The author (left) contemplating poor life choices. Photo Credit: @cutlinejoe

The Angle

Three Things: Minnesota United at New England Revolution

by on 28 March 2017

Alternate Headline: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Minnesota United FC has earned all the wrong superlatives after yet another shellacking, its third in four games, this time at the hands of lowly New England. The Loons’ attack remains respectable, but it’s the defense where things have repeatedly fallen apart.

It’s pointless to rehash the abject horror we all witnessed on Saturday afternoon, except to add that I had the privilege this week of seeing it in person. TV plays funny tricks on the viewer. Distances look longer and the play seems faster. In live action, every opposing attack looks closer to your own goal and every cut or pass seems to move slower. None of these tweaks of perspective flattered the visitors on that cloudy afternoon.

The Loons who line up against Real Salt Lake next week will be a much different side than those who played this past weekend. If the team deploys the same tactics and personnel that it did in Colorado, it has a good chance to get a result. But in the long term, a few things have become abundantly clear. Here are three of them:

Vadim Demidov is not up to the job

First, there’s no easy way to say this, so let’s say it simply and straight: Vadim Demidov is a liability in every respect. In the three games he played, Minnesota conceded 16 goals. Demidov has himself given up two penalty kicks, but that doesn’t even tell the whole story. Look at these maps of goals scored against the Loons:

From left to right, Portland, Atlanta, New England

All but four of these goals were scored from left of the penalty spot (i.e., on the right side of the defense) and those that weren’t were scored pretty close to center. All but one of those goals was scored from inside the box. Not all of these goals are Demidov’s fault, but the pattern is unmistakable. Other teams have scored repeatedly from the exact same ground a right center back must occupy. On Saturday, New England knew this and the Revolution attackers targeted the space between Kevin Venegas and Demidov on every single attack.

It is true that Demidov has often been let down by his fullback pairing. He has played with an out-of-position Jermaine Taylor, a just-off-the-plane Jérôme Thiesson, and Kevin Venegas, whose defense has never been his strongest attribute (and having Bashkim Kadrii ahead of both was suicide, that’s obvious now). All the same, Demidov’s poor positioning, slow feet, and aerial weakness have been exposed repeatedly. It can’t continue. When healthy, Brent Kallman and Francisco Calvo must start as center backs. When healthy, Joe Greenspan must be the backup. If two of those three are again unavailable, United must play the 5-3-2 that they reverted to in the second half against the Revolution and pray that the improvement seen in the second half was due to tactics and not just the hosts taking their foot off the gas. And, above all, the team must sign an additional reserve-quality-or-better center back as soon as possible. Kevin Ellis of Sporting Kansas City is a good example of the type of player the Loons could target.

I really am bummed to be writing this. Of all the players the Loons brought in from abroad, I figured Demidov was the least likely to go bust. With his experience in top leagues in Europe and a recent run of success in Norway, I was genuinely excited about the prospective Demidov-Calvo pairing. No doubt the front office thought the same. Demidov was recruited to be an anchor and a veteran presence. I’m sure the team has him signed for multiple years, but sunk costs are sunk. The Loons must either find out if Demidov can play in a new position (perhaps as an ultra-conservative defensive midfielder, though there’s no evidence he’d be better in that role), try to ship him out (unlikely), or see if he’s interested in making a transition to being a player-coach. By all accounts, he is a nice person, a hard worker, and a good leader. Those are attributes that could still be useful to the Loons, but on the field his welcome is worn out.

The defensive failings are really team-wide

While Demidov has been the easy target, one key reason why he has repeatedly been forced into bad decisions has been the inept defensive midfield play in front of him. In particular, Collen Warner, whom we profiled this past week and who also scored for Minnesota, had a horrible game. He lost his man on the opening goal (perhaps trying to cover for Demidov, who briefly seemed to have lost his man) and was a made a fool of by Diego Fagúndez to concede the Loons’ second penalty (though the foul very obviously occurred outside the box). As bad as those two errors were, there’s nothing that will frustrate fans more than an obvious lack of effort. Warner’s nonchalant attitude towards an early Revs breakaway and a driving runner into the box later is simply not acceptable.

Demidov and Warner are two of the three players who have started in each of the Loons’ blowout losses. Mohammed Saeid is the other. In the last game, Saeid’s errors were less egregious, but still costly. He lost a runner on the Revs’ second and was, in hindsight, too late to step up to Juan Agudelo on the Revs’ fourth. Primary blame here belongs to Kevin Venegas, Bobby Shuttleworth, and Jérôme Thiesson, but there’s hardly a single Loon who comes out looking good on this play.

