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Matchday Nine: Facing Adversity, Loons Stay United, Defeat Vancouver

by on 7 May 2018

Minnesota United’s 2018 season so far has been a paradox. The Loons have looked impressive in many of their defeats this season, and unimpressive in some of their victories. It’s all been about the game states. When Minnesota score first, they have been able to effectively preserve the advantage and win. When they concede first, they’ve labored mightily and unsuccessfully to close the gaps, and ultimately lost. Saturday afternoon’s win against Vancouver had a different script, but the overall plot was the same.

Coming into the match against the Whitecaps, it was anyone’s guess how the match would play out. Both teams had already established a reputation for inconsistency. The most interesting questions about the game were tactical. No team had allowed their opponents as much of the ball as Vancouver. The Whitecaps are known for sitting back, defending, and hitting teams on the counter with players like Alphonso Davies and Brek Shea. Minnesota, meanwhile, are a team that tries to possess, although the jury is somewhat out on whether or not they are good at it.

But the game defied expectations in several ways. To start, Vancouver played a line of confrontation around midfield. This midfield pressure gave the Loons more trouble than it should’ve, and the visitors earned a number of advanced turnovers and chances in transition. The defense bailed Bobby Shuttleworth out of a terrible rebound early in the match, and the goalkeeper returned the favor with a low save on a well placed shot from forward Anthony Blondell.

The Loons eventually were able to wrest control of the midfield back from Vancouver and force a bevy of turnovers of their own. Despite their supposedly differing tactical approaches, both teams seemed far more comfortable fighting a battle in the midfield and attacking from transition. But the Loons did well to limit any breakthroughs, and the Whitecaps’ monstrous defenders (Kendall Waston is 6’5, José Aja is 6’4) walled off Mason Toye, Darwin Quintero, and any other possible attacking targets in the center of the pitch.

The end result of the give-and-take was a scoreless first half. That counts as a good result for Minnesota, who have been far better in the second frame this season than the first.

However, just five minutes after the break, the game changed dramatically when Mason Toye rashly elbowed Waston in the chest and was promptly and correctly sent off by referee Nima Saghafi (who fans will remember as one of the better referees in the NASL, but who was inconsistent on Saturday).

This was the second major way in which this game defied expectations. Coming into the match, in nine games the Whitecaps had managed to earn a league-leading four red cards, while the Loons had earned none. Toye’s ejection put both teams into an unfamiliar situation, and one that Vancouver were almost uniquely unprepared to handle. How can a team that relies on speed, and averages under 40% possession, respond to a situation in which they’d expect to have most of the ball and need to break down a defensive-minded home team?

Minnesota were better equipped for the challenge of going down a man. The Loons are not a counter-attack minded team, but they certainly can play that way, especially with new additions like Darwin Quintero and Alexi Gómez. Additionally, United have been sneakily good this year at closing the door on games when they need to. Against Chicago, Orlando, and Houston, the Loons successfully defended late leads without an abnormal amount of drama.

Vancouver reacted appropriately to the sudden advantage, bringing on the prolific aerial threat Kei Kamara, who had spent several weeks on the injured list. But it was the Loons who took advantage of the game state. A turnover by the Whitecaps gave Minnesota a chance to attack. Quintero sprayed the ball out wide to Gómez, who was given an eternity to settle the ball, turn towards goal, and get up to speed. The new Peruvian signing cut to the byline and flashed in a cross. Seemingly out of nowhere, Miguel Ibarra met the ball on the far post, forcing a sharp save from goalkeeper Stefan Marinović. But the entire Vancouver defense was flat-footed on the rebound, and Ibarra pounced, scoring his first goal of the year at an extremely opportune moment.

The game then lurched even further into an exercise of attack vs defense. In the 77th minute, the Loons swapped both of their wingers for an extra central midfielder (Collin Martin) and an extra center back (Wyatt Omsberg), and parked the bus. Save for one curling shot from distance by Shea that was beautifully saved by Shuttleworth, it all worked according to plan and Minnesota notched their fourth win and twelfth point of the season.

Miscellaneous notes

5. For the second time, all three draft picks saw the field for Minnesota. Mason Toye started the game, and worked fruitlessly but well, before his dumb red card foul. Omsberg entered in the 77th minute and had four good clearances in his roughly eighteen minutes of work. Carter Manley stepped up for Eric Miller in the 82nd minute after the newcomer full back went off with what looked like (hopefully) a cramp, and had two clearances and a block.

