Back in early September, when Samuel Inkoom was signed by D.C. United, there was a mix of excitement and curiosity. Inkoom, at 25, arrived having played in two different World Cups for Ghana and had multiple starts in the UEFA Champions League as well as the Europa League. How often do 25 year old players with that kind of resume show up and play for United before they've even hit their peak? In particular, how often do they show up with roughly the same salary cap hit as your average first-round draft pick?
The confusing side was also fairly straight-forward. Sean Franklin had a great season at right back, which was the spot Inkoom had mostly played throughout his career. Nick DeLeon didn't put up tremendous numbers in 2014, but he improved as the year wore on and is still the type of narrow right midfielder United needs to help out in the middle out of a 442. Neither position was one where United needed much help at the time. In fact, at the time Inkoom was signed there was more interest in the fact that he had played a bit of left back in his career than anything else.
We didn't get to see a lot of Inkoom, either. That's understandable for any player arriving from the European offseason, and Inkoom had also spent his early summer in Brazil with the Black Stars. Fitness-wise, you put any player in that situation at risk for injury, and on top of that you have to worry about whether mid-season acquisitions can adjust to their teammates and the demands the coaching staff puts on players.
Still, even with that in mind I doubt fans expected to see Inkoom only make two MLS appearances (out of a possible eight) totaling just 70 minutes. Inkoom did regularly make the bench, but it appears that Ben Olsen felt he had not bedded in enough yet to play significant minutes. Tellingly, with United needing goals and having Eddie Johnson available for crosses, Olsen opted instead for Lewis Neal in United's victory-that-wasn't against NYRB in the playoffs.
On the other hand, Inkoom was mostly good in the CONCACAF Champions League. Yes, that's a lower standard than MLS, but it's not that much lower seeing how two Liga MX sides and three MLS sides crashed out in the group stage. He ended up playing 90 minutes in each of United's final three games, and got himself several assists in three wins.
Inkoom didn't make the best impression in his debut against Waterhouse FC - he was burned 1v1 for the Jamaican side's first real chance, and muscled out of position for the second - but Olsen moved him from right back to right midfield and Inkoom improved. He didn't have anything to do with Fabian Espindola's magical opening goal - go ahead, watch again - but it was his cross that Espindola nodded in for the eventual game-winner. It's worth letting that video roll, because the next highlight is Inkoom cracking a shot off the post.
In the next match against Tauro, it was another pinpoint Inkoom cross that gave Pontius his first goal of a difficult 2014 season. Once again, let the video roll: The next highlight is EJ putting United up 2-0, and it comes after Inkoom played a clever diagonal ball into the box for David Estrada to backheel.
All in all Inkoom managed three assists, plus that through ball, plus that shot off the post, in a total of 340 minutes. That's a lot of tangible positive impact in a short amount of time. It's obviously a small sample size, but it's especially promising on a team where it's not hard to imagine him crossing to Johnson (or for that matter, a full-strength Pontius coming in from the left) on a regular basis.
On the other hand, both of the times he started at right back saw him moved to right midfield via a halftime substitution. With Franklin only able to play 20 minutes in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinal, Olsen chose Chris Korb instead. If Inkoom was brought here to be a fullback, there's a lot of work to be done to get him up to snuff.
While writing this, I had a stray thought. We've seen DeLeon play central midfield before when Davy Arnaud was unavailable, and he didn't do a bad job despite his lack of experience. It seems safe to assume that United will pursue a central midfielder - remember those links to Gaetano D'Agostino and Agustin Farias? - but it's also not stretching the imagination to see United enter the season with the same players we have now.
In that case, I'd like United to seriously look into DeLeon in the middle while starting Inkoom. There would need to be some work done on Inkoom's playing style, of course. In United's 442, the wide midfielders can't just stay out by the touchline and hit crosses all day; Inkoom would have to learn how to tuck inside and sometimes be an auxiliary third central midfielder. That's not an easy transition for a guy who has spent his career out wide.
The rewards could be pretty great though, especially if the EJ we saw finish the season - from the time of Espindola's MCL sprain, EJ finished tied with Luis Silva for the team lead in goals across all competitions - pushes his way into a starting role. Inkoom is by some distance the best crosser on the team, and adding that wrinkle to the current United attack would be awfully nice.
Thought experiments late at night aside, it's now time for the big question: