Photo Credit: Daniel Mick

The Angle

Three Things: Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes

by on 2 May 2017

Minnesota’s match on Saturday against San Jose was a critical early season game. It came at the middle of a three-game homestand with progressively more difficult opponents. The Sunday before, the Loons eeked past a floundering Colorado team. Next Sunday, they will face Sporting Kansas City, who look like one of the league’s elite in the early going. So at home, against a lower-middle-tier team like the Quakes, it was key for United to get three points because the next two matches (home vs. SKC and away to Toronto) are unlikely to go favorably.

The Loons couldn’t find a way through against a disciplined and compact San Jose team. Despite an excellent defensive performance, the visitors managed to poke the ball home off a set piece. So it goes — especially when you’re playing San Jose.

Here are three things about that match, with an eye towards next week, where attacking brilliance will be required to match the league’s best defense.

The Loons’ attack must adapt

It was inevitable that Minnesota’s attack would begin to gain some attention and other teams would work harder to stop it. Two weeks in a row, opponents have very successfully bottled up the Loons’ attack. This week in training, Adrian Heath must find new answers to restart his talented corps up front.

Of the four players up front, only Miguel Ibarra had a good game. Batman was quick on his feet and quick with his passing. He did not try for too much, but took his chances when given. He had an incisive run into the box and an excellent shooting opportunity blocked by San Jose’s star, Florian Jungwirth. It was a good performance from last week’s goal scorer.

But for Kevin Molino and Johan Venegas, it was an evening to forget. San Jose repeatedly dispossessed the two trying to dribble the ball. Here’s the chalkboard of the outcome of their ball possessions. Green are successful dribbles, red are unsuccessful.

The only other players to lose possession on the dribble all game, according to OPTA, were Jérôme Thiesson (once) and Abu Danladi (twice — more on this later). The Loons kept feeding the ball to Venegas and Molino, the pair kept trying to make something happen, and repeatedly the two were swarmed by defenders and stripped. Admittedly, one of those lost possessions for Molino was an uncalled and obvious foul in the box. But that’s the only charitable thing you can say for the chart above.

We heard from Montreal fans in the preseason that Venegas is a player who believes his dribbling skills are better than they are. The same must go for Molino. They clearly have ability. A bit more focus on finding the right pass and a bit less on beating their man with fancy footwork might go a long way. The Loons have gotten away from trying to find Christian Ramirez on through-balls and have been trying to make too much happen individually.

Ismaila Jome was Minnesota’s best sub and Abu Danladi had a nightmare

I’ve seen people saying after the match that Abu Danladi had a good game. I think that’s because, immediately after coming on, he had a dangerous run into the box, albeit one that ended with him losing the ball. But overall, his contributions for 24 minutes of play were virtually nil. Here’s his chart. Squares are passes, circles are shots, triangles are ball possessions.

Danladi, who was brought in to be a difference maker up top, was a total non-factor. His powerful shot, which was a major skill he demonstrated in the college ranks, was nowhere to be found. San Jose’s defenders had no problem with his speed. His passing barely registered.

Compare and contrast with the OPTA chart for Jome, who made his debut and played for 11 minutes.

Jome completed several attacking passes, including one that OPTA notes as a “key pass,” meaning that it resulted in a scoring chance. He beat a man on the dribble and went racing down the left flank. All of this in less than half the time Danladi had on the pitch and in basically the same area of the field.

We’re now nine games into the season and we’ve yet to see even a glimpse, really, of why Minnesota used the first pick on Abu Danladi. That’s not to say that he’s a bust. It’s far too early to say something like that, but it’s hard to believe Adrian Heath when he says that Danladi is training his way into the starting XI when his contributions in actual matches are so negligible.

As for Jome, I liked what I saw from him in his one major preseason showing against Portland. He’s a hard worker. He gets on the field and he fights for possession. He’s a physical presence. I think his best role would be as a substitute left midfielder when the Loons are ahead. And I thought he earned himself another substitute appearance in the near future.

There’s a nice balance to the midfielders

Minnesota isn’t destined to dominate teams with possession as it continues to play a 4-2-2-2. That’s not the end of the world, but I like how the midfield played on Saturday. Ibson and Sam Cronin are, as our own Jeff Rueter wrote last week, a natural pairing. Cronin is a cautious and smart passer who marshals the defense and protects the back four. Ibson is a freelancer who tries random stuff. He is the only player on this team who tries to pass the ball between the lines.

On the defensive side of things, they are also complements. Here’s Cronin’s chart, which shows his defensive work throughout the game. Orange triangles are recoveries. Blue are interceptions. Green are tackles. Yellow are blocks. Purple are clearances.

Sorry, did I say Cronin’s chart? This is Ibson’s defensive chart.

