Christian Ramirez squares up for the first goal in the club's MLS history. Image credit to Will Bramlett, special to FiftyFive.One.

The Angle

Rewind That: Checking the Tape of Minnesota United’s Loss in Portland

by on 7 March 2017

Minnesota United was taken to task by Portland in its MLS debut, falling 5-1. But was the scoreline more damning than the Loons’ play? In a new series, Jeff Rueter checks the footage to analyze the match.

Consider this a case study in watching a match twice before tweeting overarching opinions.

After Minnesota was done, dusted, and done again, I mentioned that the center back pairing of Francisco Calvo and Vadim Demidov looked solid. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m going to give myself (minorly) partial credit here. My knee-jerk reaction was that, for the first 80 minutes, the two had kept a potentially lethal Portland attack to only two goals. Among my other thoughts: Christian Ramirez looked to be an MLS striker; Rasmus Schüller was solid; and Minnesota United was, now and forever, an MLS club.

FourFourTwo’s Paul Tenorio had this to say about my list:

As for MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle…

You have to admit: we all missed watching live domestic soccer.

This is the start of a new weekly series called Rewind That. I’ll be rewatching the full 90 of every match the Loons play this year, looking at key moments throughout each fixture. Some will be obvious talking points, such as goals or penalty kick calls. Others may have dropped off the radar, like a thwarted attacking chance or subtle defensive play. Keep in mind that there’s no audio on these videos, so feel free to continue to listen to your neighbor’s mixtape. Let’s check the video to see what went right (and what went horribly wrong) for Minnesota in its MLS debut.

Pura vida in the backline

Calvo — the first major signing of the offseason for Minnesota — lined up as the left center back. Tasked with neutralizing David Guzman and Diego Valeri, Calvo was able to clean up several errors made within the Loons’ backline. None of the goals scored by Portland came on Calvo’s marks. Further, a uniquely encouraging moment came in the 10th minute.

Above, Calvo is able to square up Timbers Designated Player Sebastián Blanco and dispossess him with a clean tackle. Instead of making a quick pass to Schüller or Johan Venegas, Calvo looks up. He pushes toward the midfield and offers a long cross to Kevin Molino on the right wing. Molino guides the ball off of the Target logo on his chest and is able to create his own shot. While the play was fruitless, it was the first shot on goal in the MLS era for the Loons. It also showcased Calvo’s ability to help in the attack, as the Tico had scored nine goals with Saprissa in 2016. This versatility will be important to helping Minnesota’s attack stay potent.

Iron skillets wanted

Soon after, however, Minnesota was faced with a real challenge. Portland earned a set piece just outside the edge of its 18-yard box. While the foul leading to the free kick was questionable (from my angle, the call should’ve been on Portland), Minnesota needed to regroup and mark an athletic Timbers contingent. Demidov was left to mark Fanendo Adi, while Jermaine Taylor was tasked with Lawrence Olum.

The result wasn’t pretty, though Demidov held Adi close enough where the forward couldn’t get the ball. However, Olum was given enough space that the ball found him and only needed to put a light touch on it. The shot caught John Alvbåge out of position and skipped over the keeper’s head. Marking on set pieces has to be precise. A player like Olum should never score with his feet in these kinds of situations.

Slide to the right

Looking back at the footage, all five goals were scored on the right side of the Loons’ defense. This includes Valeri’s penalty kick, where Demidov wrapped Adi with a bear hug, which prompted an easy penalty call. Legs tired as stoppage time rolled around and Demidov and Taylor were caught out of position on goals four and five.

On this goal, Darlington Nagbe is leading a four-on-three counter for the Timbers. Taylor is caught jogging back on defense, while Justin Davis is tracking back from an attacking run of his own. This leaves a trailing Mohammed Saeid, Calvo, and Demidov as the last line of defense. Once Saeid is left behind, Nagbe is able to get the ball to Adi. The Nigerian striker puts on a dribbling clinic and finds the back of the net.

As for goal five, stick with the whole clip. The 15 seconds before the attack are crucial to the goal itself.

Here, Taylor makes a tackle on Dairon Asprilla but can’t keep the ball in play. Instead of going back to protecting the right edge of Minnesota’s back line, he parks himself somewhere along the right wing. This leaves Saeid to attempt to pull wide and cover for him. Again, the ball gets past Taylor and leaves Saeid, Demidov, and Calvo alone with Adi. Already on an adrenaline high from his first goal, Adi leaves Demidov in his tracks, and is able to put a clinically-placed shot past Alvbåge.

