The trio of MLS stars sealed moves just before the transfer window closed, but they face a fight to validate the faith placed in them by their new clubs.Forgive the trio of Kei Kamara, Andy Najar and Brek Shea if the thought of consistent playing time hasn't cropped up much over the past few days.
And why should it? All three players have clinched dream moves across the Atlantic, furthered their careers and increased their wages significantly by engineering their exits from MLS over the past couple of days. The accomplishment deserves a fair bit of revelry.
When the glow wears off a bit, the practical matter of securing playing time will assume a more prominent place in their thought processes. Such concerns didn't crop up often for talented players in MLS, though Najar encountered a bit of it under Ben Olsen. The league simply does not possess the strength in depth to keep players of their caliber out of the team for any length of time.
In their new situations, these players will not enjoy such luxuries. Instead, they will encounter a significant battle to win a place in the team on a regular basis from the outset. None of them were signed with a guaranteed place in the starting XI assured upon their arrival. Their managers showed enough faith in them to bring them to the club, but the players themselves must prove they warrant a starting spot on the training ground.
Some new signings, however, start off with a bit of an edge in the competition. Shea likely falls into that category after he completed a $4 million move to Stoke City on Thursday. His physical characteristics – the size and the speed that carried a far higher price tag a year ago – fit neatly into Stoke's style of play. He isn't as imposing as the standard Tony Pulis signing, but he possesses the tools to make an impact for a side that prefers to play directly whenever possible.
Pulis' problems on the left side of the field offer more encouragement for Shea's immediate prospects. Although Shea does not necessarily project as a left back given his meager experience in the position and Pulis' penchant for robust defenders, he might offer an immediate upgrade over the limited Andy Wilkinson. Geoff Cameron's recent conversion to right back proves Pulis isn't afraid to slot players into unfamiliar roles. The new assignment might even allow Shea some time to hone his service to an acceptable Premier League standard.
Shea's inability to provide threatening crosses on a regular basis may impact whether he can knock Matthew Etherington out of the team in the near future. Etherington excelled over the past few seasons due to his delivery on the left flank, but his form has dipped considerably in this campaign. If Pulis feels Etherington needs a spell out of the team or wants more directness in that spot, then he could turn to Shea as a replacement. If not, then Shea might receive some time to heal his foot and manage his transition to the Stoke way.
Najar started his adaptation process during a brief loan spell with Anderlecht in January before securing a $3 million move on Thursday, according to the Washington Post. The D.C. United homegrown player – the first player in that category to earn a transfer overseas – convinced the Belgian champion of his qualities and prompted it to pursue its interest for an immediate switch.
The concrete interest in his arrival may not translate into instant playing time, though. Najar finds both of his projected paths into the first team rather obstructed at the moment.
His preferred spot on the right side of midfield – and the place where he featured during his trial with the club – is currently occupied by Belgian youth international Massimo Bruno. The 19-year-old winger can point to his five UEFA Champions League appearances this season and his usual place in the team as ample evidence that he will continue as the incumbent for the moment.
The outlook isn't better at right back with Belgian international Guillaume Gillet in the fold. Gillet serves as the understudy to Ajax starlet Toby Alderweireld with the national team, but he remains a fixture in the Anderlecht side. Najar's defending – particularly in a tactical sense – isn't quite up to the level required to displace Gillet at the present time.
Although Najar faces a difficult road into the team at the outset, he will inevitably receive chances to impress given the crowded fixture list. Anderlecht usually balances Champions League group stage commitments with domestic cup and league tasks. Throw in the usual hiccups created by international selections and injuries and Najar will receive plenty of opportunities to emerge as a key player in the side in the months and years ahead.
Kamara won't benefit from the luxury of time as he attempts to turn his loan move to Norwich City into a permanent deal at the end of the season. The Sierra Leone international must somehow break into a fairly settled mid-table team and use his strengths – in this case, his physical approach and his willingness to shoot from everywhere (the Canaries don't produce many chances) – to impress boss Chris Hughton.
Hughton's current tactical setup hinders Kamara's chances for success. Norwich operates out of a 4-4-1-1 formation with Wes Hoolahan usually deployed behind target man Grant Holt. This team shape – and the presence of the influential Robert Snodgrass on the right flank – basically limits Kamara to fighting for Holt's somewhat uncertain place up front.
The burly target man's indifferent form (after a prolific first Premier League campaign last year) and poor fitness prompted Hughton to pursue Celtic striker Gary Hooper to address the concerns. Celtic's reluctance to sell ahead of the Champions League round of 16 affair against Juventus eventually forced Hughton to move down his list of targets and strike a deal with Leeds United for Argentine striker Luciano Becchio on deadline day to increase the competition for places.
Even with reserve striker Steve Morison sent to Leeds on loan in part exchange, Kamara finds himself no higher than third in the pecking order to win a spot that doesn't particularly suit him. As he has showed time and again with Sporting Kansas City, he operates well when deployed into space in wider areas and handed the brief to exploit the areas inhabited by a fullback. Unless Hughton changes shape for some reason, Kamara will instead have to operate as a center forward running through the channels and serving as the touchstone for the attack. He can function in that sort of role, but he probably cannot exceed the standard set by players more accustomed to featuring there.
The conditions suggest Kamara will likely have to make his mark off the bench. The role could suit him nicely given the different qualities he provides (especially if his arrival involves a change in shape), but it also limits his opportunities to impress to certain situations. He must take them quickly in order to ensure he gives himself the best possible chance to make his Premier League switch permanent.
Although Najar and Shea enjoy more security in their situations than Kamara currently does, they should take those sentiments to heart as well. Their hard work in MLS prompted their career-altering moves. Now the onus falls on all three players to fulfill the expectations heaped upon them and validate the faith placed in them by their new employers.
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