Individual mistakes aside, it was the performance of Warner, Saeid, and Ibson as a unit that was so brutally ineffective on Saturday (Kadrii was also not helpful). The Revs passed between the lines with absurd ease and repeatedly broke in behind the Loons’ midfield to run at MNUFC’s center backs. This has been a theme all season: the Loons’ defense has repeatedly been backpedaling as opposing attackers run at them. The pressure on the ball (e.g., SaeidKadrii) — a key way to prevent these types of penetrating passes — was non-existent. Now, instead of pressure, teams can opt for compactness in the center of the box, but that was also missing. To make matters worse, that same midfield struggled mightily to hold onto the ball against a high pressing Revolution team and to distribute it to attacking players. These dual failings compounded themselves as the Loons’ midfield and defense came under pressure more often and wilted quickly when under that pressure. A similar story can be told for most of Minnesota’s matches.

What’s the issue here? It’s hard to say. The midfield is compiled mostly of MLS veterans, not untested imports. The problems were the same with Rasmus Schüller or Ibson as the midfield’s third wheel, but it’s been consistent whenever the Loons have played in the 4-3-3.

This suggests to me that the problem here is more likely tactical than anything else and the immediate band-aid should be to rigidly define midfield roles. Here’s the first half passing chart of those three midfielders:

Don’t worry too much about squinting to decode this one, my takeaway is that Warner, Saeid, and Ibson are all over the field, trading off positions. That’s too complicated for the Loons right now and I suspect slowness to respond to these movements is one of the primary causes for the gaps we’re seeing.

Instead, United needs to keep it simple. Anchor Warner in the center, in front of the two center backs. Let Rasmus Schüller (or Ibson, or Saeid, or Collin Martin — who impressed in his debut, though being 2-5 down may have helped) play in front of Warner. Instead of having Warner and Schüller split horizontally as they’ve done in the past (i.e., one on the left and the other on the right), or have all three midfielders swap as was the case on Saturday, have the midfielders split the field vertically and allow them to move side to side.

I see three benefits from this approach. The first is that with simpler roles, there’s less of a chance of players being caught out of position and more clarity as to who should press the ball and who should move to block passing lanes. The second is that by allowing the midfielders to move laterally, you’ll allow both to assist at the same time in keeping possession along the wings. The third is that by aligning vertically, the pathway to move the ball up the field (as opposed to side-to-side) is clearer.

The key man in this operation remains Warner. Here’s what it looks like when Warner has a defined role (left, vs. Seattle last year, a 0-0 draw against Nicolás Lodeiro and company) and when his role is more amorphous (vs. New England):

In the Seattle game, you can see Warner’s role has been simplified. He has a very specific area where he’s receiving and playing the ball. He’s making simple side-to-side passes and assisting with keeping the ball along the right flank. Only one pass goes astray. Against New England, his brief is much wider, his passes are longer, and his passing percentage involves a few failed long balls and two crucial giveaways right in the middle of the park.

Scouting and recruitment need to improve

One of the biggest disadvantages of any expansion side is the lack of scouting and recruitment infrastructure. Atlanta United purchased the services of a coach whose name sells itself and whose intimate familiarity with one of the most successful leagues for MLS recruitment has proven extremely valuable. Minnesota hired Adrian Heath and Amos Magee, whose knowledge of MLS players may ultimately prove more helpful than it seems right now, as players like Joe Greenspan and Martin move up the depth chart.

But the team’s weakness in this arena has been exposed by the poor performance of the Scandinavian players identified by Manny Lagos’ fall trip. John Alvbåge conceded 10 goals before being injured. Demidov has fallen calamitously short of expectations. Josh Gatt has yet to see the field. Schüller hasn’t yet seemed comfortable. Kadrii has an attacking spark, but defensive faults. The struggles of these players, collectively, tell much of the story of Minnesota’s poor season start.

What to make, then, of the trip that Lagos and Heath took to Argentina, that has yet to result in a signing? This summer will be a critical time, with the team in the market for starters at several crucial positions. If there’s a name from Argentina, let them come forward. Here’s my shopping list:

The team is already likely saddled with several contracts they already regret (Demidov is a sure bet) and can’t afford to make more mistakes. Orlando City, who struggled to shed several deadbeat players this offseason, has spent two years in MLS hampered by poor contracts and roster management. But there’s no other option for Minnesota but to find reinforcements. Whatever mistakes were made with scouting and recruitment this past fall will need to be fixed on the fly.

