Adrian Heath guides his men in a May training. Photo by Daniel Mick -

The Angle

The Three Tactical Questions the Loons Must Answer

by on 12 February 2018

Minnesota United is now halfway through the 2018 MLS preseason. After a couple weeks in Melbourne, Fla., the Loons briefly returned to the Twin Cities on Sunday to model the club’s new kits. Now, they’re off to Charleston, S.C. to continue their training and play in the annual Carolina Challenge Cup, against the local Charleston Battery (Feb. 17), Atlanta United (Feb. 21), and the Columbus Crew (Feb. 24).

The upcoming slate of matches on the Carolina Coast will mark a switch in the focus of the team’s preseason preparations. While the trip to Florida was built around two-a-days working on fitness and ball work — with a few scrimmages — the start of actual games in a tournament setting against like opponents will mean more work on tactics.

The good news for Minnesota is that the team is not starting fresh. The bad news for Minnesota is that the team is not starting fresh. In scrimmages against Florida International University and Eastern Florida State College, the Loons began the game with an extremely familiar eleven. Nine of the starters in the FIU match were starters in the club’s final match of the previous season — a 2-3 loss in San Jose. With three weeks remaining until the Loons return to Silicon Valley to kick off a new season, the only offseason signing who made that prospective group of starters was right-back Tyrone Mears. He will turn 35 this week.

Minnesota’s starters and subs against FIU.

Perhaps Adrian Heath and his staff will experiment more in Carolina. But so far, they don’t seem to have taken the chance to think fresh about their team. To an extent, that’s understandable. Minnesota were so poor last season that nobody came bidding for their top talent, and so happily they remain. But the team’s offseason transfer business has been equally poor, and thus almost nobody has come in to challenge the incumbents for starting spots. That means that the tactical situation for the Loons is much the same as it was last year. The team’s strengths remain strengths, the team’s weaknesses remain weaknesses.

In an ideal, and much different world, this would be a piece about how the Loons would address the massive weakness in midfield that they displayed last year, building out from that central group. Instead, the idiosyncratic construction of this roster means that once again, the Loons must build from the front and work their way back. Here are the three critical questions that Heath must answer when determining how to deploy his Loons:

1. Play with two forwards, or one?

No position on the field is deeper for Minnesota than at center forward. The Loons boast Christian Ramirez, a proven goal scorer, who is coming into the season fresh off an incomprehensible USMNT snub. A hair behind him is Abu Danladi, last year’s first-overall SuperDraft pick, who grew up fast and finished the season with a couple of serious bangers. Then there’s Mason Toye, the seventh-overall selection in this year’s SuperDraft, who is a bright talent who will need to get game time if he is to develop. Getting the best out of this exciting group will be one of the toughest challenges for Heath this season. He must balance development with production and ultimately with the results of the team as a whole.

The natural inclination with such a logjam in the forward corps would be to play with two strikers. Fitting three players, two of whom will expect to start, into one position, would be a struggle. But fitting three players into two positions, on the other hand, would allow everyone to get substantial minutes.

But putting two forwards on the field can be a risk. Ramirez and Danladi worked well together at times during the previous season, but they also had periods where it didn’t come together too well. Meanwhile, a consistent theme of Minnesota’s 2017 was difficulty getting the ball to the feet of the forwards in dangerous spots. By adding a second forward, the Loons might be taking away another player who can get the ball to a forward in the first place. They might also be thinning their midfield or defense, leaving the remaining central midfielders exposed. Thus, the decision up top will reverberate throughout the XI.

One potential way out of this problem would be to shift one of the strikers to an attacking wing role (probably on the right). But that compounds another major problem…

2. Play with Molino, Finlay, or both?

Minnesota has six wide midfielders or wingers on its roster, but the distribution of that half-dozen is a major headache. The Loons have four players who are most-comfortable playing out left — Sam Nicholson, Miguel Ibarra, Frantz Pangop, and José Leitón — but not one of them is a proven contributor in MLS. On the right side, they have two options — Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay — who are both proven contributors in MLS. Meanwhile, at central attacking midfield, the Loons have no natural option.

As with the options at striker, Heath will need to manage a position with two players who will expect to start. For the second half of last season, the issue was addressed by moving Kevin Molino into the central attacking position, while Finlay took the right-sided role. In preseason, Heath again seems to have favored this solution.

But in this fashion, the two questions we have asked so far merge with each other, and become a real tangle. Molino was largely frustrated in his central role last year, and Heath has publicly expressed a wish for him to play higher up the pitch, almost as a second striker. At the most basic level, this is probably incompatible with a two striker system. But it also shapes how the team plays with just one striker. Last season, when Molino did push up, there was nobody who stepped up to fill zone 14. The Loons spent the second half of the season mostly lobbing crosses into the box, with Molino and one or two strikers making identical runs, while a massive chasm opened behind them. Needless to say, it was not a recipe for success.

In contrast, the opposite was often true. When Molino occupied zone 14, when the team’s wide players pinched in, and when the club tried to play through the middle, they delivered their most exciting and successful soccer.

But that was with just a single striker. The best answers to question numbers one and two above conflict with each other. That’s the essence of the tactical knot that Minnesota has tied itself in.

