Shea Salinas is in Vancouver. The Vancouver Whitecaps, one of the two new expansion teams in Major League Soccer (the other being the Portland Timbers) drafted Salinas with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 expansion draft, second selection of the fourth round. In the Philadelphia Union's inagural season Salinas played in 17 games, starting 7 of them and scored a goal.
The bright spots from Salinas mostly revolved around his speed and his versatility. He could play on the wing, the outside of the midfield or as a fullback. This provided the Union with cover at all three positions prior to him suffering a leg injury on July 10. His ability to play at multiple positions sparked a comparison in my mind to another soccer player, albeit one with vastly more technical skill and ability: James Milner. [Editor's note] This is not to say that Salinas is on the level of Milner but rather to compare how versatility aids a team (in this case fullback and midfield).
Aaron Campeau, of 7500 to Holte, was nice enough to write a short summary of Milner as a player to give Union fans a look at how his versatility aided Aston Villa under the tutiledge of former coach Martin O'Neil.
Like a lot of English players of a certain skillset, James Milner was typecast from an early age as a winger. Milner is on the surface of things a prototypical wide attacking player; fast, in possession of an accurate right foot capable of delivering wicked crosses from either side and a solid enough finisher to make him a threat cutting into the box. Milner was one of England's most promising prospects from a very early age, at one point being the youngest player to ever score in the top flight at 16 years 355 days after his goal for Leeds United against Sunderland on December 26th 2002.
Great things were expected for Milner, but his rise to stardom was not as meteoric as many expected. After bing sold by Leeds to Newcastle United Milner was unable to break into the Magpies' starting lineup for various reasons (many of them not within his control) and his star faded a bit. Milner was still considered to be a decent prospect and an asset to the club, but not necessarily the superstar in the making he had once seemed. He was sold to Aston Villa, his third Premier League club at the age of 22, before the beginning of the 2008-09 season.
In his first season at Villa Milner showed some advancement under the tutelage of Martin O'Neill, a manager generally regarded as one of the game's best at developing younger players. While Milner had spent some time at right back at Leeds and Newcastle O'Neill was a bit more willing to experiment with his positioning, giving him time at all four wide positions and in the center of the midfield as well. It was not until he settled into a more permanent role as a central midfielder however that Milner would finally begin fulfill his promise. On the wing, a great deal of what made him a special player was lost; the makings of a quality winger were there, but to truly flourish he needs to be given the freedom to move box-to-box and allow the situation to dictate his role.
For all of his faults Martin O'Neill seemed to understand this. Villa tended to play a bunker-and-counter style under O'Neill, and in this system Milner tended to act as a deep-lying playmaker, linking the defense to the forwards and having a penchant for brilliantly placed long passes to any of Villa's pacey attacking players. When Villa found themselves in a position where they had more control of the possession Milner became more of an attacking mid, threatening from distance or unlocking defenses with clever through balls. When Villa were looking to protect a lead Milner would often shift into a holding midfield 'destroyer' role, breaking up attacks through the center before they began. If the threat was more acute from the wings, he would often play almost as a wing back, shielding the full back and sparking dangerous counters down the edge. If a late goal was needed, it wasn't uncommon to see the strikers push ahead and for him to play almost as a center forward in the attack.
This sort of positional flexibility allowed Martin O'Neill to base his substitutions around which player currently on the pitch could be most effectively replaced rather than being forced to sub on a player that offered what the situation called for; a Milner's ability to switch to a wide defensive role allowed full backs to be subbed out in favor of center backs should defense need to be emphasized without sacrificing attacking ability for example. The usefulness of a player's versatility does not cease being a strength once the lineups have been set after all. There's little doubt in my mind that there were games from which Villa were able to salvage the most favorable result due in large part to Milner's ability to shift into different roles with ease allowing the most effective use of talent to be employed strategically.
Teams are only allowed three substitutions per game and if you can maximize the impact of those substitutions you've given yourself a competitive advantage. In a league with a talent disparity and lack of depth as severe as MLS, that advantage is magnified. The key to success in almost every league in every sport the world over is to find slight competitive advantages where they present themselves, and that's especially true in a league with enforced parity. I don't think I'd get any argument were I to state that James Milner is in a different class of player than Shea Salinas, even when adjusting for the overall level of talent in the league. But they are similar in their ability to fill numerous roles as the situation dictates, and that's incredibly valuable.
After the jump, a local Union reporter's take on what doomed Salinas as a Union player.
Dave Zeitlin of CSN Philly and more recently MLSsoccer.com, wrote a piece on how Salinas' injuries doomed his status as a needed player on the Union:
But instead of gaining any redemption, Salinas suffered an injury that halted his momentum, led to what he’d call "an awful two months" and would eventually lead to his departure from another team.
For Union Manager Peter Nowak, it all came down to that fateful game against the Earthquakes when Salinas suffered a stress fracture that put him out of commission for two months.
"Unfortunately for Shea, he started seven games and played in a little bit more than half of our games," Nowak said. "Of course we have to look at that. As much as we’d love to have him with us this season, that’s the unfortunate beauty of the expansion draft."
When it came down to it for the protection list, Zeitlin says that Nowak implied "that it would be unfair to protect him over players that had done more to prove it on the field." It appears that if naught for the leg injury that Salinas suffered in July that he would still have remained a member of the Union.