Needless to say, the starship #PANIC is now cruising at ludicrous speed.
But #PANIC is only useful when it breeds action. As a form of therapy, it’s barely an improvement over hitting oneself with an iron skillet. Minnesota’s start to life in MLS has been extremely bad, but that doesn’t necessarily merit an extreme response. So while the usual bromides might not satisfy, that doesn’t mean they’re not true. Let’s consider them all the same.
To start, Minnesota has played roughly 6 percent of its entire season. There are 32 matches left to be played, and an entire U.S. Open Cup (2013 D.C. United, the worst team in MLS history, actually won the Open Cup that year). There is a lot of time left to fix things and an entire transfer window to bring in reinforcements. Given all of this, it is unquestionably too early to say anything definitive about how this year will be viewed in terms of results, except that the start was truly terrible.
But the 2016 Seattle Sounders started with three consecutive losses, and ended up winning MLS Cup. And Houston kicked off 2016 with a 3-3 draw and a 5-0 win over FC Dallas. The Dynamo ended the year with the second lowest goals scored in the league, and finished 26 points behind their in-state rivals. These two examples from the last season alone show that major turnarounds (for good and ill) can be accomplished, and that season-starting form can be illusory. The Loons are tied on points with LA. The Galaxy played closer games, but they’ve still lost them, and ultimately it’s the results which are the most significant thing. On that count, there hasn’t been time enough for Minnesota to meaningfully fall behind.
MLS is a very even and unpredictable league. Even an NASL or USL team, forced to play in MLS, would likely win a few matches. The good news is that Minnesota United is better than that hypothetical team, and any honest assessment of the 2017 Minnesota roster compared with the 2016 Minnesota roster would conclude this. The Loons have captured all the wrong kind of headlines by losing by four and five goals, but these results are on the fringes of normal soccer scores, and the same distribution will assert itself over the course of the season, if only by randomness.
In two games, United have played teams who finished almost faultlessly, and who would seem to have highly potent attacks. Not all MLS teams are similarly constructed. Not all MLS teams will be able to so easily exploit the Loons’ weaknesses. It hardly needs to be said in this case that the stats do not tell the whole story, but they still say something interesting.
In Sunday’s match, the Loons outperformed Atlanta in a key metric, expected goals. That doesn’t tell us that Minnesota were the better team, because obviously they were not, but it definitely suggests that losing 1-5 and 1-6 is not a sustainable pattern.
There’s fleetingly little doubt that the same Minnesota defense that has been twice decimated would continue to struggle if sent out every weekend. The good news is that there is the possibility and imperative to make changes. One improvement will happen organically, as right back Jérôme Thiesson practices with the club and gets to know his teammates. Essentially playing pick-up soccer on Sunday, Thiesson struggled out of the gate, but eventually found his legs and ended up looking quite solid.
Other changes could come in the form of personnel shifts. Brent Kallman and Joe Greenspan had their moments in preseason. The former looked especially good, while the latter has some experience in the league. We may see one of those men in place of the beleaguered Vadim Demidov on Saturday in Colorado. That may improve the situation.
Changes could also come at left back, whether that means the reinstatement of Justin Davis or moving Francisco Calvo out to that position. Suffice to say that there are options. Despite the fact that the back line has been bungled so far, it’s evident to every observer with a pulse that it needs to be improved, and it seems safe to say that the club will be working on doing so for the majority of this week.
The Loons have made no secret about looking long term. In statements from just about every member of the front office and technical staff, it’s been said that the club is not fixated on winning immediately. Rather, it is concentrated on the future, especially 2019 when the new stadium will presumably open and the team will have two years of play under its belt.
You can think that this is absolutely idiotic — and goodness knows there are valid reasons for doing so — but if so, criticize the plan on its own merits. In the meantime, keep in mind that early hiccups do not necessarily have anything to do with where the club will be in a year or two. The nature of the team’s opening losses was obviously much more ugly than nearly anyone anticipated, but the fact that the team have begun with two defeats is not, in and of itself, a surprising occurrence. So while it’s absolutely essential, in my view, to keep the heat on the club for this dreadful first impression, don’t let it cloud your view of where the club is headed.
It’s been frustrating to read a lot of concern trolling on the web about how the team wasn’t ready for this league and this challenge. That may well be the case, but it misses a bigger point. Take, for example, Minnesota’s next opponents, the Colorado Rapids, who will likely finish above the team in the table. Loons fans would be insane to accept a swap of circumstances with a fan of that club. Minnesota’s long term outlook, given its stadium, branding, and grassroots infrastructure, is stronger than that of many teams in the league, including some teams that are pretty good right now. So keep some perspective.
We live in a time of extremities, where the middle ground seems increasingly hard to find on a number of issues. But it still exists in the vast majority of situations in life, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact. The Loons may well end up being historically bad, but they also may not. All we can say for sure is what has already happened has been poor, and any projections for the future are only as responsible as the conservativeness of their assumptions.