Photo courtesy of Minnesota United.


Matchday One: Old Problems Continue Surfacing in Loons’ Loss to San Jose

by on 4 March 2018

MaThe opening day of the season is caught up in so many emotions, it is difficult not to get carried away in interpreting the results. Are Atlanta fatally flawed? Can Toronto sustain their focus? Are New England going to get a red card every game?

It’s even harder when you watch a game like Saturday’s nightcap between Minnesota and San Jose at Avaya Stadium. The Loons started the game assertively, melted at the first thaw, and then somehow stormed back in the game’s waning minutes to nearly recover from a three goal deficit. When they were up, they were up. When they were down, they were down. What does it all mean?

For one, it means that MLS is back, baby! It was so nice to have real, honest-to-goodness, regular season soccer to talk about. In their ninety minutes of collapse and resurrection, the Loons showed us why we love this sport. The result was not great, but even down by three goals, I was having fun. When down by one goal, I was having a lot of fun. The offseason (especially this one) was long, boring, and frustrating. Good riddance.

In terms of Minnesota United’s play on the field, it was a lot of more of the same. Until that late fightback, the Loons struggled to create quality chances, mucked around on defense, and lost the midfield battle. If you have been reading my increasingly frantic dispatches from the preseason games, you will have read plenty about these issues. Saturday suggested that the coaching staff does not have any clever ideas about how to fix them.

But, at the same time, on Saturday, head coach Adrian Heath made substitutions that changed the game. After being forced into replacing Abu Danladi early on with Christian Ramirez because of injury, Heath held onto his subs until late, giving Miguel Ibarra just fifteen minutes to make an impact in place of Ethan Finlay, and Collen Warner just eleven in relief of Ibson. Yet Minnesota’s two goals came after those substitutions, and both players played roles in the goals.

On the first Minnesota goal (thanks to user EpicallyTossed on Reddit for clipping these videos), watch how Ibarra intelligently played the ball back instead of getting trapped by three defenders on the sideline. Watch how Warner told Calvo where to play the ball before he received it, leading to a quick pass to Jérôme Thiesson on the opposite side. Above all, watch the (probably unintentional) pick and roll play that Ibarra and Molino executed. This goal mostly boiled down to the yeoman work of Christian Ramirez (that has got to be a penalty if Molino does not recover the ball) and the laziness of San Jose’s Aníbal Godoy (#20) in tracking back, but Warner and Ibarra played important and subtle roles.

On the second Minnesota goal, the main actor was Sam Nicholson, whose impressive work rate won the ball back in a dangerous area. But Warner’s defensive positioning is what allowed Thiesson and Schüller to play as aggressively as they did. It was also Ibarra’s run that darted across Molino’s movement and his shot, providing a screen and distraction.

Soccer is a difficult game to break into the contributions of any one player over another. Ibarra’s contribution is often one of the hardest to discern, and it is clear by now that Heath does not really know what to make of him. But it has long been my belief that, whatever the particulars, the Loons simply play better when he is on the field. He constantly makes runs, makes good decisions with the ball, has a good awareness of how to operate with or without the ball in small areas of space, and plays defense.

The numbers back this up. Minnesota have played 35 total games in MLS, but we will look at the 31 since the conclusion of the Demidov debacle. In that span, the Loons have scored 43 goals and allowed 55, a difference of -12 (-0.39 per 90 min). But when Miguel Ibarra is on the field, they have scored 27 and allowed 28, a difference of just -1 (-0.05 per 90 min). During this stretch, Ibarra was on the field for 58.67% of the team’s minutes, but 62.79% of its goals and just 50.91% of its goals against. To illustrate how significant a departure these numbers are, if Ibarra had played every minute and we assume his influence is fixed at exactly these numbers, the Loons would have scored three more goals and allowed seven fewer.

By comparison, the Loons have a difference of -9 with Kevin Molino on the field (-0.34 per 90 minutes). He has been on the field for 84.37% of the team’s minutes, 86.05% of its goals, and 83.64% of the goals against. In the nearly 1,000 minutes that Molino played without Ibarra on the field, the team scored 0.09 fewer goals per 90 minutes and conceded 0.19 more goals per 90 minutes, for a difference of -8. When Ibarra and Molino played together, the team’s differential was just -1.

I am wary of going beyond simply reciting the numbers here, because a lot of things may be at play. Ibarra has subbed on more than Molino, and may be benefiting more from playing against tired legs, or in game states like Saturday’s, which forced the Loons to attack. Our own Dave Ladig calculates a more complicated form of plus/minus using expected goals, home/away, and opponent quality. But for the purposes of this article, it suffices to state that in this 31-game span, it is clear that the Loons have played far better with Miguel Ibarra on the field than without him. Production on the scoresheet is one thing, but there’s more to it than that. As his contributions on Saturday showed, he does the little things right. That can make a big difference.

Adrian Heath, start this man.

Miscellaneous notes

4. I agreed with starting Matt Lampson over Bobby Shuttleworth, and that is mainly because I think Lampson is simply a better goalkeeper. But the Loons are deep enough in this position, and San Jose’s three-goal tally means the competition between the two will certainly go on.

Lampson was pretty blameless on the first goal, a one-time shot that was perfectly placed into the corner. He could not have stopped the second goal either, but I do not think he had checked far enough over his shoulder to be aware of Vako’s far post run, even if he ultimately had no chance to get in position for it. On the third goal, however, he over-committed to his near post and that left the back post open. He also took an extra leftward hop that gave him too little time to react to Danny Hoesen’s cut-back shot. Two small errors, but that’s the game winning goal right there.

I expect Lampson to keep starting, and he had a couple of nice saves otherwise. But I hear the argument that says Shuttleworth’s familiarity with the back line should give him the starting spot. I cannot analyze Lampson’s relationship with his defenders, but it should improve the more he plays with them.

3. There was no defender who covered themselves in glory. Every member of the back four made serious mistakes. On the first San Jose goal, Tyrone Mears bafflingly committed on an aerial ball that Michael Boxall was already challenging, which left Vako completely alone in the middle of the field. Boxall moved out to challenge Vako, and Mears ran to fill his spot in the back four. He, Calvo, and Thiesson got sucked in by the movement of Chris Wondolowski, (similar to the Ibarra run at the end of the game), which left Hoesen wide open for a shot.

On the second San Jose goal, Calvo committed an egregious turnover. Boxall marked