In the early going of the MLS season, it’s often difficult to properly gauge which teams are good, and which teams have just had a fortuitous schedule. For Minnesota, the answer seemed to be “a little bit of both.” There is no doubting that the Loons benefited from playing an Orlando City team without many of their stars and a Chicago Fire team missing Bastian Schweinsteiger. At the same time, to take advantage of the weaknesses of your opponent, you need to actually be capable of doing so. That was not usually the case last season. It certainly looked unlikely in preseason. But in their first three weeks of 2018 MLS competition, the Loons proved more than able.
On Saturday, the Loons had a chance to force yet another reëvaluation, when they traveled to Red Bull Arena to face one of the league’s best teams. Instead, they limped to an 0-3 defeat. But that result is not a great reason to quickly abandon hope. The Loons have thus far looked like a decent, potentially good team. The Red Bulls are a great team. When decent teams travel to face great teams, they tend to lose. Consider that New York has played three other home matches this year, and they were 2-0 preseason-but-it-counted win over Olimpia, a 4-0 thumping of Portland and a 3-1 win over Tijuana. Minnesota’s ignominy falls in between those last two results. Are the Loons better than the Timbers? They certainly look it right now. Are they worse than Xolos? Definitely. So while the weekend’s result wasn’t a great look for Minnesota, it’s hard to classify it as anything other than an ‘as expected’.
But ‘as expected’ is not necessarily a bad thing! Last season, the Red Bulls traveled to Minnesota and absolutely coasted to victory on the turf at TCF Bank Stadium. The score was the same, and the stats weren’t altogether that different, but the complexion of the matches were a stark contrast. The home loss to New York last season was possibly the low point of the Loons’ entire season (or at the very least, a competitor), coming on the heels of a home draw against Houston and the collapse of the team’s attack, and signaled the door closing on any hopes of a playoff recovery.
This away loss to the Red Bulls had a lot more positives to it. Young players got minutes, the team fought hard for the entire 90 minutes, and the balance of the match was far more competitive. Last July, it was Minnesota goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth’s heroics that kept the match even somewhat respectable. This March, it was New York goalkeeper Luis Robles whose star turn kept the Loons from making things interesting.
Minnesota is not on New York’s level. The Red Bulls are one of the best teams in the league from a sporting perspective. Saturday’s loss wasn’t an occasion for joy, but it shouldn’t be an occasion for misery either.
5. The game was decided by the fullbacks. The big storyline coming into the match for Minnesota was in the defense, where due to injury and international duty, the Loons would be forced to field an entirely new back four from the starters of the first three games. In central defense, rookie draftee Wyatt Omsberg, earning his first minutes started at left center-back, while the more experienced Brent Kallman started at the right center-back. Veteran Marc Burch started at left-back, with rookie draftee Carter Manley also earning his first ever MLS minutes at right-back. Against a cohesive, quick thinking team like New York, this was a baptism by fire for this young, untested unit.
Yet it was in fact Burch, the most seasoned of the group by far, who had a nightmare evening. The left-back was exposed on all three Red Bulls goals. On the first, he gave Alex Muyl acres of space with which to measure a shot into the far corner. On the second, he lost Bradley Wright-Phillips on a set piece. On the third, he turned the ball over, and his rash decision to step instead of drop opened up the passing lane through which the assist came.
In contrast, his greenhorn counterpart Manley, stood out for two goal-saving plays. On the first, he stepped in front of Wright-Phillips to block sure tap-in goal. On the second, he won a last-man tackle as the Red Bulls broke on the counter following a Loons set-piece. While he had his own hiccups in defense (I don’t know what Manley was doing on the play that ended with Wright-Phillips hitting the post), of the two fullbacks (and we’ll talk about the center-backs further down), it was Manley’s defending that left an overall positive impression.
This was a game that was won on the flanks. Compare the charts of ball possessions from the wingers or wide midfielders of both teams. Minnesota’s Sam Nicholson and Ethan Finlay are shown on the left, while New York’s Daniel Royer and Alex Muyl are shown on the right.
Two things stand out. The first is the patch of green triangles for New York right around the corner of the Minnesota box. One of those led a goal, and it’s not acceptable that Burch allowed those to occur. The second is that the Loon attackers attempted far more dribbles than their opposite numbers, and failed on every single one of them. That speaks to the effectiveness of New York fullbacks Connor Lade and Kyle Duncan, and also the Red Bulls’ pressing system. It also suggests that neither Nicholson nor Finlay had adequate support in the attack.
That’s where neither Minnsota fullback had any success. For all of their defensive flaws, usual starters Tyrone Mears and Jérôme Thiesson offer a good deal going forward. The Loons missed that quality sorely. The set pieces (taken by Burch) were not up to standard, and the open play crossing from neither player (but especially Manley) was really bad.
Again, contrast their effort (on the left) with the work of New York’s fullbacks Lade and Duncan (on the right). The Red Bull players got higher up the field, and were far more successful with their passing in the final third. In fact, neither Loon fullback basically ever entered the final third for a reason other than a set piece.
The Loons pulverized Chicago by getting three players into wide areas (the winger, fullback, and Miguel Ibarra), where the Fire were only willing to commit two. But against New York, the support from the Minnesota fullbacks wasn’t effective, and the Red Bulls love to pin teams on the sideline and press to win the ball. What was a three to two numbers advantage for Minnesota last week became a two to three disadvantage this week, thanks to the style of the opponent and the struggles that both Burch and Manley faced in contributing to the offense.
