Photo Credit: Daniel Mick


Preseason Game Three: Minnesota Provide Bodies For Columbus Crew Training Exercise

by on 25 February 2018

For about thirty minutes on Saturday evening, Minnesota United looked like a team that was figuring some things out. Against ball-dominant, attacking-focused Atlanta on Wednesday night, the Loons (probably smartly) attempted to bunker and to counter. Against a more balanced Columbus Crew SC side, they committed to building out of the back, passing on the ground through the midfield, and actually playing some soccer of their own.

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?

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.

Miscellaneous notes

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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  • Troy Kadlec

    I agree with a good portion of the analysis. The team has been lackluster and disjointed. Our fullbacks are suspect and our CBs are not enough to prevent Lampson or Shuttleworth from being under constant assault. Our central midfield play has been the week point again. I see us with a couple of good players there. Schuller showed some spark and a willingess to recover the ball. Ibson was able to get the ball and move around, but then seemed to be frustrated with the rest of the squad and eventually get tangled up and dispossessed. Martin needs a touch more seasoning as he’s had to commit several fouls because his reading of the game is just a touch slow and he’s relying on athleticism.
    So much of the team seems to be relying on athleticism vs working together. There seems to be extremely limited understanding of where people are going to be on the field. On our attacks, we have no consistent process except to get pinned on the wings. In defense, we’ve improved our bunkering, but when we’re dealing with a counter, we get shredded.
    It’s hard to tell if this is a lack in the players, the coaching staff or a general disjoint throughout the entire team and process.
    The season is here and I’m hoping there is something more to what we’ve seen so far, but MNUFC seems to be content to stick with what we have.
    The bar for improvement is low, but the expectations for improvement have been high. The team is struggling to bring in impactful players, but they have been more successful at developing depth. The problem is while depth might have changed the results of a few games, it wouldn;t have changed the course much over the entire season. I don’t think we’ll give up 70 goals this season, but I’m worried we’ll still give up 60. I’m also concerned with a huge regression in an attack that started promising last year, but just spluttered along most of the season. Only 6 teams scored fewer goals than our 47. We need to make significant improvement on both sides and there is serious concern that we haven’t made much, if any.
    Columbus and Atlanta are two of the best teams in MLS, but Charleston is not. We showed nothing against any of them. We’re in for a rough year if things don’t change.

  • Robert

    One has to wonder how bad of a start it will take before the front office stops listening to Heath’s excuses and finally admit that he isn’t a good enough manager

  • bartgott

    I haven’t watched any of the preseason games myself, but was hoping to be reading a different summary/analysis of how preseason is going. Although I was hoping for something different, I don’t find myself feeling surprised.

    For me, a team which appears to have stalled is MUCH less interesting to follow than a team which is experimenting but loosing. Why bother watching the next game if it’s basically a repeat of a proven failed formula?

    By the end of last season I had come to enjoy watching players like Martin (demoted with the signing of Fernando), Jome (released), and Kallman (appears buried on the bench behind Boxall) work on adjusting and adapting to MLS play. I enjoyed watching the team transform with the arrival of Cronin and Burch and then Finlay. I enjoyed seeing Ibson figure out how to find space in the setup and Shuttleworth grow in confidence and busted-up face legend. I enjoyed seeing Ramirez prove to everyone (including myself) that he belonged at the tip of an MLS attack.

    But, I have no interest in watching those same story lines again this year. I want/need something new. Signing the coaches son (unless he is truly an international rising star) or another unproven winger isn’t going to do it for me.

    A 19-21 year old Young DP who we actually have to PAY for would get my interest. Lots of playing time for young, unproven players would get my interest.

    The fact that Heath seems proud the fact that the new signings come with low risk because of the low cost is a major turn off. Does team leadership have ZERO confidence in their ability to identify, recruit and sign someone exciting? If the team is going to loose, I’d much rather watch a very young line-up of players who might grow into something special someday. A repeat of the second half of last year just makes me say meah…

    I’m sure I’ll continue to follow, but I’m not going to be as interested in catching every moment because I have no FOMO.

