Adrian Heath, for one, will be absolutely ecstatic in defeating his former club for the second time in two years, this time in the stadium that he had one day hoped to lead the home side in. No matter what you think about his leadership of Minnesota, most can agree he was treated unfairly by Orlando’s ownership in his final season there.
Now into their fourth season in MLS, the Lions have yet to make the playoffs and have just dropped five points in their first two home games of the year. There’s no reason for that team to panic just yet, with so many marquee offseason signings yet to make their first starts due to injury, fitness, or suspension. But Heath is on top of the world right now, and his former team is surely having regrets.
Saturday’s match was, first and foremost, an excellent team performance from Minnesota. They worked incredibly hard, all the way to the final whistle, and no player could be faulted for a lack of effort. There were also touches of true class that made all the difference. It was not the kind of Loons’ game we are accustomed to seeing. They started the game well, dominating the first twenty minutes and scoring first. They made a fair share of clinical and incisive passes, and they were really excellent on the counterattack. It wasn’t a dominating effort, but it was a perfect road effort.
If the Loons play like this for 60% of their games this year, they will make the playoffs. This match offered the kind of template that the Loons have to follow. They still lack a single prismatic talent in the attack, but they absolutely do not lack for talented attacking players. The objective needs to be to get the ball from the central defense and midfield out wide with space, then back into the center in the final third, with a narrow but deep attacking front. The Loons destroyed Orlando with that kind of inside/outside/inside movement. As I write below, I think the role of a second striker can be crucial for this team. If Luiz Fernando turns out to be good, if the Loons can improve in the summer transfer window, and if they can outwork opponents and minimize defensive errors, then that is a playoff recipe in MLS. Will it happen? Maybe not, but after Saturday night, we know that it can.
The only thing that could mar the night was the injury that Kevin Molino picked up early into the second half. We’re all armchair doctors after watching so many soccer injuries over the years. It looked like an ACL tear. The Loons have a good track record of getting players back from ACL tears (Pablo Campos being the most notable example), but if that’s indeed the diagnosis, Molino might have to hope for Minnesota to make the playoffs in order to see the field again this year. Sam Nicholson also picked up a knock, but it didn’t seem too serious.
Last year, the Loons seemed to draw small crowds to start the season after their woeful start killed the energy of their debut. It’s a shame that this Saturday game was on FSN Plus, instead of the mothership channel, because it was an incredible advertisement for the team and the sport. But among the fans already made, there is no reason to hesitate in coming to the stadium next week and providing the team a tremendous atmosphere for their home opener.
5. Sam Nicholson was my favorite player of the night even though he didn’t get on the scoresheet, and seemed to struggle a bit with his hamstring after the opening half hour. The Scot is a scrappy player who loves to drive at opposing defenders and is shifty and tenacious enough to get past them at speed. He was an absolute terror to start the game, battering the left side of Orlando’s defense. He deserved an assist for a cross that Kevin Molino made a hash of, and the play that finally ended his night was an essay in perseverance.
It feels as though Nicholson is a cutting end product away from being a consistent impact player in MLS. He likes to shoot from distance, but his accuracy is dubious. He can cross the ball, but his ability to create with passes between the lines is not really a feature. So I’m still waiting to see something from Nicholson that really grabs the league by the lapel and forces people to take notice. But in two games this year, he has been extremely active and scrappy, and you cannot ignore that.
4. This might be the last time we talk about Kevin Molino’s position for a while, so let’s make it count. Without question nobody has written more about this topic than I have over the past year. I’ve long believed that Molino does not have the close control to play in tight spaces as a true #10, and tactically I have hated to see him playing on the forward line and trying to compete for headers. Last year, I wrote tirelessly and fruitlessly about moving him back to the right wing. This preseason, I was horrified to see him playing up top. But after seeing how he’s found success in the last sixty minutes he’s played, you have to warm a bit to Heath’s idea of playing him centrally. I’ve even had him in the middle in my fantasy line-ups, but behind a front two.
In finally seeing Molino have actual success from a central position, it’s finally become clear in what types of situations he need to be in, and exactly how Heath dreams of him playing. Molino cannot play properly as a striker. Nor can he pull the strings in the midfield with his passing or dribbling. His best role on the attack is as a withdrawn striker, sharking around, searching for spaces in between the defensive and midfield lines, and following the play, looking for loose scraps. In preseason, I thought he played too high, trying to make runs alongside Ramirez or Danladi. Last year, I thought too much of the play was coming through him with an expectation that he would create. But for about sixty minutes between both the San Jose and Orlando games, he was just right. His distribution was still bad (he missed more passes (8) on Saturday than he made (7)), but he assisted the goal and his clear strength is the ability to combine with single touches and other players in close proximity.
