Minnesota United ‘got one right’ in new right back Romain Metanire
ST. PAUL -- French soccer club Stade de Reims praised him as “indestructible” and a “warrior.”
A Minnesota United teammate backed that by nicknaming him “Machine,” and coach Adrian Heath said he was the “best player” in the Loons’ inaugural game at Allianz Field last Saturday, April 13.
All told, United’s new starting right back Romain Metanire has received nothing but positive reviews heading into Friday night’s game between Minnesota (3-2-1) and Toronto FC (3-1-1) at BMO Field.
Loons’ athletic trainer Josh Williams heard Metanire was an “animal,” but now can reinforce all the swirling superlatives on the Frenchman of Malagasy descent with concrete GPS data showing him leading the Loons in high-intense running and sprinting efforts in his first six matches.
“He’s got a fantastic ability to keep going and keep going and keep going, and all the way to the 90th minute, he’s still hitting those speeds,” Williams said. “… He’s got this fantastic willingness, but also capacity, to hit those numbers game after game. You see him. He’s relentless. He never stops, which is why we love him.”
After historically bad defense torpedoed Minnesota’s first two MLS seasons, the Loons sought an upgrade at right fullback — in addition to offseason upgrades across the club’s spine. The outside back spot comes with important defensive responsibilities but is also called on to join the attack by stretching an opposing defense with speed from wide areas, and then dangerous crosses into the box.
Metanire’s fitness plus that ability to both defend and attack has made him an early success story. It started straight away with hustle and six appetizing crosses into the box in the season-opening 3-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 2.
It continued with a pristine long pass to a sprinting Romario Ibarra in the 3-0 win over San Jose in Week 2, and he was credited with assists in a 3-2 loss to Los Angeles Galaxy in Week 3 and a 2-1 win over New York Red Bulls in Week 5.
In Saturday’s 3-3 draw with New York City, Metanire’s hustle down the right flank and delivery into the box set up the first goal at the new St. Paul stadium. Forward Angelo Rodriguez headed Metanire’s ball horizontally across the box. New York’s Alex Ring tried to head it out, but Ozzie Alonso struck the ball into the back of the net.
“I thought Romain was outstanding,” Heath said afterward. “I thought he was the best player on the field.”
The acquisition of Metanire wasn’t so clear cut. Amos Magee, United’s director of player personnel, traveled to France last season and watched Reims play in Ligue 2, the country’s second division. “I had him in the notes as being good but not much more,” Magee said.
Metanire started 37 of 38 games during a strong season that earned Reims a promotion to Ligue 1, considered one of the top leagues in the world. Magee then paid a repeat visit to France in September.
In a 1-0 home win over Lyon, one of France’s top clubs, Metanire distinguished himself. “I thought he was outstanding,” Magee said. “I had more detailed notes on him.”
“It was his commitment to defend,” Magee added. “It was his selflessness. It was the fact that even though they were defending in a low block most of the game, he did find opportunities to burst forward.”
Magee didn’t think Metanire would be available to Minnesota given his leading role in the promotion campaign, but Reims had purchased Belgium right back Thomas Foket, 24, from Gent in the Belgium’s top league and Metainire, 29, found himself out of favor after he received a red card a few games into the 2018-19 season.
“All of a sudden, an agent that we like and work with mentioned that he thought he’d be available,” Magee said. “I quickly got in front of the rest of our staff and watched a lot of video on him and had a lot of debate on him and thought he’d be an ideal guy for us.”
The Loons brought Metanire in on a two-year contract using Targeted Allocation Money, an MLS fund for higher-priced players. It was a bit of a surprise investment in a defender, but it has paid early dividends.
Metanire was born in Metz, France, but has family ties to Madagascar, the African island country in the Indian Ocean. He is believed to be the first player in MLS history to play for the Madagascar national team, with his last appearance coming against Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in March.
The club has not yet scheduled a French translator to facilitate interviews with Metanire, but Magee shared a little about him. “He’s very quiet. He’s a family guy. He loves the United States,” Magee said. “He loves the NBA. He’s a winner. I think he’s won promotion twice — once with Reims and once with Metz. I think there is a real mental strength and winning mentality that goes through that.”
Right-sided midfielders Miguel Ibarra and Ethan Finlay have praised the way Metanire’s defense frees them from needing to track back on defense, and how his attacking attributes compliments them. Metanire sometimes goes higher up the field in overlapping runs, allowing Finlay and Ibarra to tuck inside for another offensive dimension.
“It honestly, in a way, gives me a security blanket having a guy like that that I know is going to put the work in,” Finlay said. “I think as we start to grow into a partnership on that side, we’ll continue to get better.”
Metanire’s footwork at the halfway line and lay off to Jan Gregus started the lead-up the Loons’ second goal at Allianz Field on Saturday. Gregus then lofted a pretty ball ahead to Finlay, whose cross into the box was headed in by Rodriguez. The persistent threats coming from the right side of United’s attack forced NYCFC to respond with a halftime substitution.
“It’s nice to say you got one right because, trust me, no matter how much work you do, it’s never easy,” Heath said. “You’ve got clubs that are spending 30, 40 million and they get it wrong sometimes. There is no exact science. but sometimes it’s a good feeling that this guy is going to do well for us. He’s been outstanding since he’s been here.”