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.
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.
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.
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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