The role of the target man has taken center stage in the early part of the 2017 NASL season.
Three tall, strong players who fit the mold of a traditional hold-up striker happen to be leading the way in goals so far. The San Francisco Deltas’ Tommy Heinemann, Puerto Rico FC’s Pito Ramos, and Indy Eleven’s Justin Braun have all scored two goals through the first three games of the Spring Season.
Deltas coach Marc Dos Santos explained the role that a target forward plays in his club’s system, which has typically been a 4-4-3 setup, with Heinemann leading the line.
"I think it’s important for our forwards to show and always participate in the game,” Dos Santos said. “We need our forwards to understand this. You’re not in the team only to score. Yes, scoring and finishing the actions are crucial for the success of a No. 9, but you need to understand that you’re part of a collective effort and your role is more than that.”
With two goals in San Francisco’s 3-1 win over North Carolina, Heinemann’s work rate has always caused problems for opposing defenders. From chasing balls over the top to pressing defenders when they have the ball at their feet, Heinemann has excelled under Dos Santos – first at Ottawa and now at San Francisco.
“Tommy works hard for the team,” Dos Santos said. “When he can't score, he helps in the defensive process.”
In Puerto Rico, Ramos’ role has certainly expanded to more than just physical hold-up play or even the goals he has scored. The Puerto Rican international leads the NASL in chances created (10) and also has an assist to his name this year. Puerto Rico FC coach Adrian Whitbread believes Ramos is only scratching the surface for what he can accomplish in 2017 after scoring eight times in the Fall Season a year ago.
"Pito is an important part of our team and the culture that surrounds us.” Whitbread said. “He has had great performances this season, but, as every player, he can do better and keep improving. We have very high expectations for him, and, as important as he has been to our team, his teammates have been equally important to him helping him achieve this early success."
Braun has exhibited a mix of Heinemann’s relentless work ethic and Ramos’ ability to create chances. The Indy Eleven forward leads the league with two assists, but he has also been extremely efficient. His pair of assists have come from four chances created. The Utah native’s link-up play with teammate Eamon Zayed will also be crucial for the Boys in Blue moving forward, much like it was in 2016.
“Justin is an engine, he’s a motor,” said Indy coach Tim Hankinson. “He runs non-stop and he’s one of the most difficult players in the league to play against. This year, he has found a greater composure in front of goal as he did with [Eamon] Zayed’s goal at Puerto Rico or to tally himself. He’s got an exciting season ahead of him.”
While the game continues to evolve, some traditions remain the same, and the role of the target man is still thriving in the NASL.