Since acquiring top-tier MLS defender Ike Opara back in January of 2019, Minnesota United FC has built their entire defensive identity around its pair of starting center backs. Opara and veteran Loon Michael Boxall meshed right away, and the best season in the franchise’s short MLS tenure immediately followed.
Now, sans Opara, Adrian Heath has a decision to make in his spot. Does he stick with the guy who’s been a worthy replacement all year? Or does the new signing take over in the XI?
In 2020 that core backline stood pat for the Loons’ first two games, convincing wins over Portland and San Jose. But, after the COVID-19 stoppage, Opara did not return and still hasn’t dressed or appeared since.
“It’s pretty much as it were,” said Heath recently on Opara’s status unchanging. “Obviously it’s a little bit frustrating, but at the end of the day we have to let time take its course.”
Opara’s absence was originally met with uncertainty, considering how consistent he’s been in the middle of that backline. Those questions were amplified by the unproven pedigree of replacement Jose Aja, who was just signed by Minnesota earlier this year.
However, Aja would prove himself almost immediately. He and Boxall found chemistry, and the two helped propel the Loons to the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament.
Fitting the physical prototype of a center back, Aja has used his height to clear crosses, and his anticipation to intercept passes and create turnovers in the defensive third. The Urugayan currently ranks fourth in MLS in clearances, according to Who Scored.
Aja has shown his inexperience at times, though. An ill-timed high boot allowed the late penalty kick equalizer from Columbus in the MLS is Back quarterfinals, and the 27 year old currently averages 2.4 fouls per match, good for 6th in the league.
In addition to being without Opara, Minnesota has loaned out two additional defensive options to the USL Championship in Brent Kallman (El Paso Locomotive) and Noah Billingsley (Las Vegas Lights), so things seemed to be thin in the defensive third. To counter, MNUFC brought in Ligue One defender Bakaye Dibassy from Amiens SC, where he spent four years. Dibassy showed experience at both left back and center back during his time in France, and debate ensued over where he would best fit for the Loons.
Since completing his mandated quarantine upon entering the U.S., Dibassy has made two appearances. The 31 year old was brought on late to preserve a 3-2 win over Dallas on Sept. 9, then started and played all 90 minutes on Sunday in a 1-0 loss to Kansas City.
During his short time on the pitch for Minnesota, Dibassy has shown some quality talent, making goal-saving plays in both matches. That talent is something fellow center back Boxall has seen up close.
“He seems so comfortable, he’s pretty composed and sure on the ball,” said Boxall of Dibassy’s first start in K.C. “He makes the right decisions and obviously with defending…he steps and loves a challenge. So once he finds his legs, he’s going to be a very important player for us.”
So the question begs: Which center-back pairing brings the most success to Minnesota?
Heath’s decision will basically come down to sticking with the known, a good combo of Aja and Boxall, or rolling the dice with the great individual talent of Dibassy and hoping he finds cohesion with Boxall sooner rather than later.
With the return of Opara seemingly nowhere near the horizon, the choice of who to put in the middle of the Minnesota United back line could also decide where the Loons finish in the West.