After the opening few minutes, where their opponents had control, Minnesota settled in and were able to play their game. Then, after that promising half hour, the mistakes started. First, Harrison Afful found space in behind Ethan Finlay and Jérôme Thiesson. His cross was partially blocked, but it blooped to Federico Higuain, who was essentially unmarked near the edge of the six yard box. The Columbus star volleyed the ball toward goal and Bobby Shuttleworth let what should have been an easy save sail through his fingertips.
Not too long after, the Crew struck again through Afful, who again found space in behind, and crossed to Gyasi Zardes at the back post. Zardes had long ago left behind the ghost of Michael Boxall, and he did extremely well to finish from a tight angle.
With that, the Black-and-Gold were firmly ahead, and the Loons played like a team of broken souls for fifty more excruciating minutes. Eventually there were some subs, some cards, and some miscellaneous action, but never once were the Crew threatened, and never once did Minnesota produce anything resembling a coherent attack, nor an organized and confident defense.
We are now less than a week away from the kick-off of the 2018 Minnesota United FC season, and it goes without saying that the Loons do not look at all prepared. Three times in the Carolina Challenge Cup the club has played the majority of their long-ordained first eleven. Three times that eleven has looked out of ideas in the attack, slow in defense, and uncoordinated across the field.
It was not supposed to be this way. Last preseason, the Loons mixed and matched players and formations as Adrian Heath and his coaching staff attempted to get familiar with an entirely new roster. That preseason looked promising at the time, but was notable for the complete failure by anyone in the technical staff to notice that Vadim Demidov was not even close to good enough to anchor an MLS defense.
This preseason, the coaching staff adopted the exact opposite approach. From the very first scrimmages against college teams, Minnesota have played with a very defined starting group and a very defined group of reserves. It is easy to understand the thought process. By keeping the same group of players together, especially the same defensive unit, the Loons would enter the season a step ahead of other clubs in cohesion, communication, and trust—the kind of intangibles that separate an overperforming team from an underperforming one.
But this strategy relies upon getting that group of players and their tactics correct from the start. In 225 minutes of play in Charleston from that group, we have seen absolutely no evidence that the judgments made by Adrian Heath and his staff five weeks ago were the right ones. In those nearly four hours of action, the first group did not muster a single dangerous attacking chance, conceded four goals, and allowed the opposition about ten other notable chances.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The group chosen by Heath is nearly identical to the preferred starters at the end of last season. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that last year’s team was not good enough. So why did Heath decide at the start of preseason to change nothing from the way that team was set up? And not to beat a dead horse, but what on earth was the team doing all offseason when they had a chance to sign new recruits?
Instead, it was the same players in the exact same positions, with absolutely no interest in discovering what else was possible. And it was all decided before #MNUFC even started scrimmaging college kids!
— Alex Schieferdecker (@alexschief) February 25, 2018
With less than a week to go until the start of the season, the Loons have seemingly not solved any of the three tactical questions I posed two weeks ago. (#1.) Christian Ramirez, Abu Danladi, and Mason Toye have been starved of opportunities to play, even when on the field. (#2.) Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino have had absolutely dreadful preseasons. (#3.) The central defenders Calvo and Boxall have made mistakes at a similar rate they did last year and, after a promising start against Charleston, neither Tyrone Mears nor Thiesson appear to be able to to hit a cross anywhere near the box or defend the wings against top MLS attackers.
Worst of all, the team appeared completely devoid of belief or purpose on Saturday. That’s definitely on the coaches. As it happens, earlier in the week, the club published an interview with Heath about this exact aspect of the game. In that article, he was quoted as saying “From a coach’s point of view, you have to believe in what you’re doing and put across that message. There’s nothing worse than playing for a coach that actually tells you stuff that you don’t believe in.”
