Asked why he benched Olivier Mbaizo for Saturday’s game at Montreal, Union manager Jim Curtin gave an answer as direct as the question.
“Performance,” Curtin said of his usual starting right back.
No other answer was expected, especially after Mbaizo entered the game as a defensive substitute and helped preserve the 2-1 win.
But the blunt statement needed to be said, and it needed to be heard. On top of that, it quickly became clear that second-year academy product Nathan Harriel nearly overtook Mbaizo on the depth chart before the season started.
“The competition was good in preseason,” Curtin said. “I thought Nathan was close — a close decision goes against him in week one, where we go with Olivier. I gave him the benefit of the doubt based on the beginning of last year.”
That bet did not pay off. Mbaizo was beaten badly on Minnesota’s goal in the season-opening 1-1 tie, and his contributions to the attack that afternoon didn’t make up for it.
“I don’t think it was Olivier’s best; I think he knows that,” Curtin said. “It’s not just a message for Olivier, but a message for the entire group that if you don’t perform to your max, we’ll make changes. And that’s the luxury we have with this team where we have a deep squad.”
Curtin knows what Mbaizo’s max is, and knows it’s very high. The 24-year-old from Cameroon has it in him to be a terrific player, which is why he played so much last year and became a regular with his national team.
“When he’s playing at his max, he’s the best right back in the league,” Curtin said. “It’s early in the year. I know Olivier will bounce back from it and have a great season for us. But I thought it was important to send a message to the entire group, you know, that starting spots are going to be earned week in and week out on the field in the games, in the 90 minutes, [and] during the week of training.”
Curtin believes the message got through, and he liked what he saw from Mbaizo’s contributions Saturday.
“Olivier came into the game with a good mentality and a good attitude, and it helped us,” Curtin said. “This is the way it goes. If I’m doing my job, Olivier does his side of things, too. He can play in Ligue 1 in France, I’ve said that to you guys 100 times. It just has to be that he brings it every day.”
And what did Curtin think of Harriel? Well, there was the unfortunate deflection of Lassi Lappalainen’s shot that looped over Andre Blake and into the net for Montreal’s goal. But other than that, Harriel played reasonably well: 69 touches, 26-of-38 passing, nine recoveries, three clearances, three interceptions, and 11 duels won out of 16 attempts.
“There’s still moments where he can get his body shape a little bit quicker turned around — sometimes he gets himself too square and there’s balls that are played in behind,” Curtin said. “It’s a healthy competition each week, and we’ll kind of go from there. But overall, really proud of Nathan and the fight that he showed.”
Union captain Alejandro Bedoya also liked what he saw from Harriel, playing in front of him on the right side of midfield.
“I think it’s so important [for] the eights to have that partnership and relationship with the outside back, so we worked on a lot during preseason,” Bedoya said, referring to a central midfielder’s traditional numerical position.
“And he just continues to grow and grow, and mature into the player that he’s becoming,” Bedoya continued. “He’s getting better, more technical on the ball, he sees the field better, the passing lanes, and being able to be more confident on the ball. So I’m happy for him, and I’m proud of him.”