Is that surprising? Ibson has the reputation as a slacker on defense. I think that’s mainly because of the couple times a game when he loses the ball and theatrically curses the gods instead of recovering and getting back to defend. That is annoying, but Ibson also buzzes around the midfield all game cleaning up loose balls and starting the attack. Meanwhile, Cronin’s role is almost as a third center back. He sits in front of Francisco Calvo and Brent Kallman, blocking passing lanes and closing down players in dangerous areas and shepherding them wide. That work doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but it’s vital.

The Loons had a great defensive game on Saturday and were unlucky to concede a goofy goal, and one where nobody was clearly at fault. Calvo had his second-straight monster game in central defense shutting down the side of the field where San Jose focused its entire attack, while Kallman was steady with admittedly less work.

It’s in the midfield where the structure of the Loons defense is decided. Because Minnesota plays with just two central midfielders, it must necessarily play a low-block style. The entire team only rarely pressing for recoveries, but usually moving to get behind the ball and challenge from the halfway line back. That is the price you pay. With a player like Ibson motoring by to pick up balls and a stalwart like Cronin blocking the direct entry to the danger zone, the Loons look increasingly solid in the back.

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  • duluth_loon

    Your comments re: Venegas thinking he’s a better dribbler than he actually is lined up with what I have seen the last two matches. He’s got a pick his head up and find an open teammate with much more frequency. The fact that he falls over with the slightest of contact doesn’t help.

    During the match I kept saying to myself that Dunladi should get a start. But then he subbed on and showed us all that he’s in over his head.

    This illustrates that we don’t have a true impact player to pair with Ramirez up top.
    Is there someone else on the team to try up top with Ramirez? Or do we have to look to acquire someone?

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I’ve been fairly clear all along that I think this team still lacks a true #10 (though we’ve never seen Molino in that position explicitly, perhaps we will next week) and that they ought to spend DP money on that spot.

      • Scherbs

        I know these attacking guys are switching positions all the time, but why not have Molino in the middle just off of Rameriez and push Venegas out wide where is less likely to get knocked over?

        • Alex Schieferdecker

          Think Venegas is pretty ineffective out wide as a general rule. The more central he plays, the better. Ideally, I’d actually love to see him swap LESS, not more.

      • chadchadchad

        If Molino does get played centrally this week, I’d rather see Kadrii (on his salary) again before Danladi out on the wing. I just haven’t seen Danladi control the ball under duress and be able to turn someone. He seems to get the ball and run in straight lines, usually towards the corner flag, without the physicality to stop on the ball or turn inside. He did have a great opportunity to run at Bernardez one-on-one at the right top of the box but snatched a shot instead, shows how far his game still needs to develop.

        Think a player like Fabregas would be a perfect compliment DP #10, not gonna happen when he’s rejecting 30 mil moves to AC milan, but someone similar with his on the ball skill-set would be wonderful to connect this team together.

        • chadchadchad

          Eidur Gudjohnsen from 5 years ago would be another great fit in the current #10 spot. Alas, not to be.

  • Pete Bissen

    After watching the San Jose game a second time, I realized my campaigning for Dunladi to get a start was very premature. He did provide a quick spark but it was short-lived. Jome looked good once he settled. That is promising right now.
    On the podcast today, the ominous July Gold Cup stretch was mentioned. Assuming no injuries or suspensions, who would you throw out there with our limited roster? If we are going to rely on some of these players, do you think Heath will start using the potential spot-fillers more as we get closer?

    • David Sterling

      Thankfully, T&T isn’t in it, so Molino will be in the squad, so Calvo and Johan are the only two we’ll probably have to worry about; or more like, Calvo will be the only one we have to worry about considering we have replacements in MF.
      I suppose, CR and/or Ibarra could maybe be up for Gold Cup roster spots if they continue form. I think CR has a better chance as our true forward pool is a bit small.

      • Pete Bissen

        At this point, I can’t see either of them getting the call. Ramirez started off white hot but has cooled lately. Ibarra is doing well at the moment but both will need solid showings in May and June if they want to be in the squad. My big worry is them getting called up and riding the bench. It doesn’t do them any good and handcuffs MNUFC with the limited depth at present.

        • David Sterling

          I mentioned this in my comment to the article; I don’t think CR has cooled, it’s a product of the play of Molino and Johan. Alex also alluded to this in his article when he said they aren’t looking for the through ball anymore, but trying to do it on their own.
          With that said, I agree, if they continue playing like this, CR won’t get looked at very closely by Arena; but, he’s still doing a good job trying to hold up play and make some runs here and there. That may not go unnoticed.

      • Alex Schieferdecker

        Good news is that Greenspan has been getting starts on loan with Pittsburgh, so he should return to the team sharper than he was before. Battle between him and Taylor for Calvo’s spot during the Gold Cup.

        • David Sterling

          I keep forgetting about Greenspan. That is very good news.

  • Bruce J McGuire

    Danladi got himself into decent positions a couple of times, which is promising, but his failure to even connect a pass off those positions was amateur hour. He looked like a fast guy without a lot of actual soccer skills.

