Everything is trending upward for Minnesota United.
For the first time, the Loons were able to coordinate a stout defensive performance with a biting attack. Bobby Shuttleworth made some crucial saves and somehow didn’t bleed out while keeping a clean sheet. The defense held pesky Dom Dwyer from any real chances on frame.
That said, two players were head-and-shoulders above the rest. These two have proven to be the most important players on their respective sides of the field. Who are they, what did they do well, and how can they keep the momentum?
(Sidenote: I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing a Rewind That after the 1-0 loss to San Jose. First, there wasn’t a ton for me to say about that game after rewatching. Second, and more to the point, I shifted focus to my longform profile on Brent Kallman. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to check it out. Here we go.)
The Spanish word calvo translates to English as bald. Certainly, SKC’s attack was left pulling their hair out as Minnesota’s defense stepped up.
Earlier this week, Alex Schieferdecker highlighted just how all-encompassing Francisco Calvo’s fingerprints were on the match. While the rest of the defense was perfectly cromulent, there was no bigger performer on the back line than the Costa Rican international. Schief has said most of what I wanted to about his performance, but here are some clips to be safe.
With the pacy Gerso Fernandes bearing down on him, Calvo has to get this tackle absolutely perfect. He does so, and even draws a foul to set Minnesota up for a chance in the attacking half.
After committing to the snakebit SKC right back Igor Julião’s fake, Calvo is able to get back in position, get a foot to the shot, and kill the chance. Much more on Julião to come.
Calvo hears the pundits’ thoughts on Minnesota’s early miscues this season. To take out his frustration, he not only lofts the ball clear, but boots it down the field (and, probably, right down the haters’ gullets).
Before the season, I wrote about how signing the Tico was a massive coup for the Loons’ brass. As with any player moving up to a more difficult league, it hasn’t always been easy for Calvo through 10 games. If he continues to progress at this rate, the captain could become a eucatastrophe for Minnesota.
As part of his lineup changes, SKC head coach Peter Vermes gave newly-converted right back Graham Zusi a break. Playing the third match in nine days, Vermes saw Minnesota as an opponent against whom he could get away with a few changes. Instead of installing 2016 starter Saad Abdul-Salaam (reportedly carrying an injury), loanee Igor Julião got the nod.
The result…wasn’t pretty. Left wing Miguel Ibarra got orders to pressure the Brazilian, and Batman torched Julião all through the first half. After rewatching the game, there was a clear turning point in the young full back’s day.
After a successfully-defended corner kick, Ibson is able to clear the ball ahead to Abu Danladi. The rookie gets on his high horse and has a two-on-one ahead of him. Julião does his best Ray Lewis impression and (rightfully) earns a yellow. Making his first appearance since 2016, Julião was much less forceful in his defending, giving Ibarra and Burch much more space to avoid drawing a second yellow.
While it kept him on the field, it’s hard to say SKC would’ve been markedly worse without Julião on the pitch. It’s harsh, but he was a complete non-factor in the Sporting KC defense for the rest of the half.
That missed handball call in the box? Yep, that’s Julião. After getting his yellow, the 22-year-old could’ve been at fault for three goals in just over 30 minutes. Minnesota did well to assess a weak link once the lineup was released. With a true four-pronged attack, the Loons can afford to shift focus each week.
While Ibarra had possibly the best game of his career (certainly his best since he left Minnesota for Club León), it was Christian Ramirez who stamped his authority on the match all day long. For the first time, Ramirez had a true strike partner in the form of Danladi. However, it was Ramirez’s spacing, vision, and strength that made SKC sweat all afternoon.
Right back Jérôme Thiesson is able to get past Dwyer on defense, sending the ball forward in an attempt to both clear and find a teammate. Rather than hold the ball up and let his teammates press forward, Ramirez sees Danladi bolting up the wing. He sends a perfect first-touch ball over Ilie Sánchez, and forces Matt Besler to clear a toothless chance.
Ramirez collects the ball from Ibarra on the wing. Immediately, Kevin Ellis closes down the angle to stop the striker from making a long-range attempt. Instead, Ramirez sends in a perfect cross with his weak foot over SKC’s defense, finding Kevin Molino and prolonging the attack.