With Mears likely out for a few more weeks, but Thiesson probably returning to the line-up. head coach Adrian Heath has a tough situation, and it’s no surprise that the Loons have been linked to an international fullback in Peruvian Alexi Gomez. But in the near term, the choice seems clear to me. Manley should get the open fullback spot on the back of a far better defensive effort. Given the importance of beating Atlanta United out wide, expect a microscope to be on this position this coming week.
4. Omsberg and Kallman were generally fine, but both made mistakes. Meanwhile, in central defense, Wyatt Omsberg and Brent Kallman got essentially their first minutes of the young season (Kallman had had a short cameo in stoppage time the week before). Like the fullbacks, they were put under pressure by a highly skilled New York team led by one of the greatest strikers to ever play in the league, and like the fullbacks, they showed some vulnerabilities.
Both, for instance, were the two players completely snookered by the Red Bulls on a stepover free kick. That mistake proved costly for Kallman, because his mark, Tim Parker, was the target when the free kick did come, and Kallman had no chance at winning the header. Parker flicked the ball on, and Wright-Phillips dinked it home.
Later in the match, Omsberg was beaten twice by Wright-Phillips. On the first play, the striker hit the post, but on the second he scored, after he took the better line on Alex Muyl’s pass, while Omsberg saw it flash past his outstretched boot. These are harsh lessons, but the good news is that Omsberg is young and has plenty of time to learn them. In the near term, he is also unlikely to play more strikers of the quality of BWP.
On the positive side, both Kallman and Omsberg proved their aerial dominance. The Loons starting tandem of Calvo and Boxall is decidedly weak in the air, so the dichotomy of both defensive pairings offers Heath something to chew on moving forward. While he’s shown little willingness to mix and match, I’d like to see more invention in the future with his centerbacks, especially adapting to meet the opponent. Kei Kamara’s counter-and-cross Whitecaps, for instance, would be a good opponent against whom to deploy either or both of Kallman and Omsberg.
3. I’m still not panicking about Christian Ramirez not scoring, but that doesn’t mean all is well. Last week, I wrote that I wasn’t particularly concerned about Christian Ramirez’ goal drought. On Saturday, that dry spell got longer, as the forward put in just over sixty frustrating minutes of work. He had one sterling moment—a beautiful flick to Ethan Finlay to send him in alone on goal—but otherwise repeatedly failed to connect combinations with his teammates or to find the ball in scoring areas.
One of the benefits of watch the game live, is that you can see a bit more than just what the camera shows you. One thing that seemed clear was that Ramirez’s runs in behind weren’t getting separation. It was rare to see him make a run that beat the defender to the spot. If you’re not getting goal-side, you’re going to have difficulty scoring. That doesn’t mean you can’t be effective at hold-up play or creating space for others, which he has been throughout the season, but at some point, Ramirez needs to find a way to get between defenders and find himself open.
Watch Robert lewandowski bro. Try not just be a post up striker but make runs in behind and take players on when you get isolated. Open the game up for yourself and teammates. Many games left! #themodern#9
— Whitney Browne (@WhitB_10) March 25, 2018
Whitney Browne isn’t as good a striker as Christian Ramirez, but the Minneapolis City player isn’t just some random guy on the internet either, so his comment here carries some weight. I think he’s onto something. Ramirez has improved his hold-up play this year, but it feels as if he’s almost too focused on being a good teammate, and gotten away a bit from what has always made him successful. I want to see from him a bit more of that selfishness for which strikers are so often lauded.
It might have to come as a substitute next weekend against Atlanta, however. Abu Danladi was fit enough for thirty minutes against the Red Bulls, and the Five Stripes have been gashed this season by pace.
2. Speaking of the game against Atlanta… The Loons had a built-in excuse for the game against New York. Playing away against a hot team without your entire starting back line and one of your midfield pairing is a tough ask. But those excuses disappear next week. The Loons will be close to full strength and they will be playing at home.
They also will have plenty of motivation to beat Atlanta and finally close the book on the snow opener fiasco last season. Their expansion partners have gotten a lot of press this season, but have yet to really earn it. The Five Stripes were pasted by Houston in the season opener, then beat a very bad DC team, and a Vancouver team down to ten men for eighty minutes, with both matches before the roaring faithful at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Like with Minnesota, you can find plenty of reasons to diminish the luster of their wins.
Both teams will have a chance to prove that they deserve the attention this coming Saturday. I think it’ll be interesting to see if Adrian Heath tinkers with the attack, after clearly being dissatisfied with how it performed in New York. The defense, I’m sure, will return mostly to the starting group, with the exception of the injured Mears.
1. Quick hits. There was basically nobody at Red Bull Arena, and boy that bums me out. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the Red Bulls and how they play. This is a team that deserves a packed house each and every weekend night. The team on the field and the stadium they play in are all first class. The location is right on the PATH train (essentially a subway) and a short walk from both Newark NJ Transit hubs at Broad Street and Penn Station. Newark and suburban New Jersey are denser and more populated than just about every other metro area in the league… I was at least happy to see all of the development going up around Red Bull Arena. The area used to be a wasteland, and in just the past few years, a number of four to five story apartment buildings have sprouted up with some fast casual chains. The area still could use some more retail and office, but I’d like to think that in five years the zone around the stadium will no longer be an impediment to getting crowds through the gates. It might even become home for some fans.
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