Saturday evening’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps was the first time that both of Minnesota United FC’s players named Venegas (Johan and Kevin) were on the field together. Both started the game, with the former lasting 85 minutes and the latter playing the full 90 in a 2-2 draw.
Plenty of Loons have come in for criticism this year, but it’s safe to say that both Venegases are among the most maligned. Yet Saturday’s match also happened to be the team’s best performance all season. They had more total passes (596), passes in the opposing half (340, exactly tied with the home match vs LA), and passes in the final third (172) than any other match this season. How is it possible for the Loons to play such a dominant match in the run of play with two players who have been so thoroughly slated?
Here are two arguments, a negative and a positive. The truth is probably somewhere in between!
Sure, it was an excellent team performance against Vancouver, but that’s because other players picked up the slack. Up top, Christian Ramirez keeps finding ways to score. In the attack, Kevin Molino and Miguel Ibarra have been given free reign to bring the ball forward and combine, and it’s working wonders. In midfield, Sam Cronin’s tremendous stability and Ibson’s tireless freelancing have found their own balance. In defense, Francisco Calvo, Brent Kallman, and even Jermaine Taylor have looked comfortable. It also helps to have a shot-stopper full of confidence in Bobby Shuttleworth and one of the league’s best defensive fullbacks in Jérôme Thiesson. When every other part of the machine is working well, it’s not hard for more limited players to look adept.
But while the team stats were impressive, consider what some of the leading player rating metrics say. You might roll your eyes at the Audi Player Index or WhoScored, but both are of the same mind in rating both Venegases among the weakest Loons on Sunday. Kevin Venegas is the worst rated in the Audi Index, while Johan Venegas barely has more points than Bashkim Kadrii, who came in as a sub and touched the ball less than five times. WhoScored similarly rates Kevin Venegas low, just ahead of Brent Kallman, who only played a half, while Johan Venegas is tied with Christian Ramirez as the lowest marked attacker.
Or, if you prefer, try the good old eye test. Kevin Venegas had his hands full all game with 16 year-old Alphonso Davies. It was his horrible back pass which led to Vancouver’s first goal, and later, he was behind the play, forcing Brent Kallman into a foul that resulted in the visitors’ second strike. Meanwhile, Johan Venegas was a non-factor in the attack. He didn’t have a shot on target, and the spectacle of him launching a late effort into space right before he was subbed off (and threw a fit about it) was a fitting symbol.
We know enough about both of these players. Kevin Venegas is skilled with the ball and a good crosser, but he’s a defensive liability. Johan Venegas is a decent second forward, but he vastly overrates his dribbling and passing abilities, constantly gives the ball away, and doesn’t do the defensive work.
There are simply better options for both positions. Adrian Heath should restore the reliable Justin Davis to the left back position and move Thiesson to the right. Meanwhile, Abu Danladi should return to the starting XI now that his suspension is over. Or perhaps Bashkim Kadrii, who looked lively in his short cameo, could get another shot.
Soccer is a team sport. The idea that the Loons could play well while essentially being down two men, is absurd. Both Venegases were key to the Loons’ sterling performance overall, and they shouldn’t be singled out and picked on.
Sure, Kevin Venegas struggled a bit with Alphonso Davies. But who doesn’t? The young phenom is being shadowed by scouts from Manchester United for a reason. In fact, given what the young Canadian is capable of, this was actually not a great performance, and Venegas actually deserves some credit for keeping him in check. On the play that resulted in the penalty, Venegas actually does a superb defensive job on Davies. But the Loons defense doesn’t clear the ball, electing instead to try a series of cute passes to get out of pressure. The ball falls to Venegas with very little time, he and Kallman aren’t on the same wavelength, and the result is unfortunate, but far from an individual mistake.
It’s unfair as well to pin the second Vancouver goal on Venegas adventuring too far forward. Why not instead blame the turnover in the midfield that led to Vancouver’s fast break? Or blame Brent Kallman for going in on a tackle, when Venegas was running behind him to cover? In part because of his reputation, the longtime Loons right-back is being criticized for team mistakes. As a result, his contributions are being overlooked.
Consider, for instance, that of the six furthest forward Minnesota defensive plays, five are credited to Venegas. That’s five instances in which he won the ball back in extremely dangerous areas and prolonged a Minnesota attack. This is a very new and promising dimension to the Loons’ attack. A few weeks back, getting full backs into the final third was a major challenge for the team. Venegas offers something different. Consider how many times on Saturday the Loons recovered the ball and restarted attacks in the Vancouver half. That’s really something we only saw this past week. It may not have resulted in a goal, but that’s just one game. If this style of play becomes a habit for the Loons, it will bear a lot of fruit.
Meanwhile, up top, Johan Venegas played a pretty underrated role, in reading the movements of Molino and Ibarra and providing vertical support to both. It’s interesting how many of the Loons’ attacks went through Venegas in midfield, not in the final third. It’s also interesting how you also saw him pushing the Vancouver defenders back and providing a different run than Christian Ramirez. The Costa Rican is a bad winger, but he really understands the role of a second central striker, and he seemed to intrinsically understand how to leave space for the attacking midfielders behind him, and also provide an option. He may not be the best on the ball, but there’s nobody on the Loons roster who moves like him.
Venegas also takes pressure off Kevin Molino. He may not be an elite creator, but he does try to pass between the lines. That’s more than can be said for Miguel Ibarra, who likes to run between the lines, play give and goes, or work the defense with long horizontal runs and passes. But Venegas and Molino (and Ibson) are direct, and having two to three players who will try to hit that killer pass has to give defenses pause. Keep in mind it was Venegas’ flick which set Christian Ramirez through against Orlando. He’s an inventive player, he takes risks, and so what if many don’t pan out? The ones that do tend to have big payoffs.That’s a tradeoff you should always take.
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