Four straight losses and a pulverizing injury to Ethan Finlay has Minnesota fans, and surely the team itself, reeling. The club does not appear to be one signing away from having it all figured out as the transfer window closure nears. As Houston heads north on Saturday, there are more questions than answers. Loons coach Adrian Heath finds himself playing with less than a full deck.
Fans of, shall we say, more defensively astute teams, might find it odd to mention that Minnesota’s second half against Houston in early 2017 was the first time the Loons pitched a single half of shutout soccer in its MLS existence. So it is. After a tough opening half on the road, Minnesota put John Alvbåge in for Bobby Shuttleworth, after the latter took an injury, and the road team put in two goals to earn a road point along with a clean sheet in the second half. The two teams played to a desultory 0-0 draw at TCF Bank Stadium in July before Houston cinched the season series in September with a 2-1 win in Texas.
Ted Unkel has a reputation, whether or not you believe he makes bad calls, as one who certainly makes big calls. You may remember him from the red card kerfuffle that had the Orlando City supporters group leader rallying the troops to harass Unkel personally. Numerically, he is in the bottom half of referees this year in fouls per game, but is sixth on the list in yellows per game. Last year was basically the same story. He is also tied for the lead in dissent cards so far and is out in front with delay cautions, so he is about the most active referee in what you might call “meta management” of the game. Unkel makes few, but big, calls; fans will be talking about him one way or another on Sunday morning.
M Sam Cronin (neck injury) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
D Tyrone Mears (lower right leg) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
F Abu Danladi (right ankle) – Questionable
D A.J. DeLaGarza (torn ACL) – Out
D George Malki (left knee) – Out
D Dylan Remick (concussion) – Out
D Philippe Senderos (right hamstring) – Out
M Juan David Cabezas (right quad injury) – Out
D Kevin Garcia (left hamstring) – Out
There are currently two players tied for the lead in goals for Minnesota United. Their names are Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino. Each has a paltry two goals, and each is unlikely to score any more this season. The days of suggesting that the Loons may be poor in the back, but can keep pace with anyone they need to on offense, are gone. The nine goals the team has scored so far is hardly a criminally low haul (it is roughly average at this point of the year), but too many of these goals have come in the second half, after the opposing team had gone up and the game state pushed the opponent into a less proactive stance. The struggle is real at both ends right now.
On defense, the Loons are third from last in total goals allowed and have let in an average of 2.14 goals per game. If the team keeps up this exact pace all season, it will allow another 58 goals this year. Add that to the 15 it has already allowed, and you have 73 goals allowed this year. A new all-time record for defensive futility, handily breaking the previous record which was set a few months ago by the same team. For what it is worth, the club has not had a shutout in 19 straight games, giving Minnesota a stranglehold on the longest such active streak in MLS.
With respect to the player, Minnesota is not an Alexi Gomez signing away from figuring out its defensive woes. It does not become a good club overnight just because Darwin Quintero might find his goal scoring boots. The problems facing the team are top to bottom, holistic, pervasive, and complex. If the club will not, or cannot, retool the roster in a major way, then there is no other choice to become competitive other than to experiment with lineups and formations.
Adrian Heath, I suppose, is going to try to live over 2,000 more years just so the number 4231 can appear on his tombstone. The only times fans have seen the team slip out of that core formation to start a game have been dalliances with 5-3-2 lineups that the coach was forced into by severe injuries and absences (I’m not going to argue with someone who says the team has played a 4-2-2-2 formation before, as I have never seen that as anything but a slight nuance to how high a No. 10 plays or how narrow the wings play). Often, when the team has mixed up the formation, it has come after some damage had been done and a second half switch was necessary to adapt to a new game state.
It is time to come out of the gate with something wildly different. Play five in the back with only one of the wingbacks ever getting forward at a time. Ask the defensive midfielder du jour to stay at home and focus more on defense than distribution. This would all be the 2017 Vancouver Whitecaps style, wherein they went the whole season owning only 40% of possession and only ever tried to score on a quick counter. Vancouver made the playoffs last year, even if no one loved watching them. Is trying to grind out 1-0 wins in this style ideal? Not in my mind personally, but Minnesota needs to start thinking far outside the box if it wants to get competitive. It is not a simple fix away from success.
Or go insane and pull out the old W-M formation of the 1950s, with three in the back, four midfielders, a couple of wingers and a central striker. This could make better use of the team’s glut of midfielders, and would allow players like Ibson, Rasmus Schüller, Quintero, and Maximiniano to all find the field in the center of the park at the same time. Is trying to grind out 5-4 wins in this style ideal? Not in my mind personally (with this team’s defense, it sounds positively like suicide), but Minnesota needs to start thinking far outside the box if it wants to get competitive. It is not a simple fix away from success.
In truth, the real answer is to retool the roster from top to bottom. The experiment of finding diamonds in the rough and building an affordable core before adding on the fun pieces has not worked. Money talks in soccer, and it is increasingly relevant in MLS as roster mechanisms open things up. There is nothing else to say. The team needs to splash some serious cash.
But it is unlikely to do that in the next 24 hours. So I would like to see the team control what it can control. Throw Houston a curveball. Fail in the name of a noble idea rather than in the name of a conservative hope. Who knows, the team might just find a winning recipe.
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Tags: Adrian Heath, Alexi Gomez, Christian Ramirez, Darwin Quintero, Ethan Finlay, Houston Dynamo, Ibson, Kevin Molino, Match Preview, Maximiliano, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Rasmus Schuler, rasmus schuller, Vancouver Whitecaps