The Angle

Three Things: Minnesota United vs. Sporting Kansas City

by on 9 May 2017

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:

I doubted Danladi, and he proved me wrong

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.

Ibson is becoming Minnesota’s most essential player. Can they afford that?

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?

Francisco Calvo is The Word.

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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  • Dave Benhart

    “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?”
    Yes. Cronin. While he’s not the quite same as Ibson we’ve seen decent distribution from him too. The pair have been playing with one (Ibson) doing more of the distribution & the other (Cronin) covering the back line but I think they can switch roles. If Toronto targets Ibson & bottles him up that would leave Cronin free to take over those distribution duties.

    • BJ

      Quakes gave Ibson a wide area to do what he wanted, and that worked for them. They kept backing off, until he finally made a mistake.

      • Alex Schieferdecker

        I think the Quakes were successful because they packed the box and put ten men behind the ball (so did we). It was a brutal, negative game decided by a loose ball on a set piece. I don’t think it reflects much on Ibson offensively.

  • BJ

    Calvo – it was hard to see on the TV but it looked to be his best game.

    I think teams are targeting him because he is the weaker of the CBs – in positioning, he falls back (runs back) when the attackers come often keeping players on side. He is faster than Kallman and might be better on the ball than him. Kallman is much better in the air and at marking (neither are great at that). Assuming I am following how they are playing I think that man marking on set pieces for the CBs – I think others are playing zone, mostly).

    • David Sterling

      Since Calvo returned from international duty he has been better than Kallman in all aspects of the game. In my opinion, Kallman is getting praise because of who he replaced. Don’t get me wrong, I think Kallman has been a steady and solid defender, I just think he looks better to people than he is because of who we’ve been comparing him to. I think our marking on set pieces has been down to communication issues between players, not bad marking necessarily. If you rewatch them, you can see that the backline is not communicating well with the MF help causing lots of confusion. If you have the opportunity, DVR the game and check it out.

      • BJ

        Not all aspects, most, not all.

        I don’t know the set piece defending strategy, but like I said it looks like the CB team is marking and doing fine, the others appear to be doing zone which I think is harder, and communication is key to that.

  • Vinyl Haircut

    Alex, as usual we both agree and disagree. 🙂 Props to you for recognizing Danladi’s great play against KC. I don’t agree, though, that his starting role was solely due to his performance in training. Even in the previous game against the Quakes – despite the stats – he showed some signs. He injected a high work rate, pressure on defenders, and overall energy. At the game, you could just feel the atmosphere change, and the work rate of his teammates also rose. Sure, he wet his pants every time he had the ball, but it was his first extended game time. That’s to be expected, and I imagine that he’ll have some difficulty with his first extending playing time in an away game, maybe as soon as Saturday. I’m glad they’re giving the young guy a chance to grow and learn. That’s exactly what we should be doing in an expansion year.

    And that brings me to Ibson. I have to admit he’s played much better in the last couple of games than I expected. Even his typical failings haven’t created disaster – like immediately turning the ball over in a horrible location right after kickoff, or a one-minute fake injury that no one in the stadium believed. Those things irk me, but they haven’t killed us lately, and he’s certainly capable of some great moments. But – as with Danladi – I wish we were growing a long-term answer in this position with a younger player. Ibson, even at very best, is a stop-gap.

    I *totally* agree with regard to Calvo. He has been my man-of-the-match the last two games. Just brilliant play. Not only that, but his on-field vocalization and leadership has been much more evident in the stadium. I also have to say I’ve been very impressed with Thiesson, and not just defensively. If we can maintain just a little more possession in midfield, I think he can get forward more confidently and contribute significantly as Molino tucks in.

    Thanks again for the great coverage and analysis!

  • David Sterling

    1. We need the same lineup against TFC. In my opinion, Sporting is a better team defensively, with that said, they had a weakness on the Right we were able to exploit, but I think we need to push this pressure-focused offensive front into the next game and see where it goes; besides, Johan looks the better super sub than Denladi anyway.
    2. I’m okay with depending on Ibson for distribution. That’s how it works. Look at any team throughout any league, and they seem to have that one player who they depend on for distribution. It’s up to our front four to pressure TFC enough to throw them off their ability to key on Ibson.
    3. TFC is ripe for an exploitation if you ask me. They’ve played really well at home, and coming up against the Loons may make them overconfident. Heath needs to stick to the game plan that has produced the most balance yet this season, and with that, the risk. Adjustments can be made, if necessary.

  • Pete Bissen

    I’ve been on the Danladi teeter-totter the last couple of weeks. He showed an instant spark and I praised him until I watched the replay (and was told how wrong I was). He had jitters but he seems to have corrected them. He provides an element that, if used correctly against specific teams, can open up defenses. He would be better against teams that don’t part park the bus so Venegas could come in in those instances. Not a bad option to have in the long run.
    Danladi is stuff rough around the edges but hopefully this good showing can help him mature it a solid complement to Ramirez throughout the season and beyond.
    Another great article Alex.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      “I praised him until I watched the replay (and was told how wrong I was).”

      You’ve gotta spike the foolball here. You are too nice! Claim victory!

      • Pete Bissen

        He might wet his jock in his next start so I will reserve a few snarky comments in case he proves me right again. Can’t get too cocky when I’m very much out of my element with this crowd.

    • Mark

      Pete…I appreciated your concurrence when you rewatched last week. But I have to agree with you 100% this week. Danladi has rough spots from his youthfulness and inexperience at this level but he took a big step against SKC and hopefully will only improve more as time goes on. Ibson and Calvo have been absolute monsters the last two games. Ibson is slowly reducing his bonehead plays and Calvo is just locking down everybody. To hold Dwyer to basically nothing except a nosebreaker is awesome. And speaking of Shuttleworth….the broken nose seemed to make him play even harder. Hats off to him!

  • Bruce J McGuire

    For three years I have felt that Ibson would be better with better teammates. And last year I looked through the roster of every MLS team and could not find one in which Ibson would not be a starter. He is the most talented player on the team. Of course he can be a frustrating pain in the ass, if he wasn’t he would still be in Europe or at Flamengo. But he has the talent and Minn needs him if they are to succeed. (And by succeed I mean, not be one of the 3 or 4 worst teams in the league during their expansion season.)

    • I completely agree with this assessment Bruce and have been saying so for some time. He needed two things, better players around him a better league where he felt he could shine more if he made more of an effort.

  • Bruce J McGuire

    I really appreciate and enjoy your analysis Alex.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I appreciate your comments. Thank you for reading!

  • Melissa Danner

    I hated Ibson in the NASL, and I continually said that I thought that league was not the right place for him. I said multiple times that Ibson would be better in MLS with more skilled, physical play. Then the Loons signed him before this season and I groaned, wondering what they were thinking and totally forgetting what I’ve been claiming for the last 2 years.

    I’m happy to say that Ibson has proved me right (which happens pretty rarely when it comes to soccer, to be honest) and has flourished in MLS. That’s not to say that I don’t get frustrated when I watch him hang on to the ball too long, or miss a wide-open winger with a weak pass, or watch him completely flop and try to draw a foul with obvious drama. But he has vision that not enough players have – he is a freaking beast in the midfield and I think that he can be valuable for the team for at least the next couple of years. He plays like a deep number 10 – the one position that I think we’re missing, and he’s filling in valiantly.

    Anyway, good stuff as usual, Alex!