Nick Sabetti: Two years on from draft, Wenger still faced with positional dilemma

The question of where Andrew Wenger should be playing for the Montreal Impact still remains without an answer.

When erstwhile head coach Jesse Marsch selected Andrew Wenger first overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft for the Montreal Impact, it wasn’t clear which position the Lancaster, Pa., native would play.In his three seasons at Duke University, Wenger spent the first two starring as a centre back and in the third he excelled as a forward, notching 17 goals and eight assists in 22 games. When asked by ESPN shortly after his draft selection which position he would like to play at the professional level, Wenger said "midfield."

Marsch finally decided to have Wenger play forward, a position that the now 22-year-old has played almost exclusively since the very beginning of the Impact’s expansion season, but without much success.

Having to still complete his undergraduate degree, Wenger’s professional career got off to a slow start as he was forced to travel back and forth from Montreal to Durham, N.C., to finish off his remaining courses. He did, however, show positive glimpses in his first season, scoring what was to be the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC and then scoring a goal in each of his first two starts against Colorado and Seattle.

That wonderful go-ahead goal in a 1-1 draw against Lyon in a friendly - a thumping strike which curled past Hugo Lloris into the top corner after a deft first touch to beat his marker - is up there with some of the best goals ever scored at Stade Saputo.

Though certainly someone from whom Wenger has learned a great deal, Marco Di Vaio’s arrival to Montreal in June of last year has kept the young American predominantly on the bench. And having to live in the shadow of one of the better forwards around isn’t easy, for even the slightest of technical faults inevitably become more apparent, every miss in front of goal magnified.

And there have been many misses, especially this season.

But when it comes to reserve games and friendlies, scoring almost seems easy. In a recent reserve game against the Columbus Crew in September, Wenger scored two finely placed goals. However, a few days later against San Jose in the Champions League - and in nearly identical scoring positions - he squandered his chances. These Jekyll-and-Hyde performances have been a trend all season.

Perhaps it’s only a mental hurdle he’s got to get over. At least, that’s what Wenger thinks to be the case.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Wenger told Goal. “I could have started the year with four goals and then gone off and scored 10 possibly. I’ve had plenty of chances. And that’s the most frustrating thing because I find the chances. But it will work itself out in time.”

The comparisons with Vancouver Whitecaps’ forward Darren Mattocks - the subsequent pick after Wenger in the 2012 draft – have mostly tailed off, but Marsch did insist that Wenger was more of a long-term project.

Yet now that Marsch is no longer in charge, it’s unlikely that the current staff is willing to be as patient. Wenger’s switch to the left-hand side of midfield in last week’s game in Chicago might very well be a sign that the Impact are beginning to doubt Wenger’s attacking capability.

Considering the fact that none of the players who current coach Marco Schällibaum has tried in left midfield have really impressed so far this season, Wenger could potentially find a permanent place there, especially given his defensive qualities.

As far as the idea of playing in midfield is concerned, Wenger hasn’t wavered in the opinion he held when he was drafted two years ago.  

“I think playing in midfield is where my abilities can probably show the best,” Wenger said. “It can up front too, though it’s not as consistent as we’d all like.”

After having trained as a forward for the last three years, adjusting to the demands of an entirely new position isn’t easy, not to mention the likely annoyance at having spent considerable time learning to perform a role that you never really got a chance to enact.

Unfortunately for Wenger, his position remains uncertain.

“Ideally [having a fixed position would be best], but at this point it’s just not to be,” he concluded.