One of the unique aspects of American sports is the process of “tanking,” by which a team (usually while strongly denying it) knowingly builds a substandard roster, or the coach makes deliberately bad personnel decisions, all for the purpose of being one of the worst teams in the league and subsequently reaping offseason rewards in the form of high draft picks.
The ultimate manifestation of this strategy recently played out with the Philadelphia 76ers NBA team, which for a period of years traded away their top players, drafted badly injured young players who needed at least a year to recover, and badly undershot the salary cap. The team’s front office was up-front about their plan: to play so badly for multiple years that they would amass enough high draft picks to create a top team in the future. This strategy polarized fans across the league, but retained a durable popularity among 76ers fans, whose mantra became #TrustTheProcess. That painful process ended up leading to the firing of its chief architect, but ultimately his successors did not orchestrate a major deviation from the strategy, which is just now starting to bear fruit.
In MLS, the fundamentals are different. The SuperDraft is an infrequent source of truly gamechanging talent, and American soccer sits in the middle of a massive global marketplace for talent, not at the top as our baseball, basketball, and hockey leagues do. But there is one thing in common—fans are remarkably willing to tolerate and even support awful teams, if they can be convinced that what they are watching is a necessary step towards greater success.
For instance, this past weekend, Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen was badly beaten from an acute angle in a game against Orlando, which ended a 1-1 draw. Those two points dropped are ones the Crew can ill-afford, as they stand just a point above the playoff line. But fans of The Massive will likely grit their teeth and tolerate the error, because Steffen is 22 years old and viewed as one of the top American goalkeeping prospects. He needs to play, because that’s how you get better. In three years, Columbus is betting on having one of the league’s best goalkeepers and brightest stars. If that comes to pass, the little bumps along the road will be forgotten.
Which brings us to Minnesota United FC, now mired in their first MLS season. The Loons aren’t tanking, but they’re not good. On Sunday, the Loons were beaten in agonizing fashion by the Seattle Sounders, who converted a stoppage time penalty kick. But the postgame frustration among many in the fanbase, including myself, had a lot less to do with the result than with the manner in which the team was set up and managed. The bad result was not wholly unexpected; Seattle are a better team than Minnesota. But the greater disappointment was the apparent lack of any larger plan from the coaching staff, and perhaps the front office as well.
To be clear on one point, the Loons are out of the playoffs in every respect except the math. They sit twelve points and 22 goals behind the current six seed, Vancouver, with ten games left, and the Caps have a game in hand. For Minnesota to make the postseason, they would need to make up this ground in a stretch of games in which they play just three more times at home. Meanwhile, not just would Vancouver need to collapse, but San Jose, Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and Colorado would all need to not go on a similar run. What slim chances the Loons have rely on them winning games, not just drawing them. They are in last place, and a Toronto win or another loss would mathematically eliminate them from the supporters shield in August.
No supporter wants to see the team start mailing it in. On the contrary, it would be much more fun to see the team play without pressure and try to build something positive and exciting that they can build on next season. As Alexi Lalas asked in Sunday’s pregame, “what do they have to lose?”
After Ethan Finlay scored the opener, the Loons ceased trying to play soccer, and instead resorted to hoofing the ball up for Abu Danladi to chase.
But apparently the coaching staff doesn’t see it the same way. The Minnesota roster in Seattle was conservative, and the game plan was even more so. After Ethan Finlay scored the opener, the Loons ceased trying to play soccer, and instead resorted to hoofing the ball up for Abu Danladi to chase. On the rare counter-attack the Loons mustered, it looked like they couldn’t get rid of the ball soon enough. They made low percentage hero ball passes or tried to beat very good defenders on the dribble. There was little patience to pick the right pass or to retain possession. There was little attempt to put Seattle under sustained pressure. This persisted throughout the game, even after the Sounders equalized off a set piece, where Michael Boxall unfortunately slipped while marking Chad Marshall. From the moment they scored, the message emanating from Minnesota’s play couldn’t have been clearer: we want a 1-0 win or a 1-1 draw.
That’s the kind of realpolitik that would be celebrated if the club were in the thick of the playoff chase, or perhaps in another country, battling relegation. But the club is not hunting postseason glory, nor does it have to worry about the drop. In theory, it has the freedom to take risks, play soccer, and try to build something better than before.
The ultimate expression of this defeatism came when Kevin Molino was replaced by Jermaine Taylor with roughly thirteen minutes to go in the match. Taken in isolation, the sub made sense. Molino had his worst game yet, while shoehorned into central attacking midfield and forced to do battle against the likes of Ozzie Alonso. Taylor is a smart, competent defender who has acquitted himself well as a center-back for the Loons and for Jamaica this year. But in context, the substitution was infuriating.
The Loons needed that point on the road like we all need a sock with a hole in it. If it’s really about chasing the distant playoff dream for Minnesota, then only three points would do. The game was tied, and Seattle were leaving themselves exposed as they pushed for a winner. Why not insert Brandon Allen, a proven goalscorer at the lower levels, for his MLS debut? Or if was about preparing for the future by challenging the team to hold a tie game with one of the league’s toughest crowds, then put 22 year-olds Collin Martin and Ismaila Jome into a fray to get experience that they’ll draw on for years to come. Instead, we got Jermaine Taylor, who was the right man for the wrong job.
It was a game managed as if it was the road point that mattered. But the road point didn’t matter. Experience mattered. Building for the future mattered. Playing optimistic soccer mattered. It’s almost beside the point that they didn’t even get the point anyway.
It may seem unfair to harp on a game which was, in reality, one of Minnesota’s best performances in recent weeks. But the way it was handled was a microcosm of a lot of grievances that fans have been nursing about the way the technical staff has gone about managing this team, dating all the way back to last year.
