In the run-up to the 2019 season, much was made of the addition of defender Ike Opara and midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, and rightly so. With three MLS Cup wins between them and a Defender of the Year trophy for Opara in 2017, they each made their case for their importance in the Loons’ 3-2 win over the Whitecaps in the season opener. They snuffed out chances again and again and Alonso notched seven tackles — more than twice as many as Vancouver’s top man, Derek Cornelius, who had three.
But based on the early returns from that opening game, the signing of right fullback Romain Metanire could end up being just as significant. The burly defender — who’s built more like a free safety than a soccer player — provides a level of physicality, aggression, speed and offensive brio that MNUFC has been lacking from the position.
No single play from Saturday’s game encapsulates this better than this one, from the 59th minute. Metanire found space on the right wing and after Jan Gregus sent the ball ahead to him, he fired in an early cross, likely hoping to curl it onto the head of Romario Ibarra who was lurking in the box. His pass was rebuffed by the Vancouver defense, and in almost one motion he knocked the high ball on, chased it down, slid to keep it inbounds and away from the defender and hit it back to Romario.
Throughout the entire game, though, what stood out was his interplay with Miguel Ibarra down the right side. Once the team had settled into the game late in the first half, Metanire bombing along the sideline to overlap after getting the ball ahead to Ibarra was a regular sight. In fact, the team attacked down the right side of the pitch 45% of the time in the game, generally with Metanire overlapping and Ibarra tucking in. Given the players’ relatively new relationship, it’s a partnership that will only get better.
“I think we still have a lot to build on,” says Ibarra. “We're still getting used to each other, but for that first game, I knew he was going to get up. I mean, he's a machine. I've told him if he goes all the way up, I'll cover him behind and he's told me the same. 'Don't worry about anything behind you, I've got you covered.' I've never had a defender tell me that. Overlapping takes him wide and lets me cut in. We're just going to have to get used to each other, even though we already have a lot of good chemistry. It's just communicating.”
For the French-speaking defender from Madagascar and the Spanish-speaking midfielder from California, they communicate in a little bit of everything. “We try to communicate in Spanish because there's a little bit of Spanish in French or English,” Ibarra says. The real language on the pitch, though, is the game itself. As Metanire and Ibarra learn to communicate through that medium, their partnership will blossom.