Photo Credit Daniel Mick.

The Angle

Two Things: Minnesota United vs Real Salt Lake

by on 4 April 2017

Say it loud for those in the back, the Loons have a win! After four weeks that felt like eternity, with every yahoo in the American soccer mediasphere piling on, Minnesota United thumped Real Salt Lake 4-2 on Saturday night. For one week, the condescending ‘good for yous’ will feel like high praise, because in our heart of hearts, we all doubted, we all worried that the critics were right.

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.

Minnesota are a good team, who had a few fatal but easily fixed flaws

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.

Minnesota are a bad team, who got lucky against other bad teams, and have been smoked by every good one that they’ve faced

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.

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  • Scherbs

    Edit: “Christian Ramirez has taken to MLS like a duck to water”

  • Jacob

    The truth is somewhere in the middle of course, and there’s a lot of statistical noise so early in the season, but most of the noise has been negative. Factors like Demidov and Taylor, the international break situation, not having Burch and Cronin, and throwing together a brand new backline will not be present for the majority of the season. Pulling the other way, RSL’s organizational mess/injuries and Sjolberg’s injury favored us but on the balance I think it’s safe to say that the noise has been more against thus far than it will be going forward (Interesting how easy it is to chalk up results to circumstances, but as you point out, NYRB failed to take advantage of similar circumstances the week prior).

    I don’t expect any points from the next two weeks but I’m hoping for competence and grit. Although speaking of noise, Dallas has the midweek CCL semifinal in Mexico to worry about so we may well catch them hungover.

    • David Sterling

      I think we can come away with a point against Dallas, and possibly against Houston as well. Dallas’ offense has been nearly stagnant scoring only 1.3 gpg; with Champions League tonight they’ll have a short week to prepare, and depending the result they may very well be hungover, so it’s hard to say they are going to come out flying.
      The problem I see is their defense has been really stingy (less than 1 gpg), but they’ve played Galaxy, Sporting, and NE. Considering NE put 5 past us, they’ve only scored 2 other goals all season. So, is Dallas’ defense really good, or are the other teams just that stagnant offensively?
      Houston is the opposite. Offensively, they’re the best in the league right now (considering Por and Atl played our terrible back line to pad their goal totals); but defensively, they’re toward the bottom allowing almost 2 gpg (but against some strong competition). We put together a good performance like we did Saturday, I can see us getting 2 against them. That could be just enough. We’ll see.

      • Alex Schieferdecker

        I think you’re on to something there, David. Dallas haven’t looked particularly deadly, and in their match against Pachuca on Tuesday night, they couldn’t finish for beans.

        • David Sterling

          I don’t think Dallas looked good at all against Pachuca, and Pachuca’s defense is not fantastic. Now, there is the question of MLS v LigaMX, but I think Dallas’ attack is definitely off. Let’s hope they don’t wake up Saturday.

  • David Sterling

    I’m not going to choose which one, because let’s face it, there hasn’t been enough time to do so. If I absolutely had to, based on what we’ve seen, I would argue it is not the second scenario.
    Defensively; had the defensive line-up we saw against Colorado and Salt Lake played against either of the other three, it would be a different story; or, had we not had to field a worse defense against New England than even what faced the Timbers and Atlanta, again an entirely different story; finally, the fact we haven’t had a legitimate holding midfielder (or even one that is remotely defensive in play) in any of the five games, does not exactly help any back line we put in there.
    Offensively; we have only fielded the winning formation twice (albeit severely under-staffed against NE), have started our top-3 attackers together three times (twice in formations less suited to our players skill sets), have yet to field the same front five in any formation twice, and during these five games we have arguably had the wrong personnel all over the field… until Saturday night.

    With that said, we can further make an argument for the first scenario.
    The evidence is there, glaringly so, that there are two starters who should never have been started; Demidov and Taylor. Reviewing highlights, one can argue that both were directly responsible for all 5 Timbers’ goals; and further, Demidov for Atl’s goals 3,4,5; and NE’s goals 1, 3. The winning back line has given up only four goals; one of which was a howler of a backpass by a midfielder, and another, a slip and blown clearance by Calvo. Slips are a part of the game, they’ll happen now and then, but that backpass never should have happened, and cannot be put on the defense. With that, we’re looking at a back line which has allowed three goals in two games which is solidly mid-table.
    Further, to your point about our offensive being upper-table, that is without a doubt true. Portland has allowed just over 1 goal a game, we scored on them; Atl, under a goal a game, we put one past them; NE, just under 2 a game, we scored 2 against them; Colorado, 1 goal a game, we scored 2; and RSL prior to Saturday, just 1 goal a game, and we scored 4. Our offense is averaging 2 gpg, putting us at 4th in the league. We’re also 4th in goals; 5th in Assists; 2nd in SOG; 2nd in Shots.

