February 21st, 2013 by Michael Orr
Danny Mwanga is only 21 years old. He’s already featured in 79 MLS games and has scored 15 goals. He was the first overall selection in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. And at the moment, he has no position for his current team.
When Mwanga was traded to Portland in June 2012, all signs pointed to a resetting and reinvigoration of his young career. Though he frequently started, and occasionally starred, in Philadelphia, Mwanga was stunted in his development both as a player and an adult. His interactions with Piotr Nowak had a profound impact, reducing his confidence and robbing him of a consistent position where he could feel comfortable and mature. John Spencer acquired Mwanga and brought him back to the city where Mwanga was a standout high schooler, yet Spencer was fired just a month later.
Following the 2012 season, which saw Mwanga sitting as often as playing (though he did, of course, terrorize San Jose Earthquakes on two different occasions), the conventional wisdom held that he would be one of the Timbers who could benefit most from Caleb Porter’s arrival. The promise of a new system and a level of stability largely unseen in his first three years in the league were to provide Mwanga with a platform to meet his enormously high expectations (and contract). Instead, the Timbers renegotiated his contract in the offseason and traded for Ryan Johnson.
When training camp began, Mwanga was planted at the peak of a three-man midfield in the second team. The two-man forward line in the pre-season opener had Darlington Nagbe paired with Johnson, while Bright Dike led the line in the second team with José Valencia and Sal Zizzo flanking him. Mwanga was again in central midfield, clearly out of position and in most cases, ideas, too. When Dike injured his knee in the team’s third pre-season game, Mwanga was finally given a chance to play forward, supposedly his natural position, yet he did very little and was later moved out wide when Valencia entered the game.
Dike’s injury has changed Porter’s outlook on the forward position. The club is actively seeking another striker to either pair with Johnson or play a substitute’s role (or start outright, when Johnson is away with Jamaica for CONCACAF Hexagonal games). To date, Deon McCauley, Andre Clennon and Frédéric Piquionne have been in town on trial, with the latter starting at center forward last night. While it makes sense to see as much of a trialist as possible, particularly in a game, Mwanga’s starting position back in central midfield was immediately recognizable as a relegation from the forward line. When Porter made changes in the second half, Mwgana did not slide up to the forward line but was replaced by Sebastián Rincón, who got to play as the left forward, pushing Michael Nanchoff into Mwanga’s position. That the Timbers were far more creative and effective offensively in the second half with Mwgana off the field is no coincidence. Central midfield is simply not where he belongs.
So where does Mwanga belong? Even if he was more adept in central midfield, he certainly would not start ahead of Diego Valeri. He cannot compete with Diego Chará, Will Johnson, Ben Zemanski or Jack Jewsbury in more defensive midfield roles, nor does he have the skills necessary to play in the wider areas ahead of Nagbe or Kalif Alhassan. At forward, Johnson is the sure starter while Valencia carries the prospect of a potential future sell-on scenario, leaving him the more desirable option for longer-term consideration. Meanwhile, Porter and Gavin Wilkinson continue to search for another forward to replace Dike, at least for the 2013 season. All that leaves Mwanga a man without a position and without a particular role. It is certainly possible that he could be included in a game day eighteen, but it would likely be a downgrade at any position where he would be inserted as a substitute, for all the reasons listed above.
More than anyone else on the (senior) roster, Mwanga seems ill-fitting for Porter’s system. That is not to say he cannot feature elsewhere and be effective. But with March 3 now just ten days away, Mwanga looks like the Timbers’ most expensive reserve team player.