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What Should D.C. United Fans Expect From John Thorrington?

D.C. United somewhat unexpectedly opted to pick midfielder John Thorrington in Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry Process. Some questions linger: What did United see in the versatile veteran? Where will Thorrington fit in as a member of Olsen's Army?

Veteran midfielder John Thorrington was taken by D.C. United in the Re-Entry Draft. What should we expect from him?
Veteran midfielder John Thorrington was taken by D.C. United in the Re-Entry Draft. What should we expect from him?
Jeff Vinnick

After all the anticipation and hype - which, if we're honest, was based on this being an otherwise slow news period for D.C. United - the Re-Entry Draft Process Mechanism Dot Com Thing saw the Black-and-Red add just one player: John Thorrington, a midfielder previously with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Taking Thorrington in Stage 2 of the RED means that United has one week to offer a contract to Thorrington; if he prefers to play elsewhere, his MLS rights will remain with DC. It's safe to expect that the 33 year old Thorrington - who Vancouver was trying to keep in the week between RED stages - will have to accept a somewhat significant pay cut ($170,000 for the 2011 season) to suit up for Los Capitalinos.

So who is Thorrington, exactly? Born in South Africa but raised in California, Thorrington made his first big splash in US soccer circles by joining Manchester United's academy at 17 years old. He never quite broke through there, though, and spent a few seasons with Bayer Leverkusen before finally getting real playing time in the mid-2000s with Huddersfield Town of England, who at the time were in the English 3rd Division.

After a half-season with Grimsby Town, where injuries kept him off the field for the most part, Thorrington came back to the US to play for the Chicago Fire. His numbers don't stand out - in six seasons, he made only 59 appearances - but that is partially explained by a nasty injury in 2006 that saw him suffer both a broken leg and knee damage. That injury cost him the 2006 season and most of 2007 as well.

However, following his return to full fitness, Thorrington had a strong 2008, which were topped off with two appearances for the USMNT in World Cup qualifying (as well as one more following the annual MLS-centric camp in January 2009). Thorrington was also in camp for the 2009 Gold Cup squad, but didn't make the team.

During his two seasons with Vancouver, Thorrington generally played whenever he was available. Unfortunately, the injury problems that have plagued his career limited him to 30 appearances (23 starts). Mostly playing a central midfield role, Thorrington was valued by each of the three coaches (Teitur Thordarson, Tom Soehn, and Martin Rennie) he played under during his time with the Whitecaps.

At this point in his career, Thorrington should be thought of as mainly a central midfielder. He's not a pure defensive midfielder, but is also not a pure #8. The best way I can think of to describe him is to recall the role Ben Olsen had in Peter Nowak's 3412. Benny played between Brian Carroll - a pure anchor midfielder - and classic #10 Christian Gomez. Thorrington's main task when he plays for us will be to serve as a link between the defense and the attack going forward, while obstructing and harassing teams when they attack without dropping particularly deep. It's also worth noting that Thorrington has a combative streak similar to that of our fearless leader.

I mentioned on Twitter that United fans should think of Thorrington as a sort of replacement for Josh Wolff. They don't play the same position, obviously, but there are plenty of similarities: Both are known for being well-respected by teammates and coaches in the locker room (including class players like Jay DeMerit and Joe Cannon), both primarily rely on their soccer IQ and their reliable ability to keep the ball, both had injury troubles throughout their careers despite doing a reasonable job at staying fit and training hard, and both have experience in Europe.

With El Lobo becoming a coach, Thorrington will join the group of veteran players - mainly captain Dwayne De Rosario, Marcelo Saragosa, and Robbie Russell - in providing leadership on and off the field for what is probably the best young core in MLS. De Ro aside, that group might not set the world on fire for us in games, but the example they provide in training and even in how they lead their lives away from soccer entirely can be huge for a team that will rely on many starters who are under 24 years old.

It's not just Thorrington's qualities off the field that are worth noting, though. Like Wolff, Thorrington is what I like to call a facilitator of good play. Thorrington may not get too many assists or goals, but he will often be involved in successful attacks or good spells of possession. He's the guy that makes the right support run to allow someone else a safe outlet, or bursts out of midfield knowing full well that his run is only to serve as a distraction to the defense. Thorrington's ability to see the whole field and quickly figure out the best way to use space makes it a hell of a lot easier for his teams to play good soccer, even if he doesn't end up on the scoresheet.

Positionally, Thorrington has been something of a utility man. He started out as a right midfielder before moving centrally after injuries robbed him of his speed (sound familiar?). In the middle, he's played both the Olsen-style linking role as well as a handful of games as an attacking midfielder. Occasionally, he's even seen time wide left or at right back.

For United, however, it's best to look at each potential formation and note where he could play. In the double-pivot 442, Thorrington would play the more attacking of the two central roles, or occasionally on the right if we were trying to defend a lead or hit with injuries and suspensions.

Quick aside: Our double-pivot 442 is often called an empty bucket, but that's false. The empty bucket involves "wide" midfielders who often pinch inside, and is not very different at all from the 4222 seen in Brazilian soccer. United's wide men were typical wide midfielders in this formation, so it's more helpful to think of it as a flat-ish 442.

In the 4132 we used for most of the opening two-thirds of 2012, Thorrington's likely position depends on exactly how we organize the roles. Olsen mostly used a T-shaped midfield, and in that case Thorrington could play either in the middle or on the right in the group of three. In a true diamond, however, Thorringon would probably have to play on the right or left due to the narrow starting point required.

If Olsen opts for a Y-shaped midfield (think of how the Seattle Sounders often played this past season), Thorrington would probably be restricted to the central role ahead of the anchor midfielder but underneath the wide men. However, this is a pretty physically demanding position; for example, Houston got good results using Ricardo Clark there. I'm not sure it would be the best use of Thorrington, so if we find ourselves playing this way, Thorrington might not be in the starting line-up.

Finally, there's the 4231 that we often saw once De Ro went down injured. It's not much different from the double-pivot 442 given De Ro's wandering. If this is our formation, Thorrington will line up alongside Kitchen as the more attacking of the two holding midfielders, where he can help connect the defense with the attack. That translates to fewer long balls to nowhere, basically, which is something we probably all want.

With what Thorrington will do for us cleared up, there's another notable question to grapple with: Was this a good selection? I was up front about how I thought United should select Khari Stephenson, who would play a lot of the same roles but in my view was more likely to contribute as a starter. Thorrington is a good player, but he will likely make a starter's wage and be more of a "20 appearances/7 starts" kind of guy for United in 2013.

However, as I said in my piece on the best players for us to take in the RED, you don't see MLS clubs acquire starters and revolutionize their best eleven through this process. A reasonable goal in the RED is to add a contributor. Anyone that provides good depth and can start a few games without screwing things up in terms of locker room chemistry is an acceptable acquisition, provided the cost isn't too high.

With Thorrington, I think we have a player who qualifies under the first two parts of that statement. The "cost isn't too high" part is the only remaining stumbling block. Thorrington apparently didn't like the figures Vancouver was offering, so we can safely assume there's some number out there that he won't sign for (hint: it's probably quite a bit higher than $50,000).

If we can sign him - and that remains a fairly big "if" - United fans should be prepared to accept finding out next spring that Thorrington is making a bit more than you'd expect for his role on the field. However, if he's able to mentor our youngsters and avoid too many injuries while chipping in quality minutes here and there, it's not an expense I'd spend any time being upset with. Thorrington is a winner, and we saw the value of adding more players with that kind of mentality this season.