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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  • Gitchee Gomie

    Is it that early narrative that’s to blame for the low(ish) attendance, or something else? I don’t live in the Twin Cities, so I am not aware of the club’s issues with marketing (if there are any).

    I’m just so happy to finally have a MLS club to support that I drove 7 hours (twice!) from the UP of Michigan to see the first home game and first win. If I can make that trip, what’s keeping locals away?

    • Blake Johnson

      I do think the marketing has been sub-par without a doubt.
      Yesterday for example, I do think a 1:10 start time for the Twins game didn’t do MNUFC any attendance favors.

    • David Sterling

      I think the start to the season is precisely what has held attendance down. People still aren’t sure of what team they are going to see. There are a lot of season ticket holders not attending games, which further supports this idea too. There were many empty seats in front of mine, and I know those were already sold, so this run of decent form may help fill them. Of course, this weekend is looking like a chilly and rainy one, so that may not help either.

      • Matt

        The early blowout losses, particularly to Atlanta, will unfortunately be a millstone around the neck of this team for quite some time. Both in terms of attendance (at 50 percent of the home opener for the last two matches) and the national (and to a lesser extent local) media narrative. It’s just the harsh reality that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and a negative first impression is very hard to overcome.

        Not impossible, though, and I hope this ultimately ends up being an inspiring narrative, with the team overcoming the less than ideal start. We’re well on the way, though the lack of depth is concerning.

        • David Sterling

          I agree, the lack of depth for me is terrifying. Demidov is so bad that we have Taylor playing CB (which he played decently enough), but we need depth there fast (I’m thinking two guys). I’d also like to see another midfielder of the Molino sort.

  • Jeremy Thornton

    Great piece yet again Alex, always enjoy your perspectives.

    I wasn’t able to get to the game let alone watch it live but as I was taking in the recording at 10pm last night I was thinking that TCF looked empty but the supporters with their chants made it sound good.

    Look forward to reading the speculation on how we can get better attendance numbers. A nearly 70 degree day in April, doesn’t get much better than that in Minnesota.

    • Dave Benhart

      I watched the replay after I got home last night. The supporters are overmicd for TV. They’re loud and noticable in the stadium, but not _that_ loud.

      • Alex Schieferdecker

        This is good to hear, I’d rather the supporters be louder on the broadcast than they are in the stadium than the opposite.

        • RC Moore

          They had 2 mics on a pole attached to the capo stand facing the supporters section

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      Thanks for reading!

    • Clark Starr

      That attendance number is disappointing. That said, I think this thing is still new to most in the area. I think it’s going to have to be a slow and steady (apologies to Marge Simpson) process.

  • Jacob

    We’re 1 point out of a playoff spot and we’ve already had our away games against the three best teams in the West. It’s a long season of course, and the Gold Cup will hurt us as much as anybody, but we’ve got a higher trajectory than most teams after that ugly start. The roster will continue to gel, and surely we have another arrival or two coming to buttress the soft spots in the lineups, right?

  • Ian

    Could not agree more. I don’t know why MLS fans seem to think their league is so superior to NASL/USL. Our NASL guys have been fantastic so far this season and outperformed most MLS players.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      MLS *is* superior to NASL/USL. But a few guys from the lower divisions absolutely can step up and be a difference at the top level. Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra, Brent Kallman… these are guys who proved they had what to took at that lower level and now they’re showing that they deserved their chance.

      • Ian

        I’m not saying the MLS isn’t better I’m just saying MLS analysts and commentators exaggerate how much better it is. Before we started playing the only people that gave guys like Ramirez and Ibarra an ounce of credit were MN fans. Most MLS people said Ramirez would never score like he did in the NASL, but he’s already off to a great start and could potentially be one of the top scorers in MLS just like he was in the NASL.

  • itsallgood013

    Ehh, I don’t know. I hate to be a negative Nancy, but I still think we’re in for a fairly long road. The Houston result was the most encouraging for me, more than the wins. They’re a good team. Colorado and RSL, not so much. Especially since our defensive depth is still pretty shallow. If Kallman has to be out any amount of time or god forbid anyone else gets injured, we’re screwed. (I don’t think Taylor looked as good as everyone else did yesterday.) Also, Seattle, Vancouver and LA (crap as they’ve looked), still have that dreaded “game-in-hand” on us, so we’re not maybe as close to a playoff spot as everyone thinks.
    PS, Your thoughts on the NASL are spot on. The talent pool going into MLS every year from the draft is so small, a lot of really strong young players have to go somewhere to develop their games a bit before they can really blossom into their full potential.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      The Houston result alone is one thing, but it comes with the Dallas game, which (while not a good result) was a very compelling performance against the league’s best team.

      Kallman isn’t injured, he’ll be fine for next week. Greenspan is getting time on loan and will be back in a few weeks. And we are still in the transfer market.

      • itsallgood013

        Which still goes to say that, even though we can compete with the better teams in the league now, we’ll still most likely lose to them. Which doesn’t help us move up the standings.

        • Alex Schieferdecker

          We might nick points from them at home. We’ll see. Every game matters, but if we beat San Jose next week, then the Sporting KC game becomes a massive measuring stick.

          • itsallgood013

            So I hate to say I was right, I really do. But I think barring the signing of a DP type player anytime soon, Saturday is an indication of us struggling for points the rest of the season (so hopefully after the summer transfer window we can improve even more, obviously). Bad offensive games from our most prominent attacking players aside, the other teams in the league will be able to better scout how we’re going to try to attack them as more and more game tape of our squad becomes available. Our defense was pretty sharp again, which is encouraging, but I’m still fairly worried about how many shots we’re giving up. As I said above, hopefully a DP level signing over the summer will help with that. Ultimately, sad as it sounds, I’m completely fine with missing out on the playoffs our expansion year and focusing on building for the future. Regardless of results, it’s still fun as hell watching my favorite team in MLS.

