Three Things: Minnesota United at Colorado Rapids

by on 21 March 2017

On Saturday night, in the thin air of Commerce City, Colo., Minnesota United FC recorded its first MLS point with a 2-2 draw against the hosting Rapids. It’s a bit embarrassing to celebrate such an ordinary draw, but given the circumstances, you’ll have to pardon the Loon Army. After back-to-back drubbings against Portland and Atlanta to open the season, it was refreshing to see a team go out and show basic competence. In a vacuum, a road draw against last season’s No. 2 team is a fine result. Given the circumstances, it feels like a sweet release.

None of this means that the performance over the weekend was up to the standard to which the team should be held to. On the balance of play, the Loons had a fair case for three points, not just one. But once again, individual mistakes were brutally punished by the opposition. A deadlier team than Colorado can (and has, and will) do worse damage. In attack, United made good use of its own opportunities, but it was badly out-possessed throughout the game, and still has a long way to go.

Let’s take a look at three things from the match:

Francisco Calvo was the Loons’ best and worst defender

While his partner Brent Kallman got the headlines and the praise for a composed performance in his first MLS start, the result of the game came down to the play of Francisco Calvo.

First the bad. Calvo was among the primary culprits on Colorado’s opening goal. While he was put in an awkward position by Rasmus Schüller’s bouncing back pass, he made a hash of his response, attempting to kick the ball out instead of running through it. Dominique Badji made the opposite choice, stole the ball, and put it into the net for a gut punch of a goal. Calvo also bears responsibility for the second Rapids score. While both Kallman and Justin Davis also failed to recognize the three opposing players lurking at the back post, it was in Calvo’s area of the field in which they sat.

But despite his mistakes, it was easy to see why Calvo may have the highest upside of any Loon. Here’s his OPTA chalkboard showing just clearances:

That’s at least eight clearances in the box. Calvo is a force in the air and has quick feet on the ground. Cut out the simple mistakes, and you have an MLS Defender of the Year candidate. More than any other player, I’m worried the Loons will miss the Costa Rican against New England.

Rasmus Schüller still doesn’t have a home in the 4-2-2-2

When we first saw the Loons roll out in a 4-2-2-2, back in the season opener at Portland, I wrote:

“If there was a flaw to the formation, I felt it came from Schüller, who didn’t look comfortable in his role and wasn’t the standout player that he was a week earlier against Vancouver.”

Frustratingly, this still seems to be the case. In Colorado, Schüller played on the left side and Collen Warner on the right in a double-6 midfield. They moved laterally well, and effectively shielded the center backs, but it still feels as if the gifts of the Finn are being wasted. Keeping in mind that he only played a half, here’s Schüller’s passing chalkboard:

There’s only a single pass in this board that looks to have penetrated a line of Colorado’s defense.

We know that Schüller was deployed as a central midfielder in Sweden and that he has real two-way ability. In our 4-2-2-2, there’s a natural hole that exists right in front of the defensive midfield and the second striker. I’d love to see Warner pegged back as a stay-at-home parent for the back line, with Schüller given the license to roam into that space and help connect passes or switch the point of attack. Instead, being consigned to a single side of the field and splitting the defensive duties seems to be stifling the opportunities for one of Minnesota’s most technically sound players to show his ability.

The leash is also on Miguel Ibarra

In preseason, one of the most exciting things to see was the interplay between Kevin Molino, Miguel Ibarra, and Johan Venegas. Each has the ability to play the other’s position, and it was exciting to imagine an attack where they could swap spots at will and confuse and overload opposing defenses. On Saturday, we saw two thirds of that. Check out the passing chalkboards of Ibarra (left), Venegas (center), and Molino (right):

While Molino and Venegas rambled all over the field, Ibarra stuck almost exclusively on the left wing. You can imagine a tactical reason for this — right back Mekeil Williams was the obvious weak link in the Rapids’ defense. And perhaps Miguel was simply playing too conservatively, as he sometimes has done when a lot of pressure is put on him. But I suspect a more likely reason is that Adrian Heath has simply put the leash on Ibarra. That seems like a mistake to me; as longtime Loons fans know, Batman is best when allowed to dart in and out of channels across the front line. With Venegas and Molino swapping positions, it’s limiting and unhelpful for Ibarra to operate under different tactical instructions. This kind of attack will be best when its individually brilliant components can work together to identify and exploit mismatches and overloads. Gluing one member of that unit to the left really limits its options.

I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting Ibarra was invisible on Saturday. From the passing charts above, you can see that’s clearly not true. But you can also see how short his passes were (contrast that to Venegas and Molino) and how little they threatened Colorado’s penalty area. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially the short passing, which isn’t quite so common in MLS, but it does illustrate the extent to which he seemed left out of a larger gameplan.

Thoughts on the match and the trends you saw? Share your take in the comments below!