    If we stay with this lineup, bringing Cronin in for [I would say] Warner, and I really think leaving JD in at this point, I think we are going to further see a growth upon what we have. Dallas has a very good defense and Houston has a strong offense, so I think these next two games will really help answer this question.

  • MmattN

    I definitely can see this team winning the Rocky Mountain Cup.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      We’re halfway there, and we’ve never lost to a RMC team.

  • Matt

    In my mind there has only been one truly wretched performance so far – the loss to Atlanta.

    Portland was a big loss, but we did well to be down only 2-1 with less than 15 minutes left, very first game in that atmosphere against that team. We crumbled at the end, but the scoreline did not reflect the game IMO.

    I see the points about Colorado, but scoring two on them is big, and we showed toughness to hang on for the draw after the Davis red card.

    New England, we were missing too many people – admittedly it exposed lack of depth.

    Also, overall starting with so many games on the road is a bit brutal.

    One big question is character. Will we be a team that crumbles under adversity, or will we show the toughness on display in Colorado.

    Another is focus. Too often we give up goals early in games or shortly after we score. We saw the former on Saturday, but not the latter (thanks in no small part to Shuttleworth).

  • Offensive Loons Fan

    Not the question anyone asked, but I’ll double down on my preseason hope for the team. I’m not as concerned with whether we make the playoffs as whether we emerge from this year with a foundation to build on and a clear strategic direction.

    That means a preferred formation, a relatively consistent lineup, a clear tactical vision, all of which may take an extra year or two of squad additions and refining to become a real playoff contending team.

    On the flip side, if we end the year patching holes with new players all the time, needing to experiment with formations and tactics throughout, and the team emerges with no “identity,” then it’s hard to build upon cohesively.

    So which of the two teams is it? I think a bit of both, but that can still be good enough to be the team I described above if we find a bit more stability, particularly on defense.

    • Eric Beckman

      Yes to all of this, plus some players with high ceilings that we can watch mature into stars.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I’d add youth to that. I know it’ll take a while for some homegrowns to materialize, but it’d be nice to have young players to start growing in key positions. Especially in goal. We need to have a long term solution in goal.

  • Tim Reppe

    Has no one noticed that we are 4th in the league on goals/match? That’s ‘Goals For’! Two teams ahead of us are, um, POR & ATL.
    Also we were simply brilliant in long balls vs RSL.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      We’ve played five games however, while most others have played four.

      That said, as I wrote in the optimistic side of the piece, it might be that our attack is one of the league’s best.

  • Jim Oliver

    Lemme put it this way: I’m really interested in the line-up that gets put out for Dallas on Saturday, and in my opinion that game should be on national TV.

    If those reinforcements see the field I’m not sure we can expect to learn much. For as much as people hold up Heath’s system as simple we haven’t seen anybody do anything but suck in their first week in it this year.

    If the XI from last Saturday continues, that’s a real test. It’s hard to imagine them winning, even with the confidence boost of beating on a team in a top-to-bottom organizational meltdown, but I don’t see why they couldn’t make a real game out of it and make a decent showing of themselves. Even that would be enough to show there’s real potential here.

  • Matt

    There has only been one truly terrible game so far, Atlanta.

    In Portland, we had it 2-1 with less than 15 minutes left, not bad for an expansion team playing a tough team in a tough atmosphere in their first game. We fell apart after the Demidov penalty, true, but with two Portland goals in stoppage time, the final score did not reflect the game.

    Two goals in Colorado is not easy, and the team showed a lot of character to hang on for the draw after the Davis red card.

    New England – meh. We were missing a lot of people. But did expose worrying lack of depth.

    Dallas and Houston will be tough tests. Hopefully we’ll see the offensive chemistry from RSL, more solid play from Bobby, and improved defense with our pickups from last week. If we can get these pieces working together, we can be competitive in this league.

  • Vinyl Haircut

    We’re a bad team, most likely, but not *historically* bad. That’s exactly as it should be considering the build and grow roster strategy we’ve adopted. Bad teams, unlike historically bad, can at least challenge from week to week and be plenty fun to watch.