3. Play with full backs, or without?

While calibrating the attack remains a difficulty for the Loons, there are serious issues surrounding the defense. The Loons cut four players who contributed to their record-breakingly-bad defense last season. To compensate, they have so far signed Mears, and drafted center back Wyatt Omsberg and right back Carter Manley. On paper, at least, it’s hard to argue that the team has significantly bolstered their position for the start of the season. Hopefully Omsberg and Manley will become key contributors in the future, but for the moment, the club will largely be relying on the same cast of players who, with two games left in the season, could not avoid conceding six goals and helping set an infamous record.

The weakest part of the defense is certainly out wide. The combined ages of Mears, Jérôme Thiesson, and Marc Burch is 97 (going on 98). Last season, Burch’s cautious, containing style of defense neither impressed nor caused regular catastrophes. Thiesson won plenty of fans and contributed in the attack, but was repeatedly exposed as a mark on back post runs. New recruit Mears has spent the last two years in Atlanta and Seattle, winning time on two good teams, but not impressing either enough to avoid being cut. Meanwhile, draftee Manley likely has much to learn.

In contrast, Minnesota’s center back corps of Francisco Calvo, Michael Boxall, Brent Kallman, and Omsberg are younger and more dynamic. The former three are all returning after last season, where they were exposed often from the flanks or by the midfielders ahead of them. They got a lot of experience in one-on-one and emergency defending situations. Given the spots they were put in, it’s harder to judge their true ability, but there are reasons to be more optimistic, and the coaching staff clearly thought they were not the primary issue.

Given this weakness out wide and relative strength in the center, the Loons will have to decide whether or not to play with full backs at all, or whether to adjust who their full backs are. Calvo has played as a left back for the Costa Rican national team, and could potentially relieve pressure in that position if necessary. But that’s only a band-aid. Instead, Heath could potentially opt to play with three center backs and wing backs. This was something the team employed as a solution of last resort in 2017. They played with five at the back to cover for Vadim Demidov against New England, and deployed the now-famous “four full backs and Joe Greenspan” defense against Columbus, when injuries and international duty left just a single center back standing. But three-slash-five at the back could be an option in 2018.

Two formations that supply the best answers to these questions

Adrian Heath has, throughout his tenure as Minnesota United’s head coach, tried very hard to line his team up in a 4-2-3-1. But over a year in, it’s not at all clear that he has a roster that suits that system. It certainly does not supply good answers for the questions posed here. The first-half XI used by Heath in preseason so far is able to incorporate both Molino and Finlay, successfully answering the second question above. But it does so at the cost of unsatisfactory answers to the other two. Are the Loons really going to cannibalize their forward talent by using just one? Are they going to rely on two older full backs the full season? Color me skeptical that this represents the best way forward.

Here are two alternate solutions:

A 4-2-2-2 would pick up from the more successful Loons’ approaches in 2017, but it would require either Ethan Finlay or Kevin Molino to adapt to the left side.

The 4-2-2-2 is what I advocated for Minnesota to play most of last season. Primarily as it allows the team to play with two strikers and avoids the issue of moving Molino in to a central position. By leaving the space behind the forward(s) vacant, Molino still has the opportunity to cut in to the center of the field, but keep his primary position is as a wide attacking midfielder.

When the Loons played a similar 4-4-2 last season, however, the central midfield was often overrun, and weak defense from the wide players made the team’s full back woes worse. This solution also creates a traffic jam in attacking midfield, with six players competing for two spots. In the formation above, I have Ethan Finlay adapting to playing on the left. (Our own Dave Laidig has found some statistical evidence that suggests left midfield is Kevin Molino’s worst position, so I didn’t put him there.) Figuring out if Finlay can play as an inverted winger would be good goal for at least one of the games in Carolina.

The Loons’ offseason moves, especially a lack of full back fixes and central midfield improvements, have made the 4-2-2-2 a most suspect option. So here’s my new hobby horse for 2018:

The 3-5-2 would fix all three major tactical issues. The Loons would more or less give up the wings entirely, but overwhelm opponents in the center.

The 3-5-2 really does fix every one of the personnel issues illustrated throughout this article. The 3-5-2 allows the team to play with two forwards. It provides space for Finlay and Molino, while forcing Molino to play in zone 14 and make late runs. It eliminates the team’s full-back weakness and doubles down upon its relative center back strength. It even might fix the team’s midfield problems, through sheer numbers, with three-to-five players available to help gum up the center of the field.

The tradeoff is that it totally abandons the wings. I think that might be an acceptable trade, because the Loons have not previously shown any real danger from those areas. Neither Ramirez, Danladi, nor (I think) Toye, are especially dominant in the air. Instead of crossing the ball fruitlessly, why not instead try to play through the lines, and put the maximum amount of people in position to link passes or that dribble? In defense, the team will be weaker out wide, but if they can more effectively mark strikers with three mobile center backs, the net danger will be lessened.

Will it work? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth trying! The most worrying thing so far from the Loons’ preseason has been that the same pseudo starting XI has stayed together in the team’s scrimmages. This is the team’s opportunity to try things and start answering these pressing tactical questions. I hope they’ll take it.

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