    And you know my thoughts on Ibson – the better his teammates, the better he is. He had a good game against San Jose.

    • David Sterling

      I feel like your assessment of Danladi was actually a scouting report on him; lots of raw talent and speed, but nothing that’s going to get him into the 11. Thankfully he’s 21, and has plenty of time to finish his development.

      • Dave Laidig

        Dandladi is struggling with possession and connecting with teammates (the expected goal differential for his possession actions is -0.22 per 90). The only players with 90+ minutes who scored lower is Demidov (he gets knocked for giving up two PKs) and J. Venegas (who offsets it some with shots and goals). At the current performance, switching Venegas with Danladi would be like giving the opponent an extra goal every 8 games. Switching CR with Danladi would be like giving the opponent 2 goals every 3 games.

  • David Sterling

    I was skeptical about what we were actually getting with Johan, and to be perfectly honest, Molino as well. From the day we signed each player, I saw little concern from their respective supporters that they were losing anything special with both groups arguing each player was not cut out to be great, and some Montreal supporters arguing Johan shouldn’t get a start, ever. Most of the arguments were similar; too much [poor] dribbling, unable to find the pass when it’s most needed, dispossessed easily, and average shot-taking. Through San Jose, I’ve seen all of those at varying times to varying degrees, but I think in the past two weeks, I have seen all of them from both of them, in both games.
    Bear with me on this, but Ramirez’s last two games remind me of how Chelsea played with Torres, specifically the 13-14 season. So many people blamed Torres for his dreadful time with the club (that season he scored 11 goals total), but service was terrible; too many working parts, working in other (their own) directions. The entire midfield had their own agendas with Schurrle and Willian just joining that season and Oscar and Hazard on only their second season. They all wanted to impress to make the Starting 11, and all had egos creating what looked like a bunch of midfielders running around with the ball taking shots, ignoring the forward. It didn’t help Jose Mourinho is terrible at managing personalities; interestingly a similar argument I heard from some Orlando supporters about Heath.

    I hope Heath can figure this one out, and get those two, especially Johan looking to move the ball up to CR instead of trying to do more work than necessary; but I’d be open to DP money at a #10 at the expense of Johan.

  • Mark

    It’s finally good to see much more astute analysis of Danladi than the glowing reports the TV commentators and Strib writers were giving him. Yes against SJ he did seem young with fresh legs and ran well. But his touch on the ball was just awful. He easily could have turned balls into five scoring chances but his chance at the key moment — when seasoned strikers put the daft touch on to get excellent scoring chances — just fizzled time and time again. And I agree Venegas needs to stay central and not to the side. He, Ibarra and CR do have good chemistry together but they’ve been trying a bit too much ticky tack one touches that don’t amount to anything yet.

  • Mark

    Oh, an Ibson and Calvo both had monster games IMHO. Ibson is a creator who is not afraid to move up to make something happen. And Calvo was a monster stud against SJ. He seemed like the best player on the field as odd as it sounds.

  • Tres Gatos

    Three actual items for ‘three things’? What has the world come to?!?!?!

  • Troy Kadlec

    Ramirez was not utilized effectively in this game. He had the CBs split with space multiple times and nobody fed the ball forward for him. We have good seats on the visitor side near the midfield line and the angle was there multiple times. Ramirez fought for every touch with little help from his teammates. I like Ibarra, Molino and Venegas, but they need to feed Christian the ball.

    The defense was great and Calvo was outstanding. Burch and Theisson both had some great lung busting runs to disrupt counters. But credit San Jose in clogging the midfield and not giving us many good crossing looks. Ibson and Cronin were stifled several times because they were outnumbered in the midfield. Credit to them for some scrappy play and preventing build up in front of our goal.

    We seem to save our explosive speed with Danladi and Jome for the waning moments of matches. I’d like to see us press hard earlier and set the tone for a match rather than passively waiting for our possession to yield a break. Tough to play defensive ball and not use speed to counter until the end.

    KC will be a tough game. I’m just hoping we set the tone early against them and then use possession to grind out a result.

  • Austin

    I can’t stand watching Ibson play, he always gives up, rarely runs back on D. About the only thing he does well is drawing fouls(mainly because he’s holding onto the ball way too long) yeah yeah I get it he’s “creative” but he’s also slow, can’t seem to make the right(accurate) pass. #21 is in my opinion overrated mainly due to the fact that he can’t seem to create his own shot, he relies on his mid to feed him the ball, which is fine but he still lacks speed and from what I’ve seen doesn’t have that great of ball control. I’d call a poor poor man’s Thomas Muller. I know I will get a lot of haters but I’m just calling it how I see it.

  • nathan3e

    There’s truth to both sides of the Danladi argument. He shows exciting flashes and has attributes that can’t be taught. He remains wholly unpolished and prone to error. He’s young and is seemingly a good locker room guy so I have no problem waiting for him to develop.