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  • Clark Starr

    Good stuff… my cursory impressions align to your second point. While the defenders are sucking, the defense issues are team wide. What in the world was the plan for the Revs wide players? I did, have a small epiphany this morning: so what if we’re historically bad? I knew we’d be bad, might as well be historic (with the condition that we see progress).

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      Let’s not be historically bad.

    • Jacob

      Let’s just settle for a historically bad start followed by an impressive turnaround. It would be a better fit for our unassuming Minnesotan sensibilities.

    • Peter S.

      Obviously it’s pretty early to draw sweeping conclusions, but I wonder how much of our struggles have to do with Heath not being very good at coaching defense?

      • Ken Backhus

        I’ve also been wondering about that. We hear so much that Heath is an attack minded coach, so who on the staff is the defensive expert/teacher?

      • Paul J. Hinton

        That is what I am worried about the most.

      • Clark Starr

        I don’t know. The mistakes in the back look very fundamental to my eyes. Perhaps they’re compounded by lack of clarity around responsibility/system (which would fall at Heath’s feet). Frankly, if we had the best coach in the world, I’m not sure this team would have that many more points. Probably the blow-outs would not have happened… but end results maybe the same?

  • Jacob

    I’m with you on being really disappointed about Demidov. I expected him to at least have good positioning, make minimal mistakes, and be the emotional leader of an overachieving team. That was a high bar to set I guess, and it makes the letdown all the greater. But the dude spent the last 2 seasons captaining a team to promotion and then 2nd place, you know? The story that writes itself did not play out and that’s a bummer.

    But I can’t get too bogged down by our defense right now, even if it’s historically bad, for a few reasons:

    –Our current best four have only played 1 game together, and they did okay (against a softer attack, but still). They will improve with more reps, too.

    –Our current best four is going to get upgraded (stares uncomfortably long at Manny)–and probably the midfield too. And then we will have depth, and the scapegoats (Demidov and Taylor) need never see the field again.

    –New England was a schedule loss. Give us the other half of our starting lineup and this conversation would be very different right now. The team has issues beyond “Demidov and Taylor are terrible” of course, but not in a “the wheels have fallen off the bus and everything is on fire” way–more in a “two of the wheels on the bus are a smaller than the others, and Demidov and Taylor are terrible” way.

    –We are 5th in the league in goals scored. If you disregard the fact that we’ve played 4 games and most teams have only played 3, that sounds really good. But hey, things could be a lot worse than they are.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      Well put. Can’t find anything to disagree with.

    • David Sterling

      To add to your positive spin; we’re top-third in Goals, SOG, Shots, Assists. Yes, as you pointed out, teams have only played three games, but even with that, we aren’t dropping out of the top-half.

      • Jacob

        And it doesn’t even feel like the offense is hitting on all cylinders yet. Let’s talk again once we’ve rung up 4-5 on somebody. I hear RSL’s coming to town this weekend and the internationals will be back…

        • David Sterling

          As long as Heath has learned from Colorado, I think we could have a good result this weekend.

    • Eric Beckman

      I buy all of this, especially “New England was a schedule loss.”

      One caveat, though, is my concern with Heath continuing to roll out a 4-3-3. Ibson as a #10 never seems to work, and the midfield three is the other (than Demidov) common factor in all three blowouts.

    • Vinyl Haircut

      Agree. One thing that’s easy to forget is that the coaching staff can make a big difference given some time. The defensive problems have been mostly with tactics, positions, communication, etc. and all of that can get better with good coaching. For me, I’m not overly bothered yet, but it will be very important to see adjustment and improvement over the season.

  • David Sterling

    Agree! My $.02; this is the formation I’d like to see:
    Davis Calvo Kallman Thiesson
    J Venegas Ibson Schuller

    I also agree that Warner’s attitude and lack of intensity is an issue, and a DP at CDM is a must, but I’d also like to see a DP at CB. I think Kallman is great, but he’d be a much better backup. If we brought in a DP CDM, then I would move Warner up, and switch him and Ibson depending on the squad in front of us.
    We are in the top-10 in goals, SOG, and shots. It’s a shame we are wasting that offensive ability.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I’d replace Ibson with Martin. I’d also keep Molino on the right side and continue deploying Johan as a second striker. I still think the 4-2-2-2 is the way to go, and that if we get a string of games in which we play that way, then we’ll be successful.