    I’m hoping to find a storyline this season that will catch my attention. We’ll see…

    • Troy Kadlec

      I doubt Heath is as “excited” as he claims to be. He’s the coach and has to help support the team. You don’t stay a coach if you come out and say “Well crap, we signed him? There’s another wasted roster spot!”. I think he’s spouting the party line and hoping for the best. I think the issue is still in the front office.

  • duluth_loon

    I’ve been a season ticket holder since 1/2 way through 2015 season at NSC. If anyone wants to buy my pair of season tickets in section 139 for individual or multiple games, they are all for sale, just let me know. I do not need to waste my time driving 156 miles from Duluth to TCF to watch last year’s 9th place in the west team get outclassed by the competition again this year. The ONLY reason I am maintaining my season ticket account is the carrot of the new stadium. And if the front office remains the same heading into next year, I’m leaning towards letting my tickets go. I’m willing to give the front office a pass for the inaugural season. But it’s year 2 now, they had a full offseason (and essentially half of last season if we’re being candid) to work towards creating a more competitive roster for year 2. And yet in the final preseason match the only new name getting a start is a 35 year old right back. Every other franchise is making an effort to sign better players at better salaries. And MN United isn’t. Don’t blame Heath. Blame the front office and ownership. They are all in so deep over their heads. They don’t deserve our support. They are taking us for granted.

    • Blake Johnson


    • Dave DuJour

      I’m feeling the same way. If 2018 doesn’t go any better than 2017, why am I bothering? Is a new stadium really going to make the experience that much better? It’s feeling like 2009 all over again.

  • Mark Lehman

    Thanks for the summary. I was hoping I was the only person thinking this and that I was just wrong. I do question talent evaluation. The last season in the NASL was a disappointment, specially when 4 former Loons were in the NASL’s top 10 in scoring last season. Players like Pinho (now with Orlando) and Lang who barely saw time with the squad. I could mention Demidov, but that is too easy. Last year they didn’t have enough time, this year they did but were seemingly quiet. My hopes are in the new signings we have not seen yet and the moves they have not made yet. Like you, I am still waiting for Molino to be Molino, I am growing tired of the excuses. I do not believe we will set the record for most goals given up this season. My new concern is around fewest goals scored. So far the Loons only goal has been a PK. Need to start creating something. My bar is still low for this season, but would like to see improvement. I am still waiting.

    • Eric Beckman

      I feel the same way about the last NASL season. In addition to the four players that you reference. Ibson was unable to consistently stay in that team, despite being good enough for MLS. Kallman and Ramirez were good enough for the next level, and the fullbacks were excellent D2 players. Watching so much experimentation then, and apparently so little now, makes it feel like a possibly third lost year is the offing.

  • Jacob

    I’m bracing for an ugly first couple of weeks. I know you can’t take much away from preseason, but in this case, as Alex has pointed out, we’ve been watching the presumed starting lineup for almost three full games and they’ve looked woeful. At least trot the young guys out a bit so we can more easily disregard the results, you know? This way it feels like Heath was trying to flex his muscles and ended up looking weak. It doesn’t feel like we have an effective system in place, which would have been the silver lining to starting all the same players as last year. We’ve hardly even seen some of the new additions. And it’s likely to stay that way with Heath’s subbing habits. The dollars per minute played sunk into Pangop, Ibarra, Nicholson, and Dawkins will be a sobering number. The opportunity cost on those roster spots and international slots must be awfully low.

    I keep telling myself that things can change very quickly, though, and it’s true. In a few weeks time, the group could be playing much better, Luiz Fernando could get some playing time and look promising, we could get news of a splashy signing, the team could get an away result, someone could score a stunner… for now I’m still sulking because none of that has happened and there’s little reason to expect it, but it really can change quickly.

  • MmattN

    If Heath has truly given up on the players the FO has given him and is unwilling to experiment and find what works it may be time to start asking when Manny is gonna step in and take over for Heath.

    • Dave DuJour

      Or when Manny and/or Amos is going to go.

  • Steve Lilly

    I am so disappointed I don’t even know what to say.

    • Steve Lilly

      OK so how is this? What is the one thing Heath has done to improve the side over the NASL team. As bad as that last season was I think they would make this squad look silly. He hung his hat on ‘NO and should be hung for that alone.