It is hard to believe, given the performances of the team this week, that Heath’s message is getting through. The next question is: what is he going to do about it? So far, throughout this preseason, Heath has sent a message to his players that no matter their effort on the field or in practice, their spot on the roster was determined before they even showed up to camp. But if the performances of this preseason persist into the first match of the MLS season and beyond, the need for changes will eventually be unavoidable. After building a preseason around a predetermined group of players, and refusing (so far) to significantly alter his approach in the face of adverse results and performances, is Heath capable of admitting he was wrong and changing course? Is he capable of holding his favored players accountable?
Minnesota United’s Plan A has not worked at all so far. If that proves true next weekend as well, what then? What is Plan B?
In the second half of the game against Charleston, I saw a Plan B. I saw a group of players who were excited to play, even if they may not have had the polish of MLS veterans. Their effort is still the best the Loons have looked this preseason. Those players didn’t get another chance to play in the Carolina tournament. They didn’t get another chance to earn their spots. Let’s hope they get more of a chance if the season starts and the embarrassment continues.
5. Bobby Shuttleworth may have fumbled away the #1 spot. Federico Higuain’s first half shot was not a slow roller or a soft lob, but it was extremely savable. Contrast Shuttleworth’s shaky performance on Saturday with Matt Lampson’s star turn on Wednesday. It certainly would not qualify as a bold gamble to entrust Lampson with the starting role next weekend. The former Columbus Crew Homegrown has plenty of experience in MLS and was a starter for the Chicago Fire last season.
Now, Shuttleworth has superb reflexes and is an excellent shot stopper for a team that figures to concede a lot of shots. He also has more of a relationship with the defenders in front of him. But if preseason effort is to mean anything, Lampson has done more than enough to earn the trust of the team on Saturday.
4. The three man midfield returned again, with mixed results. The major change that Adrian Heath has made to his plans this preseason was to swap the 4-4-2 he ran against Charleston for a 4-3-3. There is some reason to worry about Sam Cronin’s fitness and health this season, and new defensive midfield recruit Luiz Fernando was just signed and will require some time to adjust. That leaves the Loons without a defensive midfielder, leaving a kind of defense-by-committee approach.
Against both Atlanta and Columbus, the three man midfield was reasonably effective at its primary task of clogging up the center of the field. But both Atlanta and Columbus have tremendously skilled wide players and attack-minded fullbacks. Neither would be bothered to challenge the Loons in the center of the park, instead they played around it with ease, and the Loons midfielders were not as effective at tracking back and marking.
In the attack, the midfield also had a lot of difficulty. Passing through Columbus’ defensive lines was a chore for Minnesota, and working the ball forward in the center of the field remained completely impossible. That was a big issue because…
3. Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino could have hardly been less effective. The biggest worry of all for Minnesota has to be the total lack of production from either of their star wing players. Both are MLS veterans with proven records of contribution. Yet in their playing time in Carolina they were complete non-factors. Finlay’s speed and tenacity on the wing were completely absent. Molino killed dead every attacking move that fell to his feet with a poor touch or pass. If the team is underperforming, the most blame must fall upon the players who are asked to shoulder the most responsibility. The Loons have built their attack around these two players. When will they show up?
2. I feel bad for Abu Danladi and Christian Ramirez. Neither have been good in preseason, but surely a large part of that is a lack of any service. Against Atlanta, Danladi was left alone to somehow counter attack against two opposing defenders. He was active, but didn’t take his few chances well. Against Columbus, Ramirez was shadowed all game long by second-year defender Lalas Abubakar. Did another attacking player make a central run to take advantage of Abubakar’s fixation or draw defense away from Ramirez? No, they did not. Did a single midfielder attempt to pass to Ramirez when he made a run behind the defense? No, he was totally ignored.
Late in the Columbus game, Danladi was subbed on, and immediately tried to make stuff happen. But it was almost comical how far apart his ideas were from what the other players were doing. The moment that summed up the match came when he dummied a low cross, only to discover that nobody was within a mile of making the complimentary run that he had been expecting.
These are Minnesota’s most talented players, and they’re being absolutely hung out to dry.
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