Before Minnesota United FC’s three-game homestand, I figured six points would be an acceptable result. I suspected the Loons would beat Colorado, beat San Jose, and lose to Sporting Kansas City. But MLS is a funny league, and things routinely don’t go to plan. So it was with United’s loss to the Quakes, and so it was again with the team’s surprisingly comfortable win in the Loser Gets Iowa Derby against the Sporks.
The Loons’ win has sparked a lot of re-assessment across MLS, especially given the recent struggles of expansion counterparts Atlanta. Suddenly tied on points, the national soccer media has taken notice that Minnesota is not as bad as anticipated. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Anyway, here are three thoughts from Sunday’s win:
Last week, I wrote that Abu Danladi had shown nothing in his cameo appearances to warrant a start. I stand by that opinion, but clearly Danladi was showing more in training than he had on the pitch. Credit to Adrian Heath for trusting his gut and giving the No. 1 overall pick his first start in place of Johan Venegas.
The young Ghanaian made good on his opportunity with the opening goal, but he did quite a bit more than finish a single chance. Danladi’s work rate in the final third was highly impressive. For the first time in this entire season, the Loons pressed the opposing team at midfield, or even higher up the pitch. Danladi, Christian Ramirez, and the closest winger pressed the Sporting KC defenders consistently, not just in the immediate aftermath of a giveaway. This was a first for the Loons, who have played a very deep, low-block defense for the entire rest of the year. But it was Danladi’s enthusiasm and energy up top that was instrumental in helping the team press more aggressively. Even if the Loons never won the kind of golden opportunity that a high press can provide, they prevented their guests from ever playing comfortably with the ball.
Every team is different, and perhaps next week’s opponent, Toronto FC, will merit a different approach. But it’s great to see that Minnesota has this defensive club in its bag. Despite my negativity last week, it’s clear that Danladi has earned himself another start. He and Ramirez seemed to have a good connection, and it will be fascinating to see if they can find any success against TFC’s three man back line.
If you haven’t yet, go read Matt Doyle’s essential weekend roundup on MLSSoccer.com. In his article, Doyle shares the network passing graph from Minnesota’s match against SKC. Doyle makes a broader point with the graphic, but I want to make a specific one. Look at the center of this chart:
That’s No. 7 Ibson, who is the obvious focal point of the Loons play. When in possession, the team finds the Brazilian. If they find Sam Cronin instead, he usually passes to Ibson. He is the player who shuttles the ball between the defense and the attack. That’s a kind of player that Minnesota sorely lacked in the NASL, despite having the very same Ibson on their roster. Up a degree of difficulty, the midfielder has seemed to find his feet. In the NASL, he sometimes seemed one step ahead of his teammates and thus ineffective. In MLS, he’s found a groove. You simply can’t take him out of the XI right now.
But is this a weakness that the Loons need to be worried about? This kind of over-dependence on one player for distribution purposes is problematic. Some smart team (read: Toronto, next week) is going to spot this and focus on shutting down Ibson. As good as he is on the ball, we’ve all seen him hold onto it too long and lose possession in a bad spot. If the Reds stick Armando Cooper on Ibson, how will Minnesota react? Can they find another conduit to get the ball to their attacking foursome?
Early in the season, I wrote that Francisco Calvo was Minnesota’s “best and worst defender.” What I meant was that the Costa Rican was capable of fantastic defensive plays, but also seemed good for at least one total screw-up a game.
But for three-straight weeks, Calvo has featured in our Three Stars of the Match, and he’s been blameless in each game. More than blameless, he’s been fantastic. Take a look at this:
That’s Calvo’s defensive OPTA chart. Purple are clearances, yellow are blocks, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, and green are tackles.
This isn’t a slight against Brent Kallman, who had a great game, but his chart looks nothing like this. It looks empty compared to this. For the past few games, that’s been the case. It’s because Calvo’s side of the defense has been under more pressure. But it’s also because Francisco Calvo is a monster.
There’s a fantastic balance to the central defense right now that mirrors the balance in midfield that I wrote about last week. Kallman is a reasonably stable and cautious defender. He closes out players and marks tightly. Calvo does that too, but he’s got an adventurous streak that’s really quite amazing. Against Kansas City, he was lights out. You simply could not beat him one on one. You could not reach the ball in the box ahead of him. It was the best performance from a Minnesota defender all year. If Calvo continues to play mistake-free soccer like this, he’ll be a finalist for Defender of the Year. While the Loons’ foreign acquisitions have come under fire, Calvo is carving out an exception for himself. He’s simply been terrific.
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