Two Arguments: Are Johan and Kevin Venegas Underrated Contributors or Confounding Liabilities?

by on 27 June 2017

The Two Venegases

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!

The critics are right

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.

The critics are missing something

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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  • Scherbs

    The truth is indeed likely somewhere in the middle. My person thought is that Viva has been playing pretty well. if he can cut down on the errors he will be solid. Johnny Vegas, however was totally anonymous against Vancouver. Add that to his temper tantrums and he is not exactly endearing himself to fans. As green and unpolished as Danladi is, i think he is much better in front of goal.

  • Almontanello

    Before the match vs VAN, I was worried about the depth of MNU roster.

    The two Venegas confirm my worries and are examples of players border line for an MLS roster.

    Especially K Venegas is critical because Burch will be out for many weeks and we must pray that Thiesson would be free from suspensions and injuries.

    • Tim Reppe

      Was a big fan of K Venegas in NASL, still am. He takes offensive risks as a defender, so Inchy should use him when that’s needed. This type of play doesn’t bode well for the Audi Index that scores according to position. His crosses are creative & unpredictable. Plus, most GA come straight from the middle of the box, not from the sides.

    • David Sterling

      Exactly, this is why we should find another Right Back. Jerry needs to stay on the Left where he is stronger (not that he isn’t on the right) and has cover in Davis. With a new RB, Kevin can go back to his sub role, and when Burch is back, then they have to make a decision. Even then, Kevin can be moved up-field if necessary as a sub too. Obviously, if we could find a guy who is solid on both sides, it would be even better.

  • BJ

    K Venegas is somewhere in the middle of this, maybe leaning more toward the positive side – remember he has had what, 4 league games now. Each performance has seen him greatly improve.

    J Venegas has been in the league for a while and is spot starter and sub level guy.

  • Jim Oliver

    Love this, Alex.

    For my money, Kevin is still worth the minutes he’s getting. He’s not done a great job protecting the ball when he has it, but I think he’s getting miles better with each start he gets. He’s a contributor now that costs us every once in a while and is getting more reliable. He needs minutes and the team to cover for him when he inevitably gets bit by the excellent wingers he’s facing every game.

    Johan, I’ve got less hope for. Especially in that position we need somebody who can be a difference maker when defenders are gang-banging Christian. Those supporting runs are great, but when nobody’s finding him or he can’t turn and protect the ball when he gets it he’s not the man for that job.

  • MmattN

    Article like this makes me want to go back and rewatch the game with a focus solely on Johan. There is ton of stuff that happens on a soccer pitch and maybe I am missing something. good stuff, alex

  • Clark Starr

    Interesting… but I think it’s very hard to make the case for JV. He is just bad. Yes, he’s made a couple of good passes… but those do not make up for the constant losing of possession, terrible decision making, and the ball control of the fastest kid on a U9 squad. I’ve not seen KV as much (missed KC and Portland games). He had the awful pass that led to the PK right? But other than that, I thought he was okay.

    • BJ

      I don’t even think it was that bad of a pass, Brent or Bobby should either have cleared that. Brent let it go to Bobby, which was a very bad option.

  • David Sterling

    Jerry needs to stay on the Left. I know he has been fantastic on the Right, but he’s even stronger from the Left, and it has showed.
    We need to bring in a class RB, and be done with it. Further, bring in someone who’s strong suit can also pressure Danladi for minutes, so Johan is only used as a super sub up top. But honestly, maybe Johan just needs to go. What’s the use in a forward who can’t dribble? Ship him out with Demidov and Alvbage, now that his loan is ending, and free up some international spots.

  • markgoody

    Kevin’s poor ball protection stuck out to me as one of the weakest parts of the entire game. The Loons are lucky they haven’t given up more goals on the break after turnovers (thanks to Bobby S), but turnovers like that will bury you eventually, particularly as MLS teams are increasingly pushing the ball after a turnover.

    Also, would be good to know if Kevin’s forward defensive plays are due to his playing style or Inchy’s strategy.

  • Bruce J McGuire

    Lots of people who have followed the Loons for many years commented on how much they liked seeing Kevin out there getting real playing time. The comments were more positive than negative when take as a whole.
    You know I have been critical of both of them, but you make a lot of good points to the positive Alex, which is why I always read what you write.

  • Melissa Danner

    Here’s my hot take that I keep asking for this year: move Viva to the right wing, Molino to the 10, put Thiesson back on the right, and bring Davis on to play LB. Viva can’t possibly do any worse defensively on the wing than Danladi or Kadrii, and he’s got a killer cross and great instinct getting the ball inside of the box. I want to see this happen just once because I think it would work. And work WELL at that. This way you play off of Viva’s strengths, limiting his liability, and can use Johnny Vegas as a sub.

    • Timber Dome

      I would enjoy this

  • Robert Driesch

    The Vancouver game was my first time seeing KV play in person. What stuck out to me was the number of times we would lunge at the play and even go to ground to try and win a tackle completely taking himself out of the play.

    That can be a good strategy if 1. you win the tackle and 2. you don’t try to use it too frequently. There were multiple cases in that game that where he would go to ground and fail to win the ball. Now not only has he taken himself out of the play, he has broken down the defensive shape of the other players around him as they must now cover for his lapse in judgement.

    Watching him made me uneasy and I can’t help but think that as teams start to scout him and his tendencies (2 full games on film now), he is going to have an increasingly hard time as the opposing teams attack will be directed directly through him.

    • Governor Squid

      What’s funny is that the guys behind me in the stands were asking why we didn’t go to ground on tackles more often. Cue Viva and one of his less-successful attempts, and I was able to turn around and say, “That’s why!”

      I also agree that we could have real problems if opponents decide to exploit his tendency to go forward.