.

This play could be part of why Minnesota had Jiba so high up on the draft board: Watson mentioned his defending against Bongi in the cup game to Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press.

Weak side fullback defending is something I, anecdotally, remember noting during Minnesota United games over the course of the 2022 season. It’s something I’ll be watching at a team level next year, so Jiba’s potential contribution to that might be a factor.

Odds & Ends

There’s a fun little thing in Jiba’s off ball, in possession play: He sneaks a peek when receiving a pass. Watch his head in the clip below. He’s in space and has the time to grab a couple glances up the field to gauge where his defender is, who’s open and where the space is. (There must not be much, hence passing it back to keep possession.) It’s small and simple, but it’s a detail that’s made Tyrese Haliburton one of the best passers in the NBA. Why can’t it work in MLS too?

Jiba’s throw-in ability jumps out a little bit, too. This is the definition of throwing it to a teammate’s foot:

It doesn’t seem like Jiba’s lined up to start, but the MLS season is long and fullback is a position where plug-and-play is certainly an option. His skillset suggests that Jiba could fill in higher up the pitch, too.

Regardless, he presents as a technically skilled player with the IQ to have good timing. Defensive questions seem coachable, if they’re even questions at all. And previous pro experience is always a good thing. It might be too late to mention that Jiba was nominated for Young Player of the Year in USL League One last year, but he was — so there’s that, too.

Featured image courtesy Minnesota United.

By Eli Hoff

Eli is a Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Columbia Missourian and Missouri News Network, where he anchors a one-reporter bureau that provides breaking news and enterprise stories to more than 200 newspapers. The New York Times highlighted his “dogged” reporting in a 2020 feature about his coverage of Covid-19 and Greek Life at the University of Missouri. He’s been developing that journalistic skill since he launched a soccer news site at the age of 14. In the seven years since, Eli has reported on national and state politics, sports, national security, education and public health. Eli’s work has appeared in Major League Soccer, SB Nation, the Columbia Daily Tribune, the Jefferson City News Tribune, Vox Magazine and been syndicated by the Associated Press. His versatile skillset — including investigative reporting, feature writing and documentary production — has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors and Missouri College Media Association. He’s no stranger to using public records, having filed more than 100 records requests with 27 states and several federal agencies. But Eli also brings an eye for unconventional and human stories to his work, combining scoop generation and longform skill. Before his work in Washington, Eli covered varied topics as part of the Columbia Missourian’s higher education team, ranging from a fraternity hazing case and hospital security violations to the myth of an escaped research monkey.

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