Jérôme Thiesson is on his way from Switzerland but may not be ready to start come Sunday. This leaves Heath with a choice: keep Taylor in against a pacey Atlanta attack, or go with Kevin Venegas. While Venegas has more pace than Taylor, he saw very few minutes in the preseason. It’ll be a major decision to keep track of ahead of the weekend.

Davis’ debut

On the left side of the pitch, Davis was the lone NASL-era Loon to see the starting XI. Coming off of his third-straight NASL Best XI campaign, the spotlight was still cast on the left back. Many had questions about how MLS-ready he was. In my opinion, Davis turned in a solid-if-unspectacular performance, proving not to be a liability in total.

With Portland pressing for a second goal, Davis is unable to settle a Schüller pass, which results in a turnover. As Blanco hurries toward the Minnesota defense, Davis tracks back, turning in a truly impressive sliding tackle. He stops the ball completely, pushing it out to Calvo who then clears it off of Valeri’s manhood. The well-timed challenge kept the Timbers at bay for the moment.

However, Davis nearly gifted Portland a goal exactly seven minutes later.

Davis attempts a clearance with his head, but the ball ultimately finds its way back to him deeper into Minnesota’s penalty area. Caught out of position, Davis attempts to head the ball back to Alvbåge. Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t get enough on it, putting a scoring chance on a platter for Adi. Strikers of Adi’s caliber rarely miss these types of chances, but Alvbåge comes up with an impressive reflex save to bail out Davis. Lapses like this will happen in any player’s first MLS season. However, Davis will need to minimize mistakes in high-risk areas to build on his debut.

Searching for Superman

Finally, we’ll be leaving the defense to look at the attack. With an abundance of choices, Heath started Johan Venegas up top and Bashkim Kadrii out left, leaving holdovers Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra on the bench. While Kadrii had his moments of creativity and seems to pair well with Davis on the wing, Venegas never looked settled playing alone up top. Here’s an attacking chance early in the second half before Ramirez subbed on.

The interplay between Venegas and Molino is noticeable, showing real creativity and quick decision making from both players. There is only one problem: nobody looks comfortable staying at the top of the box to shoot. Venegas is a second-striker by trade, playing at his best when he can roam between the opposition’s defensive lines to create chances. The lack of the metaphorical tip of the Loons’ spear left the space at the top of their formation vacant and made scoring goals difficult.

Ramirez subbed in at the 69-minute mark and immediately changed the game. Coming in for Schüller, Ramirez parked himself up top, with Venegas dropping back into his favored role. Immediately, the Loons looked more comfortable in the attacking third of the pitch.

Ramirez’s historic goal starts the same as the chance I highlighted above, with Taylor getting the ball to Johan Venegas in a central position. Venegas, now able to freely roam from midfield toward the Portland 18-yard box, delivers a clean pass through the Timbers’ ranks. Ramirez initially struggles to settle the ball, but the rest is history.

The aforementioned scoring chance wasn’t a one-off, either. After the Valeri PK, Minnesota was applying constant pressure.

Ibarra came in and provided some productive interplay with Saeid, Davis, and Johan Venegas. Above, Ibarra and Saeid combine to work the ball to Collen Warner inside Portland’s penalty area. Warner then sends a cross toward Ramirez and the far post. Warner’s cross carries just over the striker’s head, but the string of passes leading up to it was a real signal of intent, just before the bottom fell out from under the Loons.

Takeaways

So where does this leave Minnesota heading into its home opener on Sunday? Atlanta United is a pacy team and the Loons’ defense will have to keep their shape and try to catch Atlanta offside. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s attackers all seemed to play better once Ramirez took the field. It would be a shock if he doesn’t start on Sunday.

On the wing, Ibarra offers his own advantages as a true two-way player who could help keep Héctor Villalba at bay. Additionally, if Thiesson is ready to come in and play, the veteran right back could immediately help to solidify the Loons’ back four.

If it’s up to me, here’s how I’d line the Loons up on Sunday:

Any thoughts on the match that I missed? Disagree with anything I saw? Sound off in the comments below.


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