There’s been quite a bit of talk amongst Real Salt Lake fans lately regarding the lack or so-called "failure" of picking up a high-quality center back yet this offseason. Personally, some of the dissidents have a point; with the departure of Elias Vasquez and the aging bones of Jamison Olave, staffing that position seems vital.
But just as vital to staff this offseason is the midfield. It may come as some surprise considering RSL’s middle third has been stacked these last several years. We’ve seen players go, however, over that same amount of time -- first Will Johnson, then Ned Grabavoy, and now Luis Gil and to a lesser extent Luis Silva have left to bolster the ranks of teams around the continent. There’s reason to believe that the technical staff have seen real development occur with the likes of John Stertzer and now Fito Ovalle; one can hope that they’re right as the former has battled through injury in his first few seasons and the latter is a tested but relatively inexperienced homegrown.
While the roster still contains Luke Mulholland, who’s mixed 2015 season left some with a bad taste in their mouths, it’s quite obvious the club needed to make additions here as well, especially for the starting role, and especially with CONCACAF Champions League beginning in less than a month. Enter Stephen Sunday Obayan.
"Sunny", as they call him, is probably an unknown to North American soccer fans. And for good reason. The 27-year-old Nigerian-born midfielder has made appearances for nine clubs in the previous 11 years, the most prominent of which was Valencia (2007-2011) where he featured for only 10 games in that time. Sunny spent most of his time on loan during that period, making more appearances for lower Spanish division side Numancia (14) than he did for his owner-club.
The biggest gripe I’ve seen from fans about the addition of Obayan is that he’s spent only short stints with individual clubs, most of which are unnotable in the grand scheme of global football. The worry here is that Obayan is not someone who can stick with a club for a length of time, contributing his entirety to the team and fanbase. Perhaps this is a valid concern as it could be seen as a slight deviation of "The Team is the Star" mantra RSL has touted for almost a decade. Sunny’s loyalty is yet to be seen, but let’s look at some objective information, shall we?
To get an idea of what Obayan can add to this squad, one must look at what he’s accomplished during his stays across much of Europe. This includes national team. Obayan was a member of the Spanish U19 and U20 National Teams from 2007 through 2009. In the 2007 U20 World Cup, Obayan was brought on as an early sub against Uruguay in the group stage, resulting in a 2-2 come-from-behind draw. Watching the highlight reel of his personal performance in that game, you can see that he clearly held his own, exhibiting both individual skill, team integration, and a tough persona that won’t back down from a challenge. Mind you, this was a La Furia team with the likes of Juan Mata and Gerard Pique; Sunny holding his own against Uruguayans like Luis Suarez and Juan Manuel Diaz.
Skeptics will argue "this was 8 years ago when he was 20, what’s that show us for today?". Another valid argument.
Enter CSKA Sophia, a historic Bulgarian side that’s won trophies in almost every European competition since its birth in 1948. For the 2014-2015 season, Obayan played in 36 matches for The Reds in a season that culminated in the sale and relegation of the club to the third division by the Bulgarian FA for financial reasons. Although not a high point in the club’s history, the 14/15 season shows us more closely what Obayan can contribute to the RSL side. Again, highlights.
Who is Sunny Obayan then? He is quite clearly a deep-lying midfielder, more defensive than anything. His speed, technical skill, and eye for passing makes him a threat anywhere on the pitch. And his tenacity for physical situations, winning the ball with a well-placed tackle or the grit of getting dug into a duel, means he most likely has what it takes to play in a traditionally more-physical league like MLS. These attributes make him a unique asset to the RSL roster as, apart from Demar Phillips and Abdoulie Mansally, that true, raw speed is something we haven’t had since Robbie Findley was with us… and just then barely.
Sunny does have his downsides, though. As he’s aged, it seems as though he is less reliant on speed and skill than he is on physical challenges. Errant and risky tackles could cost him (think Olave in his first couple seasons), but this is something that could be mitigated by two things: clear coaching expectations, and positioning him out of the defensive midfield position.
So where does Sunny fit into the RSL lineup? This is where the speculation and subjectivity begins. At face value, Sunny is a clear backup to Kyle Beckerman. This, I believe, would be a colossal mistake. You don’t go after a player with Sunny’s development, pedigree, and experience and place him behind an established veteran. This is a player that is starting quality in MLS, someone that can start from Day 1, and the coaching staff has made that clear.
Provided we play some derivative of the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, my bet is on Sunny playing alongside Kyle, anchoring the defensive line in a double-pivot-style midfield but with license to roam wide and high. This makes sense for a few reasons. First and foremost, the younger Sunny should be able to cover more ground than the aging Beckerman who can sit a little deeper and do what he does while looking to get the offense started with a key pass. Secondly, Sunny’s speed and technical prowess will be best used on the flank and cutting center as the attack builds which allows the likes of Javier Morales, the forward core, and our wingbacks to get into positions.
Sunny is a hybrid shuttler. Think Ned but with more speed. Factor this along with a speedy overlapping fullback like Phillips or Mansally and we suddenly have a potential for actual counter-attacking soccer being played.
The other side of the coin is also rather bright. In offensive situations where RSL loses possession in the final third or high in the middle third, Sunny being held high and more in the attack means we finally have a dedicated destroyer that can not only break up opposing possession in those advanced positions, but win the ball back and re-initiate the attack. This is something that we haven’t had since Grabavoy and Johnson. That terrier attitude is vital to allowing Javi and the forwards more responsibility in creating and less in defending.
What I think Obayan adds to this squad is a higher degree of versatility and flexibility in both defense and the attack. If he’s used as a two-way player, a hybrid shuttler, as I have to imagine he will be, then his addition to the team is more important than finding a high caliber center back.
Now go imagine these attributes on the field against Tigres in a month. Consider the freer license of our forwards and playmaker assaulting the Mexicans’ backline, some members of which have already declared their fear of Yura Movsisyan and company. All because some club-hopping Nigerian (no, not that kind of club hopping) decided to grace Utah with his presence. That’s the level of play I’m expecting out of Sunny Obayan. And so should you.