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Matchday Five: Minnesota Can’t Find the Keys to Atlanta’s Bus

by on 1 April 2018

Despite being up a man for fifty minutes, and dominant for seventy, Minnesota United came up short against a compact Atlanta United defense, on a night when the temperatures recalled last near’s ‘snowpener.’

It was a dispiriting evening for the Loons. It was a waste of a golden opportunity to get three points. But it was not a bad performanceMinnesota dominated the match. They had an overwhelming amount of possession, virtually all of the game’s chances, and yet came away empty handed. That’s soccer sometimes. It shouldn’t make you feel okay, but it shouldn’t be cause to light anything on fire either. Life is cruel and unfair, and it happens.

Be frustrated. Don’t be mad.

The game started about as well as the Loons could’ve hoped. On the very first attacking pass from Minnesota, Abu Danladi got a step in behind and was fouled by Atlanta defender Leandro González Pírez, which earned the Argentine defender a yellow card.

Then, the game took the worst possible turn for the Loons. Tyrone Mears’ delivery off the resulting free kick was really bad, and the Five Stripes struck back on the counter, forcing a Matt Lampson save. On the subsequent corner, Atlanta got the ball in on Lampson, who made the save. Atlanta headed it back at the net and it came off the crossbar and fell right on the chest of Francisco Calvo and dribbled into the net. It was a dumb goal, but a goal nonetheless.

After going down, Minnesota gradually asserted itself. From at least the twentieth minute onward, the game was one-way traffic. Early on, the Loons found some good combinations with space in behind the Atlanta defense, and the game was fairly stretched. But everything changed when González Pírez inexplicably decided to check Sam Nicholson into the advertising boards. He earned a deserved second yellow, essentially for boarding, and the Loons essentially got a fifty minute power play.

The rest of the game followed virtually the same script. Atlanta defended in deep ranks inside their box. The Loons passed the ball around the visitors’ box, but couldn’t find combinations within it. About once a minute, a Minnesota player would hit a cross, and Atlanta defended virtually every one. Every now and then an Atlanta player would roll around on the turf and profess a serious injury. Only once was it actually true, but the constant delays slowed down the game, frustrated the Loons, and gave the undermanned defenders chances to regroup.

Ultimately, time was up and the score held.

Miscellaneous notes

5. Quality or Creativity? Minnesota had all of the ball. They just had to figure out what to do with it. Their choice was to get the ball into the box via the air, again and again. To put it mildly, this strategy was not particularly effective.

On Twitter, I saw a lot of commentary to the effect that the Loons lacked creativity. Maybe. I’m not saying I would’ve said no to a few quick one-twos to open up seams in the Atlanta defense. But the truth is, when you’re playing a team with eight players defending from within their own box, there’s not a ton of space to be had. Minnesota didn’t have much success in finding combination play once Atlanta went down a man, because they switched to much more defensive 4-4-1 and were not at all shy about playing almost to their own six yard box.

The other natural thing the Loons could’ve tried was to take shots from distance. But that’s hardly a more effective strategy than crossing, and at any rate, they weren’t very good at it. Three of their four shot attempts were blocked right off of the foot.

This is not entirely to excuse the tactics. This is a team that is unused to playing an opponent who is in the position that Atlanta were in. Breaking down a bunkering defense is really hard. There’s a reason that Jose Mourinho is a highly sought after manager. There’s a reason that English teams fighting relegation always hire Tony Pulis or Sam Allardyce. An organized, desperate defense and a team that isn’t interested in playing soccer (for whatever reason, and I think Atlanta had some really good ones, and I don’t begrudge them for playing the way they did) is hard to beat, and the Loons were prepared for exactly the opposite type of game from the one that occurred.

I think a more accurate way of describing the Loons’ approach is that they simply didn’t have the requisite quality to make space one-on-one for either a shot or a cross (or get on the other end of it). Darwin Quintero will help there. So too might the return of Jérôme Thiesson or the loan arrival of Alexi Gómez, because Marc Burch had another poor game on both sides of the ball.

Minnesota needed to [1] draw lots of fouls in dangerous areas, [2] convert those dead ball opportunities into chances (when was the last time the Loons scored off a free kick?), and [3] create space for crosses and shots. They couldn’t accomplish any of this.

4. Adrian Heath was too slow to realize the way the game was going. Abu Danladi was the right forward for the start of the game, when the action promised to be open and Atlanta’s inability to defend runs in behind was waiting to be exploited. But once there ceased to be any “behind” to run into, Danladi should’ve been removed for Ramirez, or else Burch should’ve been withdrawn to allow for both forwards to play together. The Loons labored for far too long with the wrong pieces up front.

I’ve also got to question keeping Brent Kallman on the bench. Without Wyatt Omsberg available, Kallman was the Loons’ best option in the air and he went unused. By the eightieth minute, it was clear how the final period of the game was going to pass. Kallman could’ve replaced Boxall to provide a bit more aerial ability.

3. I was hard on Christian Ramirez last week, and I think it was probably undeserved. Andy Greder wrote about the Loons’ striker issues, and it seems Christian was really a bit more hurt than I thought. The bye week will be good for him and the rest of the Loons to return to full fitness.

2. Minnesota have some key, extremely winnable games coming up. In two weeks, they play the Timbers away, and the Timbers still do not look that good. The week after, they face Seattle away, and the Sounders don’t look that great either. Then, they face Houston at home on April 28th, and the Dynamo look pretty bad as well.

So that’s three games against struggling teams. Even with two games away, Minnesota should believe they are capable of getting nine points, because they are.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but Minnesota dominated Atlanta to a degree that is not at all guaranteed when up a man. Atlanta still had all of their best players on the field, from Josef Martinez to Miguel Almirón to Hector Villalba to Darlington Nagbe. They could not hold the ball for beans in the midfield because Minnesota took it away from them and forced them into a deep shell. That Minnesota could not penetrate the shell is a separate concern.

Minnesota can beat Portland. They can beat Seattle. They can beat the Dynamo. And if Darwin Quintero is the difference maker that the Loons think he can be, then their chances get better from there.

1. Quick hits. Credit to all of the fans who showed up and provided what sounded like an amazing atmosphere. I know it was a gutting result, but again, be frustrated, not mad. The team and the fans both gave it their all, and it didn’t work out in the end, but more times than not, it will… …Marc Burch wasn’t good enough again, even though the Loons didn’t have much defending to do, there were several occasions on which Burch was far too easily bypassed… …Can Darwin Quintero hit a dead ball? Because that is the skill this team needs absolutely desperately right now.

Be frustrated, but not mad. Take deep breaths and remember to drink water.

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