Know Thyself: The 2022 Oakland Roots

The Oakland Roots begin their season on March 12 at H-E-B Park in Edinburg, Texas, against RGV Toros. And who, exactly, are these Oakland Roots?

The Road Ahead

First, some basics: The USL is changing things up a bit this year. Rather than run out four divisions, this year the league is divided into two conferences (East and West, natch). The Eastern Conference has 14 teams, but the West only has 13 after OKC Energy’s late decision not to play this season (or possibly ever again). Many of the MLS developmental squads have decamped for the MLS’s new developmental league, but familiar faces Las Vegas Lights and LA Galaxy II are still with us for this year. Stepping into the void left in the West by the departures of Real Monarchs and Tacoma Defiance is Monterey Bay Union, who is sure to be a Roots rival. But more intriguingly for many fans, the East replaces Sporting Kansas City II with Detroit City FC, who is perhaps already a Roots rival.

The schedule features two matchups against every conference foe, an additional away match against Sacramento Republic (in future years I think we’ll see an additional match against Monterey Bay, as well), and 9 crossover matchups. Roots cross-conference foes will be:

  • Home: Tampa Bay Rowdies, Loudoun United, Atlanta United 2, New York Red Bulls II, Birmingham Legion
  • Away: Memphis 901, Detroit City, Hartford Athletic, Pittsburgh Riverhounds

At first blush, the home interconference schedule is generally favorable, but Roots’ away draw is absolutely brutal. Perhaps adding insult to injury, Roots’ first match in this season’s U.S. Open Cup is against Greenville Triumph SC, and will be in Greenville, South Carolina, in a round in which nearly everyone else gets to play in their own time zone, if not their own state. (The other geographically odd matchup in that round coincidentally involves Roots’ Week 1 foe, RGV Toros, who were drawn away to North Carolina FC, a team which is currently rostering erstwhile Roots’ midfielder Nelson Blanco, and Nico Molina, who trialed for Project 51O earlier this offseason.)

At the end of the season, 7 teams from each conference will make the playoffs. The team seeded first will receive a bye, and the teams will be reseeded after the first round. The playoffs, like last year, will be a single-game, single-elimination affair.

The Squad

So who will don the gray and slightly-darker-gray of the Oakland Roots this season in their quest to be among the best 53.85% of teams in the West? To the tape!

The Goalies

Reprising their roles in net will be Paul Blanchette and Taylor Bailey. Blanchette’s go-go-gadget arms made for both outstanding saves and memeable celebrations worthy of their own “no context” twitter account. Blanchette was a mainstay in net over the last two-thirds of the season. Including the playoffs, Roots were 10-6-7 with Blanchette minding the net, but three of those losses came in the stretch following the COVID pause, so let’s call it a 10-6-4 record, with a 76% save percentage and 6 clean sheets. If Blanchette can replicate anything like that this year, we will be a very happy fanbase. For what it’s worth, Taylor Bailey kept 2 clean sheets in his 3 starts last season, with the odd game out being the loss to Tampa Bay, in which Bailey stopped 7 of the 10 shots on target, which is pretty good, all things considered.

The Defense

Any discussion of central defense must begin with Emrah Klimenta, one of last season’s best players. Klimenta was added to the roster after the third match last season and brought a calmness and solidity to Oakland’s back line. The guess here is that Klimenta opens the season in the staring XI, paired at the back with Alejandro Fuenmayor, who found success as a teen in Venezuela’s Primera División before coming stateside to play for Houston Dynamo. Fuenmayor struggled for playing time in recent seasons, was out of contract after the 2021 season, and Dynamo axed their manager in any event, so a fresh start was definitely in order.

The backups are Tarek Morad, valued member of Roots’ 2021 squad and man who slotted home the first penalty in the conference semifinal shootout, and Danny Barbir, who was led to Oakland by quite the long and winding road. Barbir spent time in the academies of Philadelphia Union, Manchester City, and West Bromwich Albion—one of these things is not like the other. Barbir’s first professional contract was with Vancouver Whitecaps II, who folded shortly after he signed. (They have been resurrected for MLS Next Pro.) He then signed on with a Romanian club, but was sent on loan to a team in the 2.Bundesliga. He returned stateside in 2020 with SKC2, and in fact played the full 90 in Roots’ 1-0 playoff-clinching win over SKC2.

I expect that all four central defenders will see quite a bit of the pitch. Klimenta played a career high in minutes last season and it seems unreasonable to expect him to repeat that, especially since the schedule will include at least 3 more regular season games than it did last season. Fuenmayor played alongside Klimenta in Roots’ preseason match against Academica SC, suggesting that that is the preferred centerback pairing. But Morad and Barbir both have track records of success in USL, and nothing about their play last year suggests either is any kind of liability at the back.

The fullbacks, at this point, appear nailed on: Memo Diaz and Akeem O’Connor-Ward. This duo needs no introduction.

Part of the reason I am close to 100% positive these two will start in the fullback roles (barring injury) is that it’s not obvious who else can play these positions. It seems that Barbir may deputize as a fullback, as might Edgardo Rito, who played along the wing both in midfield and along the back line for NYRB2 and in his most recent stint with Patriotas Boyaca in Venezuela. Another possibility is Juan Carlos Azocar, who we reported earlier in the offseason had agreed to a contract with Oakland. Azocar, also a Venezuelan footballer, spent last season at RGV Toros on loan from Deportivo La Guaira, a Caraquenian club. Azocar currently does not appear on the Roots roster, which may suggest some issue with the paperwork, either at the league or government level. Once that’s sorted, though, Azocar is presumably an option at fullback if need be. The Blog’s early thoughts were that the lack of out and out full backs beyond Diaz and Ward may portend the use of a back three, but given the transfer of Kai Greene to Monterey Bay, and the shape utilized against Academica, this writer, at least, thinks we’ll see a more traditional back 4.

