2013 was, in many respects, a successful year for Kalif Alhassan. After an injury ravaged 2012, he bounced back to play some part in all but four regular season games last year. And yet, the Ghanaian attacker’s prospects of holding down a starting spot in Portland look slimmer than ever going into his fourth MLS season, so is it time for both parties to go their separate ways?
After a good preseason, I’d hoped that we’d finally see the best of him, and he registered an assist and two shots at goal in the first game. All was going according to plan. But, after starting the first two games, he started only two of the next eight and never really got a consistent run in the team until the backend of the season, when he started seven of the last ten regular season matches. This was not the breakthrough season I’d had in mind for Kalif.
The signings of Steve Zakuani and Gaston Fernandez, as well as potentially the drafting of Schillo Tshuma, all put further blocks in Alhassan’s route into the side. Rodney Wallace and Darlington Nagbe both saw more playing time last season, despite Wallace’s yo-yoing back and forth on national team duty, and it’s hard to see either of those guys dropping behind Alhassan in the pecking order. Of course, Wallace started last season on the bench, and went on to had a banner season with 7 goals and 6 assists in a little under 2000 minutes of play, so nothing is set in stone at First Kick.
Alhassan scored 3 last year, having scored once in the previous two seasons, which isn’t a bad figure for a guy who didn’t complete a full 90 until the last week in August. In fact, shooting has never Alhassan’s problem, or at least, the actual taking of shots hasn’t.
Out of Wallace, Nagbe and Alhassan, it’s the latter who has shown a tendency to pull the trigger more often than the others, but when accuracy and goal scoring are taken into account, Alhassan’s stock dips. Timbers fans won’t need to have the point that Kalif Alhassan is a taker of lovely shots, scorer of few goals underlined too hard.
Being outscored by his positional rivals wouldn’t be such a concern if Alhassan had the assists to bolster his case, but this year saw the second slight dip in an assist rate that’s stayed fairly steady at 1 every 5 full games or so. Compared to Nagbe with 1 in every 9, it’s decent, but not great, and Wallace’s rate of 1 in 4 and Valeri’s 1 in 2 show who the creators were in attack. Nagbe makes up for his relative lack of assists – 8 in over 7000 minutes – with goals because he’s not the guy who picks the moment to play the killer pass, he’s the guy who takes the game by the scruff of the neck and gets it done. His 9 goals, added to his 4 assists, gave Nagbe a total of 13 goals he had a direct involvement in, the same number as Wallace (7 goals, 6 assists). Alhassan had a total of 6, with only 3 of each.
Looking back over Alhassan’s key passes – passes that lead to shooting opportunties – what you notice is how many of Alhassan’s final balls are lay-offs, or leave the recipient with a lot of the work still to do. The greatest beneficiary of Alhassan isn’t Wallace or Valeri, nor is it Ryan Johnson or Frederic Piquionne. Nagbe, he of the driving runs from deep, ties for the lead along with Will Johnson – two of our forward players who do their best work outside the box.
Last season, Alhassan never found his niche in the attack, being neither a creator nor closer of chancers, but rather as a mercurial presence who drifted in and out of games without every really stamping his mark on the attack. He was played deeper at one stage, in a more central role and did reasonably okay, which might’ve been enough in 2011, but until the last 10 games of the season, he didn’t really play much at all.
An injury to Valeri limited his playing time over the close of the season, and opened the door for Alhassan in particular to grab more minutes.
18 points was a pretty impressive haul for a team whose primary playmaker and attacking lynchpin was in and out the team, and Alhassan deserves credit for his part in it. His 3 goals all came in the last 11 games, and it was his strike that won the day against Seattle. Yet, despite all this extra playing time, did he really do enough with it?
As Valeri flitted in and out of the side, both Nagbe and Wallace upped their work in the opposing half, seeing more of the ball over the run-in than they had, on average, in the previous 24 matches. Yet, Alhassan was making fewer passes, and less than 1 per 90 minutes resulted in a teammate getting a shot at goal (he registered no assists). And of his 7 starts, Portland only won 2, amassing the other half of their 18 pts in the 3 games Alhassan started from the bench.
With a base salary of $80,000 in 2013, Alhassan doesn’t represent a big against the salary cap. It’s only a little over the league-wide median salary of $75,000, which makes it an arguably fair-to-good price to pay for a back-up, especially one with 3 years of MLS experience under his belt, and still only 23. However, when the strongest argument for a player’s retention is his relative cheapness, it doesn’t say a lot for his case to keep his spot on playing merit.
And even though $80k might be “cheap”, when reckoned into value for money terms, Alhassan’s salary doesn’t seem quite so low for what he actually delivers in real terms.
Alhassan was the right guy in the right place, but at the wrong time. Yes, he played a lot in his first year – only five players saw more time than Kalif – but he spent most of the year stuck out on the flanks in a 4-4-2, where long stretches of matches would pass him by. With a more progressive coach in charge, there could’ve been a role for Alhassan as the team’s primary creative force in center, but it wasn’t to be. Then along came first Darlington Nagbe, and then Diego Valeri, to draw the attacking attention away from Kalif, leaving him on the outside looking in as others prospered in the very role he seemed most ideally suited to.
I like Kalif a lot, and I do think he adds a dimension to the squad, but I worry that the idea, or promise, of Alhassan blinds me to the reality which is that, in the vast majority of cases, Alhassan is merely “okay”, and I’m not sure that that’s good enough. There’s not a lot of end product from Alhassan, and he lacks the work rate and running of Nagbe, or the robust style and timing in the tackle of Wallace out of possession. With Ryan Johnson moving on, the Timbers need to find goals from somewhere, and Kalif just doesn’t contribute enough in this regard to hold down a starting spot, and with the signings been made, it’s getting harder to even justify his spot on the bench.
And then there’s the man himself. As I said, he’s 23 and should be playing regular soccer somewhere, not completing matches once in a blue moon. A move might just be the shot in the arm he needs to find that level in his play that he’s only ever given Timbers fans a glimpse of. Selfishly you want to keep all the good players on your squad, but given the playing argument for keeping him is largely based of a series of “What if?” worst case scenarios, this is one instance where I’d be happy to see a guy leave not because he’s a bad player going, but because he’s a good player who might finally get his chance to be great.