The Loons celebrate Miguel Ibarra's goal. Photo by Daniel Mick

The Angle

One Thing: Minnesota United vs Colorado Rapids

by on 24 April 2017

Minnesota United FC is now eight games through the MLS season—a quarter of the way through 34 games. That’s not enough to say anything definitive, but the early evidence suggests that the Loons are playoff contenders. Seriously.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the two ways to interpret the club’s early MLS results. Most of what had transpired to date was disastrous, but there were a couple of intriguing performances to pick out. In particular, when Minnesota had played with four attacking players and without Vadim Demidov, they looked a lively and competitive side.

Three matches on, the fresh evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the blowout losses of the first few weeks were abnormal results—which forced an immediate and true course correction. In those three abysmal matches, the Loons went 0-0-3 with a minus-12 differential. In the five others, the Loons have gone 2-2-1 with a plus-one differential. They have won twice at home and given a good account of themselves on the road. In Colorado, they battled for a point and two goals against a much better Rapids side than the one they beat on Sunday. In Dallas, they peppered the outstanding Jesse Gonzalez with shots and dominated the second half. In Houston, they fought back in the second half against a deadly Dynamo side.

Emotional whiplash is hard to manage responsibly, but if you haven’t come around yet, now is the time. In an otherwise good piece over at EPluribusLoonum, Darrell Vitullo wrote last week that he wasn’t “going to sit here and say [the Loons] are about to go on a run and make the playoffs.” But he’s wrong to dismiss the possibility!

The Loons are a second half team, thanks perhaps to better fitness than many of their competitors.

We can see some commonalities in these results to understand what kind of team the Loons truly are. They are quick and skilled in the attack. There is a budding chemistry between Christian Ramirez, Kevin Molino, Johan Venegas, and (now) Miguel Ibarra that produces some lovely linking play. The Loons have the league’s fourth best attack, behind Portland, Atlanta, and Houston (two teams who padded their score against the Mr. Hyde version of the Loons). They are a second half team, thanks perhaps to better fitness than many of their competitors. The defense, while far from perfect, has been quietly solidifying. There is no shame in conceding two goals on the road to Dallas or Houston, and after the clean sheet victory against Colorado, the team now has a 138 minutes shutout streak to protect.

If you subscribe to the belief that the Minnesota we’ve seen recently is the best measure of the team’s ability, then consider that Dr. Jekyll United FC has now averaged eight points in five games (1.6 points per game), which if sustained would result in 49 points, good enough for the No. 4 seed in last year’s western conference. And that’s with two of those five matches at home.

In the weeks since their nationally televised embarrassments, United hasn’t been in the spotlight and news of the club’s obvious and dramatic transformation has taken some time to percolate.

This stupid little math exercise is not intended to make any promises or predictions. You can’t say anything too definitive after eight games, let alone a sub-sample of five. What it is intended to do is show that this Minnesota United FC team, playing against a representative sample of clubs, can hold its own in this league where a majority of teams still make the playoffs. That’s much more than many in the league are still willing to admit.

To kick off the season, the Loons embarrassed themselves twice on national TV. That sparked a wave of syrupy condescending commentary, like this rapidly aging hot take from FourFourTwo, which bashed the club for paying respect to their NASL team by waiting until that season was over before focusing on MLS or by promoting six (and a half, do we count Añor?) of that roster to MLS.

However, in the weeks since their nationally televised embarrassments, United hasn’t been in the spotlight and news of the club’s obvious and dramatic transformation has taken some time to percolate. So too have people been slow to realize that several of the club’s NASL players have been excelling in key roles, and that it was the foreign imports who struggled the most. To put it simply, the club started the season compounding the usual expansion woes with the wrong players in the wrong positions. The glaring problems were quickly fixed, and the Loons are now a highly competitive MLS team. And as I argued way back when the sky was falling, there’s still plenty of time to make more adjustments.

Everyone got that?

News is slowly spreading, but don’t count out the pervasiveness of lazy memes and a national soccer press who never paid a lick of attention to the NASL and all too easily have dismissed the Loons in MLS. Already, I see a new narrative emerging about the team’s “improvement.” No doubt the team has improved and will continue to do so. That’s normal expansion team stuff. But the 1-5, 1-6, and 2-5 losses were not normal, and they were not a fair reflection of the way the team was capable of playing even at that time. The Loons were never that bad, they were just set up disastrously and with a few calamitous pieces in the wrong places.

But with four of the next five games at home, (including games against San Jose and a remarkably vulnerable looking Galaxy team) the narrative might just start changing. Thank goodness for that. And if you die-hard Minnesota fans need something real to complain about, let’s get to talking about the team’s attendance instead.

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