Although it was only announced in August of 2016, everyone knew for a year before that the Loons would likely join MLS in 2017. In the 2015-16 offseason, the club made a number of acquisitions that seemed geared towards that end. They added MLS veterans like Ben Speas, Danny Cruz and Jeb(!) Brovsky, up-and-comers like Damion Lowe, and lower-league stars like Lance Laing and Stefano Pinho. Yet the 2016 season was a disappointment, and the team seemed to completely abandon its approach after the season. None of those players were brought along to MLS, and only one member of the coaching staff was retained. Given how poorly that year went, it’s understandable. However, whatever master plan the club had been working from was clearly reset.
After the NASL season concluded, the team hired Adrian Heath, and proceeded to go about building a roster. They were crunched for time, but with Heath’s knowledge of the league and other scouting trips, they had a base from which to work. But once the season started, it became clear that the team’s offseason had been a disaster. Players brought in from Manny Lagos’ Scandinavian trips, especially Vadim Demidov, but also Josh Gatt, Rasmus Schüller, and Bashkim Kadrii all struggled. Players from MLS that Heath appeared to have targeted, especially Johan Venegas and Collen Warner, also were not as effective as hoped for.
So just four weeks into the season, the team again had to reset their plan. Demidov was abandoned, Gatt was traded, and slowly but surely throughout the year, the offseason work has been undone. John Alvbåge’s loan was not extended, Schüller has been loaned out, and Johan Venegas and Kadrii haven’t been heard from. But the team was bailed out early in the season, thanks to sharp trades for MLS veterans, and the unexpected strength of the team’s NASL cohort. Suddenly, it seemed a shortsighted mistake to have abandoned the team’s initial plan, as players like Speas, Cruz, Lowe, Laing, and Pinho all have found success this season and the Loons found themselves relying on the same players they had relied on the year before. Thus did Plan B give way to Plan C, with Plan A looking right all long.
We are now onto MNUFC’s fourth iteration, with the fruits of the club’s summer transfer work bedding in. The current season is more or less lost, and the main task would seem to be finishing the season taking risks, testing the new and the young players, and setting in place a defined style of play that will be expanded upon in the 2018 MLS campaign. But Sunday’s match gave no indication that the team is operating on that wavelength. While summer signing Sam Nicholson is getting time, Brandon Allen has been conspicuously ignored and in all different types of game states.
Why, given that this entire year has demonstrated the prospects of lower division players, has he not gotten a single minute? It’s inexplicable why the club brought him in at all if they were going to so quickly abandon the idea of playing him. Ismaila Jome, who played left-back with plenty of hiccups throughout the summer, didn’t start on Sunday. Is the team committed to his development at that position or not? Abu Danladi is getting time, which is certainly welcome, as he continues to show flashes of promise (alongside head-in-hands moments). But for most of Sunday’s game, he was basically playing by himself. Did that really help him grow?
The team’s inconsistent approach to its youth is compounded by Adrian Heath’s absolutely maddening stubbornness in central attacking midfield, where he continues to deploy Kevin Molino in a role he is plainly unsuited to play. Molino began the season as the team’s best player, terrorizing opponents on the wing, and occasionally cutting across a wide-open center of the field as the team’s two forwards made space. But his production has cratered ever since Heath moved him to the middle of the park, and week after week this charade continues. The team has signed wingers upon wingers to challenge the likes of Miguel Ibarra and Kadrii, and yet Molino’s position has remained untouchable and no actual No. 10 has been signed at all, no matter how ineffective he performs. It’s not his fault, he’s being set up to fail. But as Heath has frequently extolled the virtues of competition at every position, why are only certain positions and certain players the “beneficiaries” of this philosophy?
The team has also yet to sign a single defensive midfielder to back up Sam Cronin, and Ibson’s particular skills are so beloved by Heath that he is allowed complete freedom to wander the field, which often leaves the defense exposed, and makes it so that Minnesota results often hinge upon which Ibson shows up to the stadium that afternoon.
I understand that the tenor of this complaint has been extremely negative, but I do not mean to advocate for hopelessness or despair. Despite plenty of misses, the team has its share of players to build a strong MLS core around. Ramirez, Molino, Ibarra, Finlay, Kallman, and Francisco Calvo are all 25 to 27 years-old. Danladi, Nicholson, Martin, Jome, and now Alex Kapp are all 22 or younger. Looking ahead for the next couple years, I think the Loons are in fine shape on paper.
The Loons have seemed to whipsaw through four different iterations this year, with the results of each being extremely mixed.
But what I need in order to rest easy is some kind of sign that there’s actually a plan in place, and that it’s being faithfully carried out. The Loons have seemed to whipsaw through four different distinct phases this year, with the results of each being extremely mixed, and each new one often trampling over the work of the old. In the process, good players have been cast aside and performances on the field have been spotty. I wish I had the confidence in the club to nail their first designated player signing (hopefully a No. 10 or a No. 6). I wish I had the confidence that the promising core I mentioned above won’t be cast aside for a new attempt at a different core. I wish I had the confidence in the technical staff to coach a team that plays the kind of easy-on-the-eye attacking soccer everyone pays lip service to. But what’s so depressing about games like Sunday’s is that they make it harder to hold that confidence. It’s hard to believe that there’s a serious and clever master plan at work that somehow involves clinging for dear life to a useless point on the road in Seattle.
The Loons have ten games left. It’s time to lay the groundwork for the future of this team, both near and long term. It’s time to aspire to the best soccer this team can play. It’s time to take risks with formations and personnel. It’s time to start building, instead of constantly tearing down and starting over. And it’s time to sell the fanbase on a strategy that builds upon all that we’ve learned this past year and charts a clear course for 2018 and beyond.