On Saturday and Wednesday, I was in attendance for my first Minnesota United FC matches of the year (and I brought four friends to Saturday’s match, so I’ll take the credit for the Loons’ narrow attendance edge). Living in Philadelphia, I haven’t had the chance to watch the team live so far this year, especially since the spring season match against New York was played in Minnesota.
But a trip to visit family back in the north couldn’t have been better timed, and it was wonderful to be back at the Nessie, losing my voice to cheer on United.
It was also a formative and productive few days for the team. Pair the solid win against Miami with the all-out effort in the defeat against Kansas City, and the Loons seemed to have turned a corner from their difficult spring season stretch. Key players are back from injury, the attack looks solid again, and the defense is maturing. While there’s plenty of work to do, it was a great time for a fan to return.
Minnesota next plays on Saturday, June 25th, at Target Field against Club León, which will hopefully give the team a good opportunity to experiment and grow. Their next league match follows two weeks later, on July 2nd. Until the next time we see the club on the pitch, some positive notes from my time watching the team in person:
J. C. Banks has spent his career mostly as a central forward, or occasionally as a winger. In his time in Minnesota, he’s been used mainly in the latter role, that is, when he’s been used at all. I’ve always liked what I’ve seen from J. C. but he’s never impressed enough to really lay claim to a starting position.
At least until Wednesday night. With the Loons down a goal, Carl Craig replaced Juliano Vicentini with Banks. I’m not sure how much method there was to this change, Banks was simply a more direct attacking option replacing a defender with the Loons desperately needing a goal. But the move worked brilliantly, because Banks was superb in his new role. Immediately, the team’s attack seemed to find new life, as Banks played several excellent through-balls on the ground to runners, and made a number of smart runs. He was constantly in space and he constantly found good forward options.
It’s clear that Banks isn’t a first choice option on the wing or up top for the Loons. But perhaps those positions aren’t the right ones for the 26 year old. Banks’ attributes, especially as a finder of space and a maker of good runs, are well suited to the central midfield position. The goals that J. C. has scored for Minnesota have come from positions that he could easily find as a late runner (check out where J. C. is standing when Danny Cruz was fouled for the penalty kick—spoiler, he was wide open, splitting two defenders, near the penalty spot). Banks is surely not a practiced defender, but he has enough speed and tenacity to be an effective harasser. He showed some of that ability on Wednesday as well.
I don’t know for sure if this move will work out, which is why I’d love to see it tried for at least a half against León. Ideally, Banks would play in between Jeb(!) Brovsky, the defensive midfielder, and Ben Speas, the attacking midfielder. He’d play in a box-to-box role, looking for long passes between the lines and opportunities for cutbacks to the top of the box. In this position, J. C. was the best I’ve ever seen him in a Minnesota jersey, and he ought to get a look in that position.
All I want from Sammy is a perfect game. Is that too much to ask?
I believe in Sammy, both in the present and as a longer term project. He’s 26, which is still reasonably young for a goalkeeper (David Bingham, one of the USMNT’s up and comers, is older, and Bill Hamid is less than a year younger). He has the starting spot on lockdown this season, which will hopefully mean twenty two more league starts to keep improving. He has the physical gifts to play in MLS, and turned in two solid performances on Saturday and Wednesday.
The problem is that he’s always due for at least one error a game. Some of his mistakes have been especially costly for the Loons this season. In Ottawa and in Indy, he misread a ball on the turf, and coughed up a goal as a result. On Saturday, he had one missed punch, and on Wednesday, he spilled a ball that resulted in a Kansas City goal that was disallowed for offside. He made a number of good plays in both games otherwise, but those singular mistakes are frustrating because they’re so regular.
You can give Sammy the benefit of the doubt as well. After all, Matt Van Oekel has made a couple egregious footwork errors for Edmonton this season, and was only punished the third time he did it. The ball he spilled vs KC was a low shot which bounced directly in front of him; one of the hardest types of shots to claim. He would’ve gotten to his own rebound, had Diego Rubio not been closest to it by virtue of his offside position.
But I’m just longing for that one game where Sammy looks absolutely rock solid from start to finish. It hasn’t come yet, but I think it will, because he’s been playing well, just not yet perfect.
When Ben Speas went out injured, Minnesota’s attack collapsed. Upon his return, it’s no surprise to see the team looking much more dangerous. On Saturday, Speas delivered a wonderful assist to Christian Ramirez to set up the opening goal. It was fantastic to see, because Speas barely looked. He just knew Ramirez would be there, which says something about the connection that the two have.
What I love about Speas more than his passing and dribbling, is his work off the ball, which complements Ramirez. When Speas was out, Minnesota struggled to get the ball to Ramirez, who was always double teamed, and couldn’t find ways to get other players into the attack. With Speas, the Loons have a dangerous central attacking player who plays close enough to Ramirez that defenders must take note and split their attentions. Speas also makes different runs than Ramirez, which is the ability that Stefano Pinho (who makes mostly the same runs) cannot provide.
Speas, who was supplanted by Federico Higuain in Columbus (no shame in that), is one of the safest bets to come up to MLS with the Loons. He’s made a huge difference for Minnesota, and in a hard-to-find position. The Crew’s loss has been our gain.
Coupled with Speas’ injury, the loss of Jeb(!) Brovsky was another big blow down the stretch for Minnesota. Soon after he went out and was replaced by Ibson vs Tampa Bay, Joe Cole scored from precisely the spot that Brovsky would’ve been defending had he not been hurt.
Jack Blake has done decently in the two matches he was called upon to replace Jeb(!). He did score, after all. But after seeing the two play back-to-back, I prefer the MLS veteran over “Young Jack.” Blake undoubtedly has room to grow, but he felt too conservative against Miami, more content to contain than to challenge. I prefer the reverse. Brovsky is an experienced and savvy player, but he’s also not afraid to send a message in midfield when the moment calls for it. As long as he’s healthy, Jeb(!) gets my vote.
The other day, at Minnesota United FC practice, I asked Carl Craig about the challenge inherent with young players. They won’t get better unless you give them playing time and let them make mistakes. But how many mistakes can you afford?
Damion Lowe and Brent Kallman have been the Loons’ primary center back pairing for much of the year. Lowe is 23 years old, with just 17 professional appearances in USL before joining Minnesota. Kallman is 25, with just 12 prior appearances before this season. Both have the physical tools to succeed at this level, and the one above. But both need the opportunities to learn on the job. At last, they’re getting the chance, and you can see the improvement.
First off, both Lowe and Kallman are excellent in the air. Opponents looking to cross the ball in the air against Minnesota have repeatedly met with frustration. The Loons have not conceded off a corner kick this spring season, and only once from a high cross. The issues have instead come from counter attacks or low crosses, like the one that beat Lowe on Saturday night. But you see signs of improvement. Sporting KC had several breaks that were snuffed out, especially one four-on-four attack that Lowe single-handedly quashed. The Sporks also made a number of low crosses, but the Loons defenders were always there to clear them out.
So far, risking two young defenders in the back hasn’t been the end of the world for Minnesota. They look increasingly confident out there, and both need the experience. Keep them playing!
Although I’ll be back to watching from my couch next time the Loons play, I’m optimistic about the direction the team is heading. Can’t wait for the fall.”