We wrote at the time about the quality of the Loons’ draft class, and early in the season that conclusion has been tested and borne out. It is telling about the depths of the team’s current injury crisis that young, untested players like Toye, Omsberg, and Manley (and Collin Martin, who wasn’t a draft pick, but is nearly young enough to be one) were relied upon in such a critical game, but it is also telling about their quality. There will be more opportunities for the kids, and they will benefit from their experience in high pressure situations like Saturday’s.

4. Speaking of newcomers, Eric Miller made his debut and was quietly impressive. The Whitecaps never really challenged him, preferring instead to feed Alphonso Davies, who the Loons had deliberately countered with Jérôme Thiesson. But Miller was mistake-free when he was called upon. The Woodbury native was well-regarded by Rapids fans for his strong defensive play, but his difficulties in the attacking end rendered him a poor fit for new coach Anthony Hudson’s bizarre 5-3-2. The Loons will be happy to have him, however. Thiesson and Tyrone Mears are offensive-minded full backs, and Miller will provide a good counterbalance. He’ll also be a good role model for Manley, who seems to have similar strengths.

3. Overall, the defense wasn’t perfect but Francisco Calvo and Michael Boxall together played one of their better games of the year. Calvo was particularly impressive winning and clearing balls during the second half. Boxall also had good moments, none better than his individual defending against Davies in the box during the first half, which forced the talented attacker to wheel away from goal and make a backward pass.

That said, (and to repeat) despite allowing just one goal in two games, I’m not convinced that this Minnesota defense has fixed their issues just yet. Against Houston, they were let off the hook by some really bad finishing. Against Vancouver, they benefited from the game state that allowed them to bunker in against a team who were inept in that situation. Even then, Kei Kamara had at least two good opportunities to score, and Bobby Shuttleworth made three stellar saves. It can simultaneously be true that the Loons have minimized their opponent’s chances somewhat (at least compared to the start of the season), and also gotten lucky on those that they have allowed.

But the trade for Miller and this on/off loan deal with Omsberg to Tulsa gives me hope. With Miller and Manley earning minutes, the team now has two full backs under the age of twenty-five. With Omsberg getting good minutes, the team has center back depth beyond Brent Kallman. I’m still a bit frustrated that the team has been so determined to entrench the Calvo-Boxall pairing, despite their inconsistent to bad play, but I’m heartened by the other opportunities that the Loons will have when changes inevitably need to be made (at the very minimum by the World Cup).

2. I’m still not sure what to make of Alexi Gómez, who made his debut start on Saturday. He was tidy in possession, delivered some respectable corner kicks, and essentially assisted the winner. What I especially like about Gómez is his reliable ability to get quick separation to hit a cross. What I’m still waiting to see is if he has any ability to cut inside and take a shot (which of course was the bread and butter of the dearly departed Sam Nicholson). Early indications were that he has no right foot, which is concerning. I’m also a bit unclear about his ability to actually get past people on the dribble, not just beat them laterally to get a ball in.

Concerns about one-dimensional play aside, I definitely saw enough from Gómez to be intrigued. Given that it’s only his second appearance for the team and his first in that left-wing position, we can cut him some slack. He’ll be one to watch in coming games.

1. Quick hits. Minnesota play two games this coming week, which should test the depth of an already-injury-shortened squad even further. I’d assume Frantz Pangop, Collin Martin, and Maximiano will have to shoulder at least some minutes… …Who plays forward for Minnesota in LA? I’m not sure it’s worth rushing back Christian Ramirez or Abu Danladi in a game that the Loons are not favored to win. The best option to my eyes is to use Darwin Quintero as a false 9 in a 4-3-3, with a midfield trio of Ibson, Rasmus Schüller, and Martin… … Speaking of Schüller, it was his best game as a Loon. He has had a quietly good year breaking up plays and keeping possession. He did all of that on Saturday, but also avoided the kind of late mistakes that have colored his record… …In contrast, it was Darwin Quintero’s worst game for the Loons. He attempted eleven (!!!) dribbles and succeeded on only three of them. But he can’t be a difference maker every night.


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