In some ways, Minnesota United’s 4-0 loss last night was easily foreseeable.
Once the U.S. Open Cup held its fourth round draw, only three matchups consisted of two MLS sides. Generally, the (turn on the neon signs) magic of the cup comes from a lower division team thwarting the top-flight side. Christos FC’s journey from beer league champions to an early lead against D.C. United is remarkable. Even “cupsets” like FC Cincinnati over Columbus Crew SC and The Miami FC over Orlando City SC keep the tournament intriguing.
Minnesota United, however, was not so lucky with its draw.
Just 11 days after getting played off of Children’s Mercy Park, the Loons flew back for another walloping. There was some reason to believe that Minnesota would go full-steam-ahead on the tournament. Instead, Adrian Heath told Andy Greder that making the playoffs was “the Holy Grail for every expansion team.” His lineup yesterday reflected a prioritizing of league play. That’s one of two viable choices, but how does this set Minnesota up moving forward?
After the loss, Heath justified his lineup decision. “I’m not being disrespectful to this tournament,” per the coach, “but we’ve got a few internationals away as well. We needed to give some players some minutes and it was evident that they needed it. As the game wore on, we just couldn’t sustain the physicality that you need to do against a team of Kansas City’s ability.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. First, Heath recognizes that the lineup he put out could be scrutinized…and it was. Second, he’s absolutely right: without regular contributors like Francisco Calvo, Johan Venegas, Kevin Molino, and Jermaine Taylor, drastic changes were necessary.
Third, he mentions that it was “evident” that the second team needed more minutes. It’s well and good to give them the chance, but it goes back to a comment he made to me after the Atlanta United drubbing in March. Heath is a coach who believes in players finishing off games that become sloppy. This Saturday’s game against Real Salt Lake was always going to be the focus.
MLS teams don't take USOC seriously enough. Win five games (maybe 2-3 against lower div teams) and you win a trophy and you're in CCL.
— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) June 14, 2017
I’m with Sam on this one. To me, Minnesota is an outsider in the playoff hunt. While it’s possible it sneaks in as the sixth seed, it’s far more likely that it finishes in the 8-10 range. So why, then, didn’t the Loons press to get past SKC and make a cup run? On this week’s FiftyFive.One Podcast, Jeb Brovsky talked about the momentum that teams pick up with positive U.S. Open Cup results.
A couple of players may have raised their stock. While Justin Davis looked steady for the most part out of position, Marc Burch came in and was a disaster. Davis may pressure for minutes at left back. Abu Danladi and Collin Martin had a couple of positive attacking moments and may factor for minutes.
But that’s just about it. What could’ve been a rallying point became an embarrassment for the Loons.
Obviously, Sporting Kansas City prioritized the U.S. Open Cup game. Its lineup was one player away from its best XI, with Homegrown Player Dániel Sallói replacing Benny Feilhaber. This is a team that has found a way to balance both regular MLS Cup Playoff appearances with U.S. Open Cup success.
However, SKC’s depth is much greater than that of Minnesota. In fact, probably the biggest damnation from last night is the injury to Joe Greenspan. The 6-foot-6 center back had just completed a massively successful loan to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. With Calvo and Taylor away and Vadim Demidov held out with a knee injury, Greenspan and Brent Kallman were the only two center backs on the roster. Meanwhile, Greenspan last went through league concussion protocol in March, and doubtlessly will be eased back again this time around. This means that Minnesota is back to a three-CB depth chart.
— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) June 15, 2017
Club mainstays Davis and Kevin Venegas each played with varying levels of success. While Davis was instructed to stay back on defense (and did that fairly well), Venegas assumed the role of a wing back. He kept up with Sallói during the first half, but in the final 30, he was exposed. This is partially due to a lack of match action, as Heath last played Kevin Venegas in the 5-2 slaughter in New England. Still, Kevin Venegas will need a few more run-outs to get back to peak fitness.
And that’s about it. Behind the starting line of Burch-Calvo-Kallman-Jérôme Thiesson, only Davis, Taylor, and Kevin Venegas offer cover. Once the transfer window opens up, Minnesota will need to add at least two more pieces to survive the long season.
Or, you know, they could sign the free agent Brovsky and begin to build their depth.
With all of this in mind, how likely is a Loons playoff appearance? Let me throw some numbers at you quick.
Currently, FiveThirtyEight gives Minnesota a 15 percent chance at making the playoffs. Only Real Salt Lake (8 percent) has a lower figure. The site’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) rates Minnesota as worst in the league defensively. Meanwhile, its offense has plummeted in recent weeks, with that SPI ranking Minnesota 17th.
Minnesota is averaging 1.0 points per game. If the Loons collect seven points in their next three (@RSL, vPOR, vVAN), they’ll raise their PPG to 1.27. Last year, Portland finished seventh in the West with 1.29 PPG. If the West trends similarly, two wins and a draw would help get Minnesota back in the hunt for the postseason. Elsewhere, resident statistician Dave Laidig figures Minnesota to get around 35 points, well below sixth-place San Jose Earthquakes’s tally of 49.
In short, it’ll take a lot of bounces to go the Loons’s way for them to make the postseason. Ahead of the year, Heath and Minnesota referred to their outlook as a “three-year plan.” For what it’s worth, Orlando had a similar goal in opening its own stadium. Firing Heath a year-and-a-half into the plan threw that out of sync. Rather than forecasting ahead, what can Minnesota do now now to figure things out?
First, the Loons need to establish their core. To me, Calvo, Sam Cronin, Molino, and Christian Ramirez are locked in. Players like Kallman and Miguel Ibarra could work into this level, too. There are whispers that Burch may be retiring at the end of the year and, given his long and distinguished career, that’s understandable.
If Burch is on the outs, Davis needs increased minutes to see if he can lock down left back for 2018. Martin, Greenspan, and Jome need to get regular playing time for development. That may mean a loan to a lower-division side. If Rasmus Schüller (who had a disastrous game) isn’t the answer, Minnesota has to find Ibson’s eventual replacement at No. 8. Above all, the team needs to find a true No. 10 to connect the defense and offense, designated player or otherwise.
The summer transfer window will be a big moment for Heath, Manny Lagos, and Amos Magee. It’s most likely that Minnesota will focus on making moves from within the league. This isn’t a bad play at all – there are plenty of undervalued players on other rosters who could be key contributors for the Loons. Just think of the Cronin/Burch trade as evidence of that. With two or three improvements, it’s feasible that Minnesota sets themselves up for a very competitive 2018.
This isn’t to say that Minnesota should punt the rest of 2017. The season isn’t even halfway over and there’s a lot to gain by the Loons remaining competitive. However, the goal shouldn’t be making the playoffs this year. Ultimately, the real objective has to be establishing the groundwork to be a playoff regular for years to come. The work to reach that point begins right now.
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