Ibson battles with former Loon Mo Saeid. Image credit to Daniel Mick - www.danielmickcreative.com

The Angle

Rewind That: Minnesota United Finds Compatible Midfield Partnership

by on 27 April 2017

The milestones keep coming in Minnesota United’s inaugural MLS campaign. Against a chippy Colorado Rapids side, the Loons were able to keep their first clean sheet of the season in a 1-0 victory. Aside from an irregular number of diving headers, what went right for Minnesota?

I have to admit, it’s weird writing these when there are fewer than four goals between Minnesota and its opponent.

The run of games with four or more goals was hardly sustainable. Whether Minnesota was on the wrong side of a blowout, the right side of a blowout, or in a high-scoring draw, there was plenty of which to assess.

Now, there have been fewer goals to come by lately, and that’s probably a good thing to an extent. Two weeks ago, it was a comparatively respectable 2-0 loss at Dallas. On Sunday, it was a 1-0 triumph over last year’s Supporters’ Shield runners up. Let’s see what went right as the team had their best defensive match yet.

Sam gives a damn

At the time, the Loons’ trade for Sam Cronin in late March looked like a great bit of business. Minnesota offloaded two spare parts (which is more harsh to say about Mohammed Saeid than Josh Gatt) for two starters (including Marc Burch).

Fast-forward four weeks, and it looks like absolute daylight robbery. Playing against his former side, Cronin was a total rapscallion for Colorado to deal with, shutting down many Rapids chances. Cronin committed three fouls without drawing a card, had a few crucial tackles, and was well-positioned on the day.

This is probably a good time to disclaim: defensive midfielder “highlights” are rarely sexy. It’s often a thankless task, but without an effective No. 6, a team can easily fall apart. Cronin is one of the most underrated players in the league, and his 2016 campaign with Colorado was one of the best by a defensive midfielder. Above, Cronin misses a pass from the defense. As the pacey Marlon Hairston tries to break, Cronin gets a toe on the ball and dispossesses Hairston.

Again, Cronin doesn’t give up on the play and is able to get the ball back to the Loons’ attackers. As soon as he wins his second chance, he heads back to protect the back line. Between his time in Orlando and his first three matches in Minnesota, Cronin looks like the best defensive midfielder Adrian Heath has ever had at his disposal. The trade should continue to pay dividends moving forward.

The curious case of Ibson

Having a true defensive midfielder like Cronin also allows for Ibson to shine. At his best, Ibson’s greatest attribute is that he tries sh*t. He’s the most creative player the Loons have, and he’s most comfortable plucking the strings like a pizzicato master. Although Collen Warner did well in the No. 6 role in the early-going, he still looks most comfortable going box-to-box. Cronin is a more natural partner for Ibson in the midfield.

While most of Ibson’s contribution to the Loons attack comes with the ball at his feet, he nearly tallied a no-look assist with his head in the first half.

There’s a fair argument that Ibson meant to put the ball on frame, but it still takes awareness to send the ball in that direction. On this next play, his intention for goal is clear.

Ibson’s nearly-perfect shot directly leads to Miguel Ibarra’s diving header. As the ball kicked out of the box, there were ten Rapids in the box, but many had left the play for dead. Ibson not only got the ball back into play, but nearly opened his MLS account with a surefire golazo. Instead, Ibarra got the tally.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover Ibson’s demeanor off the ball (as I’m prone to do). The tweet of the week goes to Kate Sophia.

Ballet, indeed. The Brazilian midfielder folds like a croissant upon contact. It’s clear that Ibson was fouled on this play. Still, this was a masterclass in exaggerating contact. Players build reputations with referees over time as being too aggressive, too floppy, or their positive counterparts. Ibson would benefit from not carrying a reputation for embellishment moving forward.

All of that is to say: if I’m building the lineup for Saturday, I’m starting Ibson. Modern MLS is like a mobile device, requiring WiFi to keep up with a fast-paced, constantly-evolving rate of play. Nonetheless, San Jose plays like they’re plugged in via ethernet. It can certainly be effective, but fluidity is often sacrificed for results. The Earthquakes haven’t scored in their last 180 minutes, and Dom Kinnear’s teams like to bunker in on the road. Ibson gives Minnesota a chance to score early and make San Jose adjust.

The Dark Knight Rises

As I called for in last week’s Rewind That, Ibarra returned to the starting lineup. All told, it was a quiet start to the evening for the erstwhile USMNT winger. That is, of course, until his goal. No need to scroll up — here it is again.

Immediately, you can see the confidence coursing through Ibarra like a spinach-infused transubstantiation. Over the next 15 minutes, Batman was everywhere along the right wing. His first sequence after the goal offered a perfect example of the promise he brings to the attack.

Here, Ibarra hustles to negate a surefire goal kick for the Rapids. He gets the ball back to Johan Venegas. Rather than stay wide to draw a defender (as most would do after a run like his beforehand), Ibarra stays woke, catches Mekeil Williams sleeping, and slips in behind him. He has plenty of space, and as the defense tries to catch up, he sets Kevin Molino up for a clear shot.

Ibarra burned out soon after, and it’s clear he’s not quite at full match fitness. Still, this was a great close to his shift, and he’s certainly played himself into a starting role in the immediate future.

Final thoughts

Here’s the lineup I’d roll out on Saturday. Same as it ever was. See you in the comments.

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