But it’s also true that Toronto FC look to be the best team in MLS right now. Without a healthy Giovinco, they are still winning. Reds coach Greg Vanney called his charges the deepest team in MLS history, and I think he may be right. Their replacements due to injuries were Jozy Altidore, Eriq Zavaleta, and Víctor Vázquez.
I was really not expecting much from Minnesota, despite Toronto’s tough schedule. This match was the first test that United had faced against an elite team since the 0-2 loss in Dallas. Since then, the Loons had taken four points from Houston and Sporting KC, who are also good sides. But they are not on the level that TFC and FCD seem to be on. To go to Toronto and hold their own is, in my book, an impressive result for Minnesota.
I have been fairly consistent, even from the beginning of training camp and through the team’s awful start, in thinking that this Minnesota squad would contend for a playoff spot. I still believe that. The team’s wins at home have been heartening, because taking care of business at home is absolutely essential. But its been the team’s feisty and compelling road performances that have been really encouraging. The team has yet to win away, but consider their opponents: Portland, Colorado, New England, Dallas, Houston, and Toronto. These teams are a combined 17-3-8 at home against the rest of the league. These teams are good at home. There are eight teams in the league who have yet to lose at home, and the Loons have played four of them already.
MLS being MLS, anything can happen. The Philadelphia Union, for instance, who looked to be a five alarm dumpster fire, have now won three straight. But here’s how the west looks so far:
The best team is FC Dallas, and Sporting and Portland seem to be strong teams as well. The Dynamo look nearly unbeatable at home (the Loons are the only team of seven to take a point from BBVA), which is usually enough to get you into the playoffs despite awful road form. That’s four teams who look to have strong claims on playoff spots, leaving two remaining.
Real Salt Lake and Colorado look unlikely to contend at all this season. LA look poor as well. That leaves two playoff spots for the following teams: San Jose, Vancouver, Minnesota, and Seattle. Despite their bad start, the defending champion Sounders have to be respected, especially with talk of a DP being possible this summer. But what of the others? San Jose beat the Loons in Minneapolis, but hardly looked the better side. Vancouver seem wildly inconsistent. I’m not saying the Loons will make the playoffs, but they absolutely can. They are in the pack.
Matt Doyle has done a good little video bit on the tactical limitations that the Loons are still imposing on themselves:
Armchair Analyst: Minnesota United are good defensively when conservative, vulnerable when aggressive. No in between for them just yet pic.twitter.com/QqK1zKK1RF
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 13, 2017
That said, the Saturday Toronto game showed some evolution in the Loons’ game preparation. After the awful start, the team retreated to the 4-2-2-2, and only ever moved out of it at the end of games with defensive subs. But in Toronto, with the same personnel, the Loons played a 4-2-3-1 instead. Check out the position of Abu Danladi against Sporting KC when he played as a center forward (on the left) and Toronto FC when he played as a right winger (on the right).
In contrast, the role of Kevin Molino shifted. Although Molino drifts central even on the right, he was clearly a central attacking midfielder in Toronto, not on the right side. That seemed to suit him defensively. Instead of having to track runners and make tackles, Molino’s defensive work was much simpler: all he had to do was shadow Michael Bradley and make him play the ball backward.
Heath’s tinkering was effective in some ways and not in others. On the good side of the ledger, Bradley only got into the game once the Loons’ formation broke down late as they pushed for an equalizer. Look at the difference between his passing in the first half (left) and the second (right).
But on the flip side, the insertion of Danladi on the right was a defensive disaster. The rookie contributed energy that Molino sometimes doesn’t deign to put in, but he also was reckless and caused the penalty foul that allowed TFC to get on the scoreboard.
So it wasn’t a smash hit of an adjustment. But what I took from it was that Heath is now confident enough in his players that he is able to experiment with their tactics and that the players are comfortable enough to execute. That’s a really essential part of the development of this team.
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