      • David Sterling

        I’m not sold on Martin. I’d like to see him come on as a sub a few times in games that aren’t already closed out before I’d start him, but I could see that change.
        A reason I don’t like the 4-2-2-2, is I think it creates too many openings in the midfield. Either the team gets too compact getting in the way of eachother and opening the wings wide for the counter when full backs move forward, or it gets too spread out, and suddenly all our passing is occurring on the wings and back (like it is now). I’ve also never been a fan of the cross, and due to the low success rate. I like the balance of having a roamer occupying space in the midfield while someone like J Venagas or Molino probe inside and either take the shot, or feed it to Ramirez.

        • Alex Schieferdecker

          It’s not really a crossing offense though, as Molino and the LM play too narrow for that. I prefer the 4-2-2-2 because it puts more pressure on opposing teams. NE had nine players in our final third on the first goal. There was no respect for what we could do on the counter, and they were right to not respect it.

          • David Sterling

            My point is, the 4-2-2-2 can easily turn into a crossing offense if they allow themselves to get wide; and I don’t know that I have ever seen such a formation actually work. Generally, players end up spreading out on the flanks too much, and you lose all semblance of an attack, or they compact themselves, and five defenders just poke the ball out to the flanks where their teammates are waiting for the counter.
            You mention simplicity, I don’t see that formation being simple, and I don’t see it playing to our strengths. J Venegas is not a forward in my book, The most fitting formation for our attack is probably a 4-3-3 with Ramirez pushed forward and Molino and J Venegas tucked in behind him.
            I hate wasting midfielders on defense, so we need to get someone to stay home and cover the back line (Warner is basically it), and I think he’d be sufficient as long as our front 3-5 are pushing forward. I think a lot of our defensive issues are stemming from no pressure on the opposition. Look at our distribution. Essentially every game, it’s a horseshoe, we need to push the ball up the middle, and sure your 4-2-2-2 will do that, but with our squad’s tendencies to drift wide and keep the ball there, I’m not seeing that as a positive for that formation.

        • Bruce J McGuire

          No one should be sold on Martin. He is a young player that has seen little to no playing time. Their hope for him is a year or two down the road.

    • Jeremy Thornton

      Boy, I would rather us not lock up a critical DP spot on a CB. As you and others are suggesting, CDM is top priority.

      • David Sterling

        We have three, and currently I don’t see any other area of need than CDM and CB. Using DPs at those two positions would make an impressive statement, and further leave a third open just in case we need a bigger spark in MF or F, but I think we’re set in both of those areas.

  • Matt

    In hindsight, wonder how much Demidov was recruited based on his resume than actual scouting of his playing on the field. Regardless of which is true, neither reflects well on the scouting/recruiting apparatus.

    • Jacob

      And in hind-hindsight, the comments about waiting and seeing before cashing in on a DP paint a picture of a front office that’s doing a rush job and aware that it’s going to have to take some poorly informed risks if it wants to field a team on opening day. Hopefully, with higher stakes and given more time, Manny, Amos and company can avoid more lemons. But you’re right, the Demidov looks pretty bad now.

      • Alex Schieferdecker

        OR, the comments about waiting and seeing before getting a DP look a lot better in hindsight, now that we see how we spent our TAM.

        • Jacob

          I mean yeah, I thinking waiting was a prudent choice, it’s just an odd paradox that the more bad moves the front office turns out to have made, the wiser the “wait and see on DPs” approach looks. The worse the results, the smarter the strategy. But I guess thats what mitigation is, and in a risky business it’s a smart approach. I guess it comes down to how much confidence you have that you can get the players you need.

          But now it’s double or nothing: they have more certainty about what positions need upgrading now and they’ve had time to do the legwork. I do have some confidence in the front office still, but we’re approaching a big moment for them.

  • MmattN

    My question, if needed can we just cut and eat Demidov’s salary? Would that free an international slot? Would his salary still count against the cap?

    • Benzino

      You are only allowed to cut one player per season with amnesty, and I believe you need to do so prior to the start of the season. Loons are stuck with Demidov this year.

      • MmattN

        thank you for the info.