The Midfield

Moving to central midfield, Roots return defensive midfielders Joseph Nane, Matias Fissore, and Max Ornstil, as well as Jose Hernandez who played in a more advanced role, and Lindo Mfeka who deputized as a center forward last season. Ornstil of course started last season as a center back before moving into a defensive midfield role. He toggled between the two down the stretch, but my own view is that both he and the team looked better when he was in the midfield. And with the additions of Fuenmayor and Barbir, it seems to me that Max is going to spend more time in the midfield. Likewise, although Mfeka ended the season by playing up front, that seemed to be more about Roots’ lack of scoring options among traditional forwards. As you’ll see soon, I think Oakland should be much more capable in that department this year, so I think Mfeka will slide back into midfield. It should be noted that Mfeka does not appear in any of the preseason stuff the club has put out on social media, so he is likely still recovering from the injury that felled him near the end of last season.

Perhaps the most intriguing offseason additions are the attacking mids. Apart from Wal Fall taking set pieces, Roots lacked a real goal scoring threat from midfield in 2021, which in many games meant big chances were hard to come by. One player who will seek to remedy that is Charlie Dennis, an attacking midfielder who appears to have a wand of a left foot. Dennis adds something that was really absent from Oakland’s attack last year, which should help Roots stretch opposing defenses. Roots also appear to be set to add Mikael Johnsen, an attacking midfielder from Norway, on loan from Venice, whose highlights suggest a similar proficiency with the right foot. (Johnsen’s loan move has been announced by Venice themselves, but not confirmed by Oakland.)

The trick, though, is going to be getting all of these guys on the field. If Johnsen’s loan does go through, you would expect to see him hit the pitch with some regularity. The benefit of sending a player on loan from Europe to the states, I think, is that our leagues play through the summer, so players can get playing time they wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to get. I don’t know if any official assurances of playing time were given, but I can’t imagine that Venice would send players all the way to California without some belief that they will see the field. What’s more, the Roots appear to be loaded down with players who can play wide midfield roles: returnees Ariel Mbumba and Chuy Enriquez, and the aforementioned Rito and Azocar, and recent loan addition Nico Lemoine. So that’s potentially 12 midfielders who will see the pitch. Although Lemoine’s late addition rather strongly suggests that the staff think there is something their current plethora of options wasn’t providing. We shall see.

This will be a delicate dance. On the one hand, having so many options allows you to keep the midfield fresh, which is great. On the other hand, you want players to be able to get into a rhythm, which generally requires regular playing time. In part because of this, I think we might see something akin to a 4-4-2. The set-up down the stretch last season used two defensive mids (Fissore and Nane) plus Hernandez. I doubt we see that often, if at all, this season. For one thing, you want to keep both Fissore and Nane healthy. For another, with true attacking mids at his disposal, Juan Guerra will not need Hernandez to play as far forward as he was asked to last season, obviating the need for a second defensive mid at all times.

The Attack

Up front we may have the makings of a traditional big man-little man strike partnership. The big man is Ottar Magnus Karlsson. The little man is Darek Formella. Karlsson is a 6-3 Iceland international whose boyhood club is Vikingur F.C. He left the Vikings (awesome nickname for a soccer club) for a brief stint in Ajax’s youth setup, before embarking on a tour of Scandinavia in the first part of his senior career, with return visits to Vikings, and stops at Norway’s Molde, and Sweden’s Trelleborg and Mjallby. Before his second contract with Vikingur was set to expire, he was transferred to Venice for about $550,000. He spent a season in Serie B with Venice (a season in which they earned promotion), before heading out on loan to Siena in Serie C. Karlsson’s highlights suggest that this is a kid who is way too good for the Icelandic league, but his stats say he’s not yet quite good enough for clubs that want to compete for titles/European qualification in some of Europe’s middle-of-the-road leagues, like Sweden’s Allsvenskan. Yet it seems that everyone agrees this kid has potential. This could be a great loan move for all involved.

Formella is familiar to Roots fans, having played against Roots four times last year with Sacramento Republic. The 5-9 Pole experienced success in his homeland before coming to the states in 2019. Apparently, he liked Northern California so much (who wouldn’t?!) that even after his contract with Republic was up he wanted to stick around. Formella is proven at the USL level, and as Jon Morrissey let us know on Episode 2 of RootsPod, his underlying numbers the last two years have been outstanding.

And we cannot forget about Johnny Rodriguez, who spent the first part of last season sidelined by a failed bicycle kick attempt in practice, only to pull one off in a game. This is a front line with a lot of goals in it, I think.

Despite a lot of continuity on the roster, I predict two things: (1) the 2022 version of Oakland Roots will look a lot different than the 2021 version, and (2) Roots’ gameplan and approach will evolve a lot over the course of the season. For one thing, several reported new arrivals are not yet here or only just arriving, including Karlsson, Johnsen, Lemoine, and Azocar. The prediction here is that all four will make some contribution before the season is over, but it won’t be in week 1. Relatedly, the roster features several new guys who will look to be significant contributors (Fuenmayor, Formella, Rito), and is being led by a coach in his first stint as head man. I expect there will be some growing pains. Fortunately, the nature of the USL playoffs means some growing pains can be tolerated, as we saw last year. And in the end, this is a talented roster, and one I expect will be playing meaningful football into the fall.

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