Minnesota United veteran defender Michael Boxall played 90 more minutes this season in Sunday’s scoreless draw with Real Salt Lake on a defensive back line with two teammates groomed in France’s second division beside him.
On one side was right back Romain Metanire, an All Star last year in his first MLS season who continues to change games with his energetic runs down the right wing.
On the other was fellow center back Bakaye Dibassy, who was signed last month and has started three of four games he has played so far. He has done so despite missing a game because of injury and getting a facial cut in a collision with teammate Jan Gregus.
“I think I’m going to have to take French lessons soon,” Boxall said.
Boxall played beside Jose Aja at center back throughout the midsummer “MLS is Back” tournament until Dibassy was signed and arrived in August after the Loons pursued him for months.
Aja started Wednesday’s game at Columbus Crew SC after Dibassy was injured in the first half of last Saturday’s game at Houston. Dibassy returned to the starting 11 on Sunday after Aja was suspended that night for yellow-card accumulations.
Boxall was asked about the differences playing with Aja or Dibassy, other than language differences in a back line where two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara hasn’t played since the season’s restart in July.
“The language barrier is not an issue,” Boxall said. “I actually think he [Dibassy] speaks better English than Romain does.”
Dibassy, 31, has played across Europe with five different French teams since 2010 and is a member of the Mali national team. He was part of a back line Wednesday with Chase Gasper on his left side that teamed with holding midfielders Gregus, Hassani Dotson and Jacori Hayes in a 4-3-3 formation that’s different from the team’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation.
“It’s good that we have some flexibility,” Hayes said. “We keep trying different formations and have different tools in our pocket. Come playoff time, we can bust something out, and we can be a versatile team. We just keep working on both formations so toward the end of the season nobody knows what we’re doing.”
Their reconfigured starting 11 with defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso and attacker Kevin Molino still sidelined allowed very few scoring chances Sunday on a night when the Loons couldn’t manage to score a goal themselves despite what coach Adrian Heath called “golden” chances after halftime.
“Chase and Romain have been so reliable and solid,” said Boxall, the only Loon who has played every minute this season.. “And then Dibassy is still getting comfortable, but he looks so comfortable there [at left center back]. We’re just getting used to the combination. Even though Chase is young, we’re all pretty experienced and we managed to control pretty much all of Salt Lake’s threats.”
Boxall acknowledges “a bit” of a difference playing with Dibassy, particularly when the Loons play out of their back line in a starting 11 that also has added newcomers Emanuel Reynoso and Kei Kamara as well.
“I do feel a bit more comfortable on that right side, although I do get used to playing on the left,” Boxall said. “I think it just gives us a few more options playing forward that we can play past the midfield when we are getting pressed and bounce it off Kei or find Reynoso in those holes…
“It’s always difficult when you’re switching up the combinations between injury and availability. We just haven’t gotten things clicking quite how we’d like them to.”