Call him “Romaine,” like the lettuce, or “Ro-mahn,” as some of his teammates do. By whatever pronunciation you choose for someone whose name is “RO-mah,” Minnesota United defender Romaine Metanire has emerged as his new team’s biggest revelation.
For a team seeking to break through after two losing seasons, the 29-year-old is the most viable All-Star candidate during an inaugural season at Allianz Field that is aimed squarely at the playoffs.
Metanire was acquired last winter from France’s top league through some old-fashioned scouting legwork and circumstance. Since then he has provided the Loons with an unexpected combination of strength and speed, endurance and skill, someone who both defends and attacks with precise crossing passes from the unlikely position of right back.
The most unknown of five new United starters obtained before this season, Metanire impressed his new teammates from their first training session together in January. By the time he played his first MLS game in March, one teammate spoke about him in tongues.
“Machina,” said United defender Ike Opara, appropriating part of a theatrical term that’s both Latin and ancient Greek. “He’s ‘The Machine.’ ”
Here in June, The Machine has found a new life, in a new country, in a new language with his wife, Aude, and two young children, including new baby Isayah, just 2 weeks old.
“It’s a lot of changes at once,” Metanire said in his native French through an interpreter. “You adjust and adapt quickly.”
He understands English and can carry on conversations with teammates. But in a 20-minute interview through an interpreter, the only two words he spoke were uttered after he was asked how his English is.
“Not bad,” he said.
The son of a French railroad worker and homemaker with roots in islands off the African coast, Metanire found common ground last winter with United executives. After 12 years played mostly in France’s second division, he sought a new team and new challenge. They sought a defender who would upgrade the team’s right side.
“I like my life here,” Metanire said. “My family is here. My wife really likes it here as well. It’s beautiful. It’s very different, but it’s interesting. I like it so far.”
Seeking the same thing
A year ago Metanire helped his Stade Reims team win promotion from France’s second division to its first. Then he discovered himself looking to play elsewhere when the team signed a Belgian at his position.
United wanted to upgrade at several positions, including right back, as it headed into its third MLS season.
“He was searching for something bigger and better,” United player personnel director Amos Magee said, “and we sold him on the ambition of our club and the potential here to be bigger and better.”
Magee, United Sporting Director Manny Lagos and coach Adrian Heath all made multiple trips to France during their worldwide travels in recent years. They went searching to build a network of contacts, scouts and agents who will help identify players they can afford in a competitive world market, players who could make them winners in an American league that improves yearly.
Magee traveled to France to scout other players but found encouraging notes he’d taken about a strong, physical defender after another agent mentioned Metanire might be available at a reasonable price. Additional scouting trips and conversations revealed a right back who had played forward all his amateur years and was intrigued by American life, particularly after he visited his best friend in New York City.
United, Metanire and his French team negotiated a deal that will pay Reims if United sells Metanire to another team. The deal, with options, could keep Metanire in Minnesota through 2021.
“It’s very hard to get deals across the line because teams are trying to compete just like us,” Lagos said. “It takes a lot of work and it takes some luck.”
Lagos and Magee knew they were getting a veteran willing to adapt to a new life. They had little idea Metanire was as gifted offensively as he is tough defensively. He’s able to advance the ball on deep runs down the right side into opposing territory and deliver penetrating, accurate crossing passes toward the goal.
He has done so this season to the tune of five assists — most among MLS defenders — and a goal scored in a league he calls more open yet more physical and less tactical than France’s Ligue 1.
“He serves a great ball,” teammate Ethan Finlay said. “It’s really difficult to defend. Guys almost get caught standing still because of the movement and pace at which he hits it.”
On the run
Other United and MLS players might cover more ground in a game. But few run longer distances at faster speeds than Metanire, who plays forward in bursts and gets back and defends with equal speed.
“Very rarely does anybody run farther distances at a higher speed,” United strength and conditioning director Josh McAllister said. “He’s quite incredible.”
Late in the Loons’ 1-0 victory over Houston on May 25, Metanire made a 50-yard run with the ball, passing four defenders before he took precious time off the referee’s watch by shielding the ball every which way from one last Dynamo defender in the field’s corner.
Metanire did so on a Saturday, it should be noted.
“He’s always tired during the week,” United goalkeeper Vito Mannone said with a grin. “You guys are watching him on a Saturday and he looks like a million dollars. During the week, he can’t walk.”
But on game day? Heath notes Metanire’s intense running, two-way play and seamless adjustment to Minnesota and MLS.
“You’re never sure,” Heath said. “I’ve scouted people 10 times and it’s still not right when they get here. You still don’t know how people are going to settle in a new culture, new continent, different language. If there’s a better right back in MLS, I haven’t seen him. It has been perfect so far.”
Metanire attributes his performance to his nature and hard work.
“I’m gifted my body has nice endurance, but I also really like it,” Metanire said. “Like to work on it. I like to work out. The physical part of the game, I really like it.”
He played all of his amateur years as a forward until his team’s right back was injured one day. From that day forward, he was no longer a forward. Not long after, he signed his first pro contract as a defender.
“That’s where I started to make a difference,” Metanire said.
Better than advertised
Minnesota United has allowed one goal in its past five home games — three victories and two draws — and won two of those with a crossing pass off Metanire’s foot. Striker Angelo Rodriguez ticked one ball coming through to defeat D.C. United in April. Another that beat Houston deflected off both an opponent and the back post.
“I knew he was exactly what our team was looking for,” Magee said. “I certainly didn’t think he’d be as dominant as he has been, in my opinion. I’ve seen some pretty good performances in that position over a lot of years in the league. He’s at the top by a decent chunk.”
United veteran midfielder Ozzie Alonso knows about best in MLS and said he recognized that kind of ability in the first training session this season.
“How he plays, how he runs,’’ said Alonso, acquired from Seattle. “I say, ‘This guy is a machine.’ He has everything to be the best right back in this league.”
United now knows what it’s like to play without him. Metanire missed the game at Atlanta on Wednesday — a 3-0 loss — because he accumulated too many yellow cards. He will miss at least the next two games after Sunday’s home game against Philadelphia so he can play for Madagascar’s national team in the Africa Cup of Nations (his grandmother is Malagasy).
United officials knew he could miss as much as a month this summer because of his national-team commitments but wanted him anyway.
“We jumped at it and he jumped it,” Magee said. “It shows a leap of faith for both of us, but probably more for him than us because we felt pretty good about what we were getting.”