Analysis / Guest Column

What can the Union expect from Stuart Findlay?

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union

James Nalton is the founding editor of World Football Index, as well as a regular contributor to the UK’s Morning Star newspaper, World Soccer magazine, and Forbes. He has had his eye on the Union after their trophy-winning campaign of 2020 and offered to provide PSP readers some depth on Stuart Findlay from his side of the pond.

The departure in January of Philadelphia Union’s standout centre-back and homegrown star Mark McKenzie left a hole on the left side of defense where the Delaware native had played much of his football for the club. It will most likely be filled on a regular basis by 25-year-old Scotsman Stuart Findlay, who arrived from Scottish Premiership side Kilmarnock for an undisclosed transfer fee ahead of the 2021 season.

What follows is a look at what the Union can expect from their new signing, the type of player he is, his quality relative to the rest of the league and where he will fit in the side.

Why the Union needed Stuart in the first place

McKenzie’s transfer to Belgian side Genk created a potential problem for the Union as other centre-backs on the roster, such as Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, have played primarily in the right centre-back slot. It’s a problem Findlay should solve.

Elliott came into McKenzie’s spot on the left side of the defense once last season, with Aurélien Collin an unused backup player in this role, and also came in for Glesnes on the right side to partner with McKenzie on several occasions. Elliott’s role as a backup player in either central defensive slot gave head coach Jim Curtin and sporting director Ernst Tanner the option of promoting him to the starting XI on a regular basis alongside Glesnes, or bringing in a new signing to replace McKenzie like-for-like.

Findlay’s arrival indicated that the club will look to go with the latter strategy, although there will still be some competition for places.

Seeing as Findlay is left-footed, it might make sense for him to come in on that side with Elliott (who, like Findlay, is also eligible to play for Scotland) and Glesnes battling it out for the starting position alongside him. Watching Findlay’s performances for Kilmarnock suggests he’s already at a good enough level to be a regular starter in MLS. 

He could also be a standout player in his position in the league should he hit the ground running and should the Union maintain the form which saw them win the Supporters’ Shield last year. Though that kind of success might be too much to ask right away, especially because of quickly McKenzie’s star rose, but on the face of it, Findlay seems a shrewd replacement signing.

Scottish players in MLS

In 2020, Lewis Morgan moved from the fringes of the Scottish Premiership to Inter Miami and become one of the best players at his new club, even outperforming the team’s designated players. Findlay, meanwhile, is a year older than Morgan, was a regular in the Scottish Premiership, and is moving to a more stable MLS environment and an established MLS club. Though he plays in a different position, the Union might hope for a similar impact and a similar story of a player arriving from Scotland and impressing more than was expected.

Findlay brings a number of attributes to the team and has already commented on what he sees as an attractive style of football that suits his strengths.

“Every football team would love to be able to play that way because it’s attractive to watch,” Findlay said on a recent media call. “It’s what fans want to see.

“To come here and know that I’m going to be playing that sort of football, it’s really exciting. You watch the top clubs in Europe do it now, and it’s exhilarating when you watch it on the field. One of my main attributes is pace and I think if I play in that way, pushing high up the park trying to press, hopefully I can use my pace to cover in behind. Sometimes when you look at squads of players you have to play to your strengths, and maybe I’ve not been lucky enough to be involved in a team that play that way.”

It appears Findlay is looking to the Union to help his development as much as he will hopefully aid the club’s.

Scouting report

The Scotsman is a decent and willing long passer from the back, but can also get involved in shorter buildup play. He’s good at hitting balls into channels to land favorably for his attacking teammates, and if there is no pass on, is more than willing to carry the ball out of defense.

As with many defenders who do this, he can sometimes run up a dead end, but if his team-mates move into space for him he will find one of them with a pass more often than not. Defensively, he’s a competent one versus one defender and at 6ft 2in is an aerial presence in both boxes.

His journey to this point was very much helped by a second spell at Kilmarnock which coincided with the arrival of Steve Clarke, who is now the head coach of the Scotland national team.

“Findlay first arrived at Killie in 2015/16 on loan from Celtic, but had a fairly disappointing time,” says Kilmarnock fan Craig Anderson. “He returned again on loan from Newcastle in 2017/18 and initially struggled under Lee McCulloch. However, the arrival of Steve Clarke marked a massive upturn in his fortunes, as it did for many of the other players in the squad. Findlay became the heart of the defense over the two seasons Clarke was in charge, building up a formidable partnership with Kirk Broadfoot.”

“He is a strong and mobile left-sided centre-back,” Anderson continued. “He’s fairly quick and also reads the game exceptionally well. He is fairly good in the air as a defender, but is also a strong aerial threat at attacking set-pieces as he showed in his only cap so far for Scotland and also when he scored the winning goal against Celtic.”

Editor’s note: there’s another left footed (now former) Union player who was known for a winner against Celtic too, if memory serves.

Owen J Brown of Scottish football outlet Pure Fitbaw also emphasizes Clarke’s role in Findlay’s career to date and in his development as a player.

“He always had reasonably good potential coming through at Celtic,” says Brown. “The move to Newcastle was a wee bit of a strange/risky one. He really (and I don’t mean this as a disservice to the player) lucked out to an extent by landing back at Kilmarnock in 2017 at the same time Steve Clarke arrived, signing permanently for them in 2018. If not for that he might have had a couple of wasted seasons of not playing or bad loan moves while at Newcastle.”

Brown went on.

“Clarke, as opposed to Kilmarnock’s managers since he left, was able to put in place consistency at the back in terms of system and selection and really helped develop Findlay.”

Consistency and system are key phrases for the Union too, and Findlay has big shoes to fill in order to keep meet the team’s level in both instances.

“Judging by his interviews he seems pretty personable,” adds Brown. “Cheeky and confident but well-liked and professional, so I would guess he should adjust to new culture/location and teammates with little issue.”

 

Summary

“He is a very popular player and seems like an incredibly nice guy, so I can imagine him going down very well with the fans in Philadelphia,” agrees Anderson, who thinks Findlay could be a standout player in his new league.  “Assuming he can adapt to the league I think he has the potential to be a very good player in MLS… [since he’s] a much better player than other Scottish defenders who have gone out there, [like] Danny Wilson.”

Reinforcing what has already been praised about Findlay, Brown adds: “He’s a pretty good penalty box defender especially in terms of blocking shots on the edge and winning headers within. He’s left-footed, which of course can be nice for a team in terms of fit and build-up play, and he is a fine passer. Maybe don’t expect too much progressive line-breaking, but also don’t expect him to mess up and put people in trouble with a poor pass along the backline.

“One of my question marks over him has been when he faces runners with the ball on the counter-attack — in terms of body shape, his speed and deciding when to challenge or when to just back off and slow things down — but I feel these instances of play are so infrequent that it’s tough to definitively say it’s a general flaw.”

Findlay’s own comments suggest this area of the game — defending in a high line and dealing with counter-attacks — is one he will enjoy, and he no doubt sees it as a challenge and a chance to improve himself as a player.

There is always a risk that a player won’t adapt to a new league, but all the signs suggest Findlay will be a good fit for the Union and they will be a good fit for him as he looks to add to his one Scotland cap.

One Comment

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    the center half… who can take space, and disorient the first two lines of a defense in doing so– unmarking teammates…. they are the Gatekeepers of the Modern Unfolding of Footy— because essentially, its a big F’You to the other team’s tactics when out of possession.
    .
    it is ever present on the mind in the development …of my player specifically.
    .
    Archetype.

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