  • Scherbs

    Not to add to the #PANIC, but would love to hear more about transfer windows in MLS. Such as when can sign some new players? As bad as Demidov is and he is definitely bad, i think our defensive problems start from our central mid(Warner/Schuller/Ibson). #jackwilsheretotheloons!

    • Benzino

      Primary window closes May 8th, secondary window is July 10 – Aug. 9, 2017.

  • mumbleblade

    Am I crazy to think that we could try Viva at RM in front of Theisson?

    Viva (and Ibarra at LM) would provide more defensive acumen than Kadrii or Molino, plus speed on the counter. With Warner locked in as CDM until we sign a DP at that spot, Molino would take Schuller’s place as CAM in the diamond, behind Johan & Ramirez. Anything to stop us hemorrhaging goals.

    Also, do we have any indication as to how many of those DP slots they are planning to fill this year? Seems we could use a CDM, CB, and GK, in that order.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I think you’re a bit off base with Minnesota’s formation. It’s not a 4-4-2 diamond, Schuller has played basically side by side with Warner as a defensive midfielder.

      With regard to Viva, I don’t put a whole lot of stock in his defending, and I don’t think he offers more than Molino in that spot. If Viva comes on, it’s got to be in the wide position (3-5-2) as a designated crosser of the ball. We saw that in New England. But it raises the question: who is he crossing to? We don’t really have a dominant target for crosses.

      • mumbleblade

        Thanks for the response. I guess I was wondering if we *should* be playing in more of a diamond since Warner (or a DP) should stay home in front of the back line anyway. Also in that formation I wouldn’t have Schuller starting, for the reasons you mentioned. Molino would be my #10. But I’m too partial to that formation, and it was contingent on Viva contributing in midfield, which you have broken down. And that was the crux of my question. I don’t know if we have another player we’d like there (Martin?) so it’s probably a no-go. I see your point about crosses – no targets to work with means Viva is a square peg in a round hole, no matter where he lines up.

        • Alex Schieferdecker

          I do want Schuller to play more forward, with Warner behind him, but I don’t want him far forward enough to really make it a diamond.

          I just don’t think we have a classic #10 type player. Perhaps Molino, I’m not sure. But Johan Venegas, Kadrii, even Gatt… those guys have to play as strikers. They’re not #10’s.

  • Alberto Valsecchi

    Blame on Demidov?
    Ok but more blame on those which choose Demidov and a
    combination of defenders-midfielder not adequate to MLS.

    Anyway I wish that the coach can draw a solid defensive
    line-midfield line starting from next match against RSL

    • David Sterling

      If Heath doesn’t use the same lineup as used in Colorado (unless there is a fitness issue of course), and we don’t get a draw or win. #HeathOut needs to become a thing.
      He found his team against Rapids, and learned from the break that something other than that team is not sufficient, so now he needs to adjust. Something he has been unable to do in his coaching career.

      • Ken Backhus

        Sorry but no way does #HeathOut become a thing five matches in. If that becomes a thing then we might as well throw in #MannyOut as well since he made the Heath hire and the player signings. I know that we’re all frustrated here but panic firings is not the way to go.

        • David Sterling

          #HeathOut should have started December 2; and sure, toss Manny in there too. He’s as culpable as anyone. The reality is, anyone who paid attention to the disaster that was Orlando under Heath, would be concerned with our start. They would also understand what I am saying about the lineup. Heath is a failure at adjusting his team, and constantly plays players out of position to fit his plan. Colorado was a rare situation where players were where they should be, and he adjusted from the mess in previous games. If he doesn’t stay with that lineup, it means he hasn’t learned.

  • Timber Dome

    I’m not seeing as much of a problem with Warner as some. He’s been pretty solid to my eyes, for most of the season. Clearly not blameless, but I think he can be part of a solid defensive side

    • Timber Dome

      Granted, I left the most recent game at half time.

      Part of our defensive problem, probably the biggest part, is that we constantly give the ball away at mid field. Our attackers get ahead, we give it away, and counters happen. Over and over.

      This is not the possession team we expected, and until some personnel changes I think that will remain the case.

      We need 6 committed to the back. If we can feed a wing into the corner for a cross, more can push up. Right now we commit forward only to go running back the other way within 3 passes.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      Check out the clips linked to in this article. Warner *had* been fine, but he had a shocker in New England.

  • David Zeller

    That’s a snazzy coat Schief!

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      Too snazzy, I was cold.