But are they still?
There are two ways to spin Minnesota’s five results so far. There’s a positive and a negative interpretation of five weeks of futility and occasional brilliance. This week, I’ll present both, and you can decide which side of the ledger you come down on.
The Loons started the season with record-breaking disasters primarily because of awful tactical choices and a few extremely ill-chosen starting players. After three blowouts against three good teams, each of which featured the 4-3-3 and Vadim Demidov, lessons have been learned. We’re unlikely to see either again in the foreseeable future.
That means that the competitive, tenacious team that we saw in Colorado and against Salt Lake are the real Minnesota. United were arguably unlucky not to win against the Rapids, and were the only team in two years to hang two on the hosts at Dick’s Sporting Park. Against Salt Lake, a team in disarray, the Loons did exactly what good teams do (and the New York Red Bulls did not a week earlier) against bad teams in disarray; they pounded them mercilessly.
So much attention has focused on the likes of Portland, Atlanta, and Houston, but it’s quite possible that Minnesota have one of the league’s top five attacks. Christian Ramirez has taken to MLS like a duck to water, Kevin Molino is well on his way to building on his monster 2016 season, Johan Venegas has been unlocked after years of misuse in Montreal, and that’s without mentioning the weapons of #1 draft pick Abu Danladi, a Bullet Bill of a winger in Bashkim Kadrii, and the Batman himself, Miguel Ibarra.
Even the optimist can’t fail to notice that the defense has some problems. That our defense without Vadim Demidov has conceded four goals in two games is not ideal. But two goals came from silly mistakes from Francisco Calvo. That won’t happen often, especially as this line grows more comfortable with each other. After all, Justin Davis, Calvo, Brent Kallman, and Jérôme Thiesson were never played together in preseason and are learning this as we go. Add to this mix the trade that brings two excellent MLS defenders, Sam Cronin (a dmid) and Marc Burch, and there’s every reason to expect that the Loons’ defense will be fine in time for the team’s run of home games this summer.
High-scoring attack? Maturing and solidifying defense? That sounds like a playoff team.
One home win against a Real Salt Lake team in a fully-blown crisis does tell you a lot about a team. For anyone to take Minnesota seriously, they’re going to have to start beating good teams, and they’ve horribly failed in every such test yet.
Even in the draw in Colorado and the win against Salt Lake, there’s plenty that ought to concern Loons fans. This team’s supposed best defenders allowed two goals to a Colorado team as inept at scoring as this league has ever seen. They repeated that feat against RSL. Both Rocky Mountain Cup teams have scored six goals combined (three each) and four of them came against Minnesota. The problem was much bigger than Vadim Demidov, and Dallas and Houston are about to make that very, very clear. A patch-up job with Sam Cronin and Marc Burch cannot solve a much deeper issue. The players aren’t good enough. Adrian Heath cannot coach a defense. The goalkeeping is sub-par.
The attack looks like a bright spot, but it’s hard to judge it properly when your best evidence for its strength is scoring four goals against a team with one healthy center back and a stunning goalkeeping howler. Minnesota have yet to face a real defense, like Kansas City’s. Even Dallas might be a rude awakening. When the team scored two against Colorado, the Rapids were missing two of their starting back line. So let’s not pretend that the Loons had anything other than fortunate timing.
Playoffs? You’re talking about playoffs? Playoffs? Let’s see if this team can avoid the all-time MLS goals conceded record first. You’re not getting into the playoffs if you’re conceding two goals a game, never mind the four goals a game that the club is currently averaging.
Which is it? Are Minnesota a good team who have found the right formula after several misfires? Or a bad team who only stands a chance against fellow baddies? Probably somewhere in between, right? But how much of each side?
Hash that out with me in the comments below.