And, of course…
This entire goal happens because of Ramirez’s positioning and athleticism. The first touch to bring the ball down, finding Danladi in space, drifting back into the box and staying onside… This goal is one that every striker would love to claim. And, unlike his NASL days, half of his six goals this year have come off of headers.
For my money, Ramirez is the most indispensable of Minnesota’s attackers. Molino had his most anonymous game yet, though he did turn in a great defensive performance. However, MLS defenses have learned they need to respect Superman. If not, he’s become tough to contain.
Wes and Schief: I listened to the FiftyFive.One Podcast this week. Good stuff on the whole, but one moment begs a follow-up. Toward the end, Wes mentioned that every time I ride on Ibson for moments of mayhem, he whispers “you’re wrong.”
I like being proven wrong. Going into the season, I thought Ibson was a head-scratcher among the NASL holdovers. His 2016, frankly, was not good enough to warrant an MLS spot. Couple that with his age (33) and it seemed his best days were behind him.
This goal only happens because of a world-class ball from the Champions League veteran. He plays the turf surface perfectly, giving Ibarra space for an uncontested cross. That said…
Ibson finds himself with plenty of space after a perfectly-executed give-and-go with Marc Burch. Instead of lifting his head up to assess, he punts the ball centrally (outside of the box), causing a turnover.
Meanwhile, you’ll get a couple of these moments every game he starts. Ibson likes to be around the ball. That makes sense for a frenetic box-to-box midfielder. However, there are moments where his fiery passion for the game blinds him and brings him to make rash decisions. Ibson is very lucky not to have cost Minnesota a goal on this tackle. One foot closer to the line and Alan Kelly is pointing to the penalty spot.
And of course, we had the holy grail of Ibsonity. Count how many times his indolent personage comes into frame.
Has he proven that he’s an MLS-caliber player? In my eyes, yes. Partnering with a true No. 6 like Sam Cronin often makes up for his lack of positioning. Still, I think the No. 8 spot he holds is the one that offers the biggest potential for an upgrade. Someone with more positional savvy, a more measured temperament, and even more potential for future years is out there. Whether that’s alternatingly injured and underused TAM-player Rasmus Schüller or someone outside of the locker room remains to be seen.
Danladi’s debut had to come at a regular starter’s expense, and that happened to be Johan Venegas. With two goals and two assists thus far, the Costa Rican’s output hasn’t been bad. Still, he’d stagnated in recent weeks. And then this happened:
#MNUFC J. Venegas was not in training today. A. Heath says the attacker has been given a couple days off to "clear his head."
— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) May 10, 2017
Speculatively, the last few matches haven’t gone Venegas’ way and he just needed to clear his head of the self-discouragement. Still, this highlights a major flaw with Minnesota’s current roster.
While immensely talented, the Loons’ attack fleet is massively attenuated. Beyond Ramirez, Danladi, Ibarra, Molino, and Venegas, there isn’t a single player who can occupy one of the front-four spots confidently. While loanee Bashkim Kadrii started the season opener, he’s been largely anonymous in his minutes this year. Collin Martin (a No. 10) has played just once, in garbage time after New England wrapped up their win. Ismaila Jome has played once, again in the final minutes of a loss.
And that’s it. It isn’t even a lack of performers as much as a lack of options. There’s no real backup on the roster for Ramirez up top (given Danladi and Venegas’ shared love of being a second striker).
Venegas’ absence came the day after the MLS Primary Transfer Window slammed shut, and aside from finding someone in free agency, Minnesota won’t get a new attacking body until July 10 at the earliest. Between potential international duty for up to four of the five and the arrogance of assuming none of the five will fall injured or suspended, Minnesota is toeing a fine line.
Here’s the lineup I’d roll out against Toronto FC.
I spent more time than I’d like to admit deciding between Ibson and Collen Warner. On the one hand, Warner once played in Toronto, is a more steady player, and would help to contain the Reds’ attacking midfielders. However, if Minnesota wants to get at least one point out of this trip, they need to realize that keeping Toronto scoreless is damned near impossible.
With that in mind, roll Ibson out for the first 60 and, depending on the game’s shape, bring in either Schüller or Warner to see the rest out. Given Burch’s recent hip injury, I could see Justin Davis getting a start, as well.
See you in the comments.
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