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  • MmattN

    I love these kind of articles, reveals stuff I never considered or saw in the game as I was watching it. For example my negative assessment of Schuller and not taking into consideration the tactics the team deployed and how that may have hurt him. Sorta feels like those magic eye pictures and I am Willam from Mallrats needing to be told what the hidden image is. Great stuff.

    I would love to see, if we could, just how much Ibarra was back in the defense providing extra support. To me it seemed like he cleared quite few balls out for corners.

    • David Sterling

      I would bet we’d see Ibarra was back far too much. I thought he was constantly back there bailing out the defense.

      • Dave DuJour

        After the red card he moved right back and Thiesson moved to left back. So he was supposed to be back there for at least the last 20 minutes.

        • David Sterling

          Something I noticed this weekend against NE was that again Ibarra was pushed way back. His first five passes were all on the right side, and in our half. At some point, he finally moved back over to the left side where his passes were finally coming in at around 20-30 yards from goal, but I thought it was interesting considering I had made this same observation the week earlier.

  • Nate

    I disagree about Calvo on the first goal. If he runs through that, he runs through Badji first, giving away a penalty and risking a red card. I’m not so sure about the second either. Crosses to the back post should almost always be the fullback’s responsibility.

    I completely agree on Shuller. Warner was given too much freedom to get forward, which left the team vulnerable to the counterattack because Shuller was also pushed up. Just give Shuller the freedom to roam and anchor Warner and that’s taken care of while also allowing Shuller to use his abilities in attack.

    • David Sterling

      I agree with you on Calvo as well. To place the 2nd goal on him is being a bit too focused on blaming one player. Sometimes goals are just bad defending of the entire group. All of them were shaded too far to the front post (I might add they seem to shade Left a lot), and Davis was left marking three guys.

  • Bruce J McGuire

    Being in the stands for the game also gave me the view to see Ibarra staying wide left to give extra protection for Justin Davis behind him. Ibarra was constantly tracking late runners down the left flank. I think he stayed at home due to orders from the coach.

    • Jacob

      That’s a good insight to get, and there’s a lot to like about that approach even if it comes at a cost in the attack. LB is one of our softer spots and Ibarra has the wheels to work both ends compared to Kadrii (or Saeid, FYI Heath). I would love to see a full throttle Ibarra/Molino/Venegas/Ramirez attack do its thing, but 3 out of 4 is still pretty solid and a small opportunity cost to pay for covering our soft underbelly.

    • MmattN

      Makes sense, seeing how Ibarra has had some history now playing in the left back position with the nats and Leon.

      • Bruce J McGuire

        I have never seen Ibarra play fullback for anyone until last Saturday night late in the game.

        • MmattN

          What! Dang I thought he played left back behind Brek Shea for the nats. Thank you for the correction.

          • Ethan

            He played left mid in front of Shea in that particular game, but Ibarra played so defensively that it was a bit hard to tell who was playing which position.

  • David Sterling

    I think what you have surmised is what I have been hearing from Orlando supporters, and witnessed myself watching Orlando under Heath; he has no vision for tactics which play to the player’s strengths. Schuller and Ibarra in this game; Saied and Demidov in Atlanta; Demidov and Schuller against Portland. He’s constantly playing our squad out of position or simply not allowing them to play instinctively. It’s not a good trait to have in a coach, and a huge reason he lost his job in Orlando

    • Jacob

      It’s certainly something to monitor but you gotta give some leeway for the team’s first few games in the league with a mostly new roster. In a few games most of the primary roles will be settled, and ones that aren’t will probably be earmarked for transfers as experiments that didn’t work, or holdover signings that were never going to be a good fit for the role they fill once the rest of the roster was in place. Demidov and Schuller strike me as the top two candidates in that category. But it’s still early.

      I do hope Demidov gets some minutes at the 6 in case there’s still a player there, and I hope Schuller gets a chance to do his thing too, so reports of this being an ongoing Heath issue concern me. Saeid at LM was a head scratcher too. But re: Ibarra, I suspect the leash had something to do with the pile of tires in a dumpster that were on fire behind him in the previous two games.

      Also, big credit to Heath for some good moves: starting Ramirez, giving Kallman and Ibson a chance, Ibarra for Kadrii, unleashing Thiesson. No team strategy is going to maximize every player so I’m not too concerned if some guys have to languish a bit in the first year or two.

      tldr: how Heath uses his players is certainly something to earmark going forward, but there are some big confounding variables so far that I think mitigate the blame.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      That’s further than I’m willing to go at this point. In any system, some players will fit better than others. But you can make little tweaks to a system to help certain players find their niche, and I think it may take some time for the Loons to do that with Schuller and Ibarra.

      And as Jacob and Bruce have pointed out in these comments, Ibarra’s positioning may have also had a defensive purpose. He is the best defender among our attacking players.