          • itsallgood013

            *Also loves to say he was wrong.
            I should just shut up and enjoy the season.

  • lusophone

    Attendance was listed at just under 18,000, was that padded? It did seem sparse from what I could tell on TV. Total capacity is just under 22,000, so 17,800 is pretty close to that in my book. I do think the spanking by ATL in the home opener did some damage as far as winning over new fans. I can’t afford to go to all the home games. Unless it’s snowing, I’m going to be bringing at least 1 other family member with me, multiple tickets start to add up for me. So I am picking and choosing which opponents I want to see. Colorado isn’t one of them.

    As far as the prospects for the rest of the season, I am trying to remain as even-keeled as possible, remembering the despair from the first two games and not running too far in the other direction after we have seen some success. You’re right that not many people are paying much attention to MNUFC. Seems like quite a few thought yesterday was our first win.

    • Dave Benhart

      It’s 22,000 for the lower bowl only. On TV the camera catches a few rows of the upper bowl on the near side which makes it look emptier than it really is. And most of the near side people are hidden under the same deck.

      Although there is an awful lot of that M showing on the far side. Those midfield seats are too empty.
      But I’m not bitter about being told that every midfield seat would be filled (not sold, filled!) a couple of years ago. Nope, not at all.

    • Eric Beckman

      I’m sure that 17,800 is the number of tickets sold, which is standard practice. I’m guessing that there were 15,000. The near side and both ends of the lower bowl were full. It is disappointing to see those interest. They have doubled their tickets sold from a year ago, whatever that is worth.

      I agree that the ATL spanking may take a while to fade. Besides being the first game, the snow made it memorable. Lots of folks came to that game who haven’t been back. I do think that as long as they’re competitive more folks will eventually come out.

    • Alan Van Wyk

      Yep, as much as we want to be all in we just can’t afford to go to that many games. I haven’t followed MLS very closely – are these normal ticket prices across the league?

  • Pete Bissen

    First off, thanks for the great content Alex. I’m relatively new to this site but I’ve been impressed with the product.
    The start to the season was terrible. No doubt about it. It would have been easy to write off the team, which some “experts” did but it shows a lot that this team can fight and grind out results, regardless of the opponent. It’s not always pretty but points are points.
    I agree that the marketing of the team is a bit questionable. Being a non-MSP Minnesotan, the only way to watch the matches are via MLS Live or making the trip to TCF. If they could strike a deal with FSN North, if it’s even available, that would expand the potential for fans outside of the metro area to see the team and expand the Loon umbrella.
    The weather yesterday was about as good as you could ask for. No reason for fans to come out and watch the match. I drove 2+ hours to attend so the 17,000+ attendance was a little disappointing.

    • Anton Lauer

      I’ve been seeing all the games on channel 29

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      Thank you for reading! I think the problem with FSN is that they’d be competing with the Twins throughout the summer and the Wolves and Wild at the front and end of their season. All three teams are quite a bit more popular than the Loons at the moment. So the Loons, for better or worse, seem to have opted to be on a different channel (my29) and not have to tape delay any games or get games pushed to FSN’s second or third network, or whatever.

  • Etch

    Sunday games can be tough It was a school nite, people were just coming back from the cabin, family stuff, fishing, church. the Twins games, kids in soccer tournaments, hockey games, lacrosse games, concerts, sunday brunch. Lots of competition.

  • nomadic loon

    I’ve encouraged my friends to tune in to 29… the crowd that isn’t soccer fans, but want to get into a new home team. The response is unanimous. They can’t understand Callum. They lose interest, and flip to another channel. It’s not because of the accent, but rather his mumbling… and non-existent play by play. Get the cotton out of your mouth and describe what’s happening! When a goal is scored, he does well…and his youtube highlight reel he uses to market himself is decent. But the play between goals is terrible.. and worse on the radio when you can’t see the action. Give a listen… even if you are familiar with the names of our players, you will have a tough time. PR did not make a good choice with this hire. Kyndra is fantastic on both TV and radio.

    • MmattN

      I am gonna be patient with the TV team but boy do I miss last years crew.

  • Offensive Loons Fan

    Looking forward to Alex’s article next week: Zero Things.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      So you see my pattern.

      • Kate Sophia

        I certainly noticed!

    • itsallgood013

      You jinxed the team.

  • Tom Lancaster

    I’m not sure why we are complaining about the attendance. Isn’t the planned new stadium going to be 20k? 2,500 short of the future max capacity, after a noted rough start and an afternoon twins games doesn’t seem all that bad. There are many MLS teams not pulling 17k.

  • David Sterling

    I cannot disagree with this at all. I’ve been trying to say it all over FaceBook discussions as well the since the RSL game, that we are offensively strong, and that our defense which allowed those goals isn’t the same one going forward. Most don’t even respond to it, making me think they understand, and simply don’t want to admit it.
    Every league needs the team to kick around, and right now you have a few options, but the beleaguered expansion team is the best option, especially when ownership decided not to build the team the way people would have liked. Power Ranking dialogue is pretty clear with this. No one wants to suggest the Loons are improving, just that the competition hasn’t been strong. That tells me, their narrative is disappearing.
    Personally, I think we could go on a significant run, and the pundits would still ignore us, which would be fine with me. Better to fly under the radar.
    Here’s to a good showing against San Jose.