Does that sound like anyone we know? Adrian Heath has never really publicly explained the way he wants his team set-up tactically, but in Molino’s short, wonderful emergence, the Loons were playing the way that Heath had them set-up in preseason of last year, with a primary and secondary striker, and that inside/outside/inside combination play. Suddenly everything makes sense.
It’s a huge bummer that Molino injured himself just after some of his best minutes as a Loon and as things were coming together tactically. Can Minnesota replicate that success with different personnel? I think so, but I suspect that for a while, Heath may feel most comfortable trusting the 4-3-3 he turned to after Molino’s injury, as opposed to playing someone like Mason Toye in Molino’s spot.
3. Miguel Ibarra made yet another high impact substitution. Last week, I called for Miguel to start, but in the comments, I wrote that if Minnesota were a team with the depth and caliber of Toronto FC, then Ibarra would be a really essential bench player. Anyone who has followed the Loons for years knows that Ibarra is absolutely murderous against an opponent with tired legs. Once again, he made a massive impact off the bench, latching onto a gorgeous Mason Toye flick and perfectly finding Ethan Finlay. He could’ve assisted a second late in the game, but his target Toye was denied by Bendik. He also made more defensive actions in his twenty three minutes than Nicholson, who he replaced, did in sixty seven.
With Molino’s likely injury, Ibarra will surely see more time and more occasional starts. But my frustration with him not starting will be slightly mollified if Adrian Heath recognizes his abilities and continues rely on him as a late dagger, not just an attacking sub of last resort. On an ideal team, that might be his best role.
2. Striker. Depth. Minnesota are not exactly a deep team, but they do have depth in two areas: goalkeeper and striker. On Saturday, both Christian Ramirez and Mason Toye made strong statements. Ramirez started the match and took a tremendous amount of punishment from Orlando’s defenders, yet held his ground. The first goal does not happen without his hold-up play, and he later created a great chance for Ethan Finlay with his strength. Despite his body type, that’s been a facet of his game that Ramirez has really lacked over the years. But to start this season, he has already had a leading role in creating two goals with bruising physical work. The goals haven’t come for him, but they’ve come for others due to his work, and that’s what ultimately matters.
Then Mason Toye came on. The #7 overall draft pick made the most of his eighteen minutes, plus stoppage. His first involvement came on a corner kick, when he entered the game and immediately shoved two Orlando City players who tried to body him. His flick-on pass to Ibarra created the winning goal, and it was surely the pass of the week in MLS. The kid is 19 years old, and the awareness and confidence to pull that play was fantastic.
He still has a lot to learn, though, and I mean, you can only laugh at his rude introduction to MLS refereeing. He also tried to draw a foul along the sideline to kill time, only for the referee to ignore his entreaties. He should’ve scored his first ever goal, there is no doubt about it.
In Ramirez, the Loons have a proven goal scorer and a hold-up option. In Danladi, they have lightning speed and a rocket of a shot. In Toye, as far as we can see, they have a second counter-attack option, and a player confident and crafty beyond his years. Is there a team in MLS with a more exciting forward corps? With Kevin Molino injured, once Abu Danladi is back to full health, the Loons have to find a way to fit two strikers on the field at once.
1. Quick hits. Rasmus Schüller was neither very good nor very bad, but Ibson was definitely the standout in central midfield today, in contrast to last week. The Loons still need a #6… …Speaking of Schüller, his green card and José Leitón’s release means that the Loons can now add Luiz Fernando, Frantz Pangop, and Bernard Eko’o with no international concerns… …The back four didn’t concede, but with Stefano Pinho injured early, Orlando had absolutely no aerial threat, and that made things easy for Minnesota… … Ethan Finlay came inside a lot in the final third and had his best game of the year, which reminds me of something I wrote a while ago… … How perfect was Ibson’s clearance off the line? If every game could include an Ibson clearance off the line, I would not be mad.
… and a bonus round…
0. What the hell is up with MLS officiating? The foul that Finlay committed that gave Orlando a penalty was probably a foul, and was definitely in the box. But the official called almost nothing else all night, and so it was weird to see that incident draw a whistle. But more egregiously, the league’s officials are not on the same page with regard to using the video assistant referee.
In the earlier match between Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles, the officiating crew allowed an incredible, extremely obviously offside goal to stand, without seemingly consulting VAR too closely. The system is supposed to spot a “clear and obvious error.” The un-reversed decision in the RSL vs LA game was such a mistake. The reversed foul call that became Orlando’s penalty was neither clear not obvious. How can it be that one official ignores VAR entirely, and another uses it to make a judgment call on a borderline case?
Fans deserve answers from PRO on this front.
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