      • David Sterling

        I am simply making an observation and how it is inline with complaints of his management of Orlando. Generally speaking, one would want to put players in their strongest position initially, not come in and choose your model, and pray it works with the players you are given.

        I will credit Heath with the adjustments from the prior two weeks regarding Demidov at CB and Ibarra on the Left instead of Saied; but he still failed to show us why he needed to make the adjustments in the back by sitting Demidov altogether, as opposed to playing him at his strength.

        Based on his time at Orlando, I find it hard to believe Ibarra was for defensive coverage.

        • Alex Schieferdecker

          Demidov has played CB almost exclusively for years. That was considered to be his strength.

          I’ve heard similar complaints from Orlando fans, and they concern me too. That being said, I know there was a lot of other stuff going on in Orlando that tied his hands a bit. He was essentially forced into playing a 4-2-3-1, for example, because Kaka was more important to the club than he was.

          So I’m wary, and I’ve criticized Heath a ton over the first two games, which I think are mostly on him. But I’m willing to wait and see overall. He made the right and obvious changes. I’ll be interested to see if he can make additional, less obvious moves (which I don’t pretend to have solutions for).

          • David Sterling

            Demidov’s strength is CDM, something that has been discussed on this very publication.

          • Alex Schieferdecker

            Having not seen him play that position, I can’t say that for sure. I do know that it’s been a while since he played there. I also know Kristan Heneage, who quoted in our article on Demidov’s signing, thinks that he should be a CDM in MLS. So I’m with you, I’d like to see him play there. But I don’t think it was wrong necessarily to play him at CB.

            Now that we know what we know though, he definitely shouldn’t play CB again.

  • Vinyl Haircut

    I agree with you about Schuller. I felt this was his best performance, but still I was left feeling like he was mostly non-productive. That’s actually a step up in my evaluation of him from the last few games. Perhaps this is mostly due to how he’s being deployed, as you point out. Jury’s out.

    Alex, have you done any review/thinking/analysis about the effectiveness of Venegas underneath Ramirez. I expected a lot more from him. I’ve watched the last game a couple of times, and I was really underwhelmed with him. FAR too many times our loss of possession stemmed from Venegas. I would really like to see more creativity from that position, and I’m wondering if Molino might be a better fit there, with license to roam and create?

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I think Venegas has been pretty good, actually. He seems to work off Ramirez well. I don’t think his game is necessarily to be “creative” in the sense that we mean threading beautiful passes through the defense. He needs to make runs and create space, and receive the ball from the LM (Ibarra), RM (Molino), and CM (Schuller/Ibson). Sometimes he may need to drop a bit, but I expect him to turn and run with the ball, not to try to pass it to Ramirez.

      All of that being said, if you want someone to be creative, you’ve got to expect them to lose possession a lot.

      • Vinyl Haircut

        Good points, and certainly it’s way too early for me to be making any definitive judgments. But as yet, I haven’t been too impressed with his play and am wondering if there might be better options for that critical role. I totally agree that a truly creative player will also lose possession at times. That’s fine, as long as we’re getting the good with the bad. Hopefully we’ll see more production as the season progresses.

        • Alex Schieferdecker

          I definitely think that we lack a true #10 type player, in the mold of a Juan Mata (or closer to home, a Valeri or Higuain). Venegas is not like either of those two players, he’s a second striker, not a #10. So I can compare his play to hypothetical second striker, but if what we want and need is a true #10, then we’ll have to look elsewhere.

          • Vinyl Haircut

            Totally agree. So there are two questions: 1) Do we want a real #10, or a second striker, and 2) if we do want a #10, who can play it? I personally think playing with a #10 is great to watch, provided that one can actually be found. Which bring me back to my original notion: could Molino play that role, since we seem to have plenty of players who can man the flanks? It’s all speculation for me at this point, of course, but the prospect does strike me as interesting.

          • Alex Schieferdecker

            I think the lack of a #10 is one of the least urgent issues for the team. We don’t seem to have a trouble scoring, and have lots of players who can play up top or in that second striker role (Venegas, Kadrii, Molino, Gatt, Danladi).

          • Vinyl Haircut

            Thanks for taking the time for the continued dialogue. I don’t mean to imply that it’s the most critical issue, or that we should look to acquire anyone else as a #10 right away. I do think that we should expect more from the role of second striker or #10 than we’ve seen so far, regardless of who plays there, and I’d like to see some of the others you mentioned get a shot. Since Venegas is gone this weekend, it will be interesting to see who steps into the role and how well they do.

  • Isaac Giesen

    Would Ibarra be more effective as a left back that is given a long leash to make runs than a winger that isn’t really given free reign to be aggressive? Does he have the defensive chops to do that? For this week I’d be on board with pretty much any plan that keeps Taylor from a FB position.