Celtic’s player recruitment and scouting have come under increased scrutiny this season after another tumultuous transfer window in the summer. With January bringing renewed focus on potential reinforcements to the squad, what are some of the potential options available to Celtic in the type of leagues where great value signings can still be found? We’ve asked a series of experts on different leagues to identify some targets that would fit Celtic’s needs and age policy. First up is Matt Rhein with some of the outstanding candidates in the United States’ Major League Soccer.
For a long time, Major League Soccer (remember, despite what your intuition might tell you, never call it “The MLS”. The Major League Soccer? That doesn’t make sense) was considered by most Europeans to be a “retirement home” for former European stars. David Beckham being the most famous, it was assumed the likes of Robbie Keane, Didier Drogba and others were securing one more big pay day, playing out their final playing days dominating a ‘lesser’ league. There are still some examples of this in the US top flight, but more often than not these retirees reside at clubs at the bottom of the table.
Successful clubs in MLS are now following the proven recipe for success in similar leagues: successfully develop talent through their home grown academies, find hidden talent in smaller leagues to exploit, and sell when you receive a bid above valuation and re-invest those proceeds into this cycle.
While some football fans may still turn their nose up at outdated “retirement home” clichés that still surround MLS, there are numerous examples of well-run clubs in the league that can serve as a blueprint for how to successfully run a club anywhere in the world.
With MLS clubs increasingly better managed and the quality of the league improving, there are numerous players that can make the leap to a club of Celtic’s stature Celtic and contribute right away. Here are three that could fit into – and improve – Brendan Rodgers’ starting line-up.
- Position: Right Winger
- Country: Honduras
- Club: Houston Dynamo
- Born: 12.02.1996
- Caps: 28 (7 goals)
Coming from Honduras, a market that Celtic has dabbled in before, Alberth Elis was second in goals scored (9) and first in assists (11) for Houston Dynamos this season. The US Open Cup winners brought Elis from Mexican club Monterrey on a permanent basis before the season after having the winger on loan in Texas the previous year. Elis continued to shine for the Dynamo with his underlying stats being equally impressive. He was one of Houston’s main goal threats for, with an Expected Goals (xG) total of 16.03 (3rd in MLS) and an xG per every 96 minutes player of 0.59 (8th in MLS) according to the league’s stat wizards American Soccer Analysis . While a player’s xG numbers show the quality of the chances he got on the end of, Expected Assists (xA) show the quality of the chances he set up and Elis was equally adept in this regard, with an xA total of 8.89 (10th in MLS) and xA per 96 mins of 0.33 (12th in MLS).
Now, with James Forrest in perhaps the best form of his career, you the well-read Celtic supporter may be asking why Celtic would buy a young right winger? Forrest is certainly been great, but at age 27 this is the peak of Forrest’s career. While he certainly could continue this world-beating form, it is reasonable to expect Forrest to start regressing soon . Celtic have a great example of this type of scenario in Scott Sinclair, with his current regression to the mean after setting the world of Scottish football alight in his first season in the Hoops. Having a ready-made replacement like Elis on the books for Forrest can help Celtic go from strength to strength on the right wing.
- Position: Centre-back
- Country: Ghana
- Club: Columbus Crew SC
- Born: 25.12.1994
Three months can seem like an eternity in football, but it’s not longerago than that when Celtic was smack dab in the middle of a crisis regarding their central defenders. With injuries and Dedryk Boyata seeming to want to take his talents elsewhere, Celtic were left with Jozo Simunovic and Jack Hendry unsuccessfully doing dribbling drills during real live matches. Now, Boyata seems content in green and white for the time being, Filip Benkovic is here on loan, and Kristoffer Ajer has overcome his seond injury set-back of the season. However, there could be a false sense of security in the center of the Celtic defense. Benkovic will likely be back in Leicester at the end of the season, if not sooner and Boyata has yet to sign a new contract and could commit to another club as early as January. Celtic will likely need to find a center back or two sooner rather than later. Enter Lalas Abubakar.
Now, the cynical amongst you might suggest nepotism suggesting Celtic buy Lalas Abubakar from the Columbus Crew. Not only do I support the Crew, but Abubakar is a fellow alumnus from the finest Catholic University in the United States (Don’t @ me, Notre Dame), the University of Dayton. However, the Ghanaian Flyer has impressed in his two years at Columbus. Appearing in over 1,800 minutes in MLS for Columbus this season, Lalas was part of a center of defense that allowed the lowest number of shots against per game according to American Soccer Analysis at 10.9 and the lowest xG against per game at 1.06. At age 23, the Ghanaian is still prone to the occasional youthful indiscretion on defense, but has shown a steadiness in the back well above his years.
Of course, a central defender for Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic not only has to keep opponents from their goal, but also needs to be able to pass and contribute to the Celtic attack. Lalas Abubakar also excels here. Using ASA’s xPassing model, the Columbus center back is the 5th best passer in MLS. American Soccer Analysis has a passing model that calculates what a player’s pass completion percentage should be based on where and how they attempt a pass. Their model suggests Abubakar should have completed 84.6% of his passes but he actually completed 90.5% last season, the fifth best in MLS. Lalas Abubakar has the skills to be a top ball playing center back that is still able to defend and at age 23 falls into the demographic we typically see Celtic go for in transfer targets.
- Position: Forward
- Country: Venezuela
- Club: Atlanta United
- Born: 19.05.1993
- Caps: 46
Now, acting as if I’ve unearthed some hidden gem in Martinez would be disingenuous. The Venezuelan striker was the league’s MVP as he led Atlanta United to the MLS Cup. Before the beginning of this season, I wrote that Celtic should “push the boat out” to acquire Odsonne Edouard and the duly did that. It is time to get the S.S. “Piles of Cash” in ship shape and sent to Atlanta. Martinez is the type of player that you buy when you want to get to the group stages of Europe and threaten to make the knockout stages, but also one that can see a good return on investment on a possible sale in the future for a club like Celtic despite needing to put forth a significant substantial investment.
After seeing Martinez scoring 31 goals for Atlanta in the regular season and playoffs, it becomes easier to justify to Uncle Pete to open the wallet for him. Martinez also impressed with his underlying metrics, with according to American Soccer Analysis an Expected Goals tally of 29.23, which is by far the highest in MLS and an xG per 96 of 0.92, again the highest in MLS. At age 25, Martinez is still a few years away from his peak, so there is still room for him to grow at Celtic and then for Celtic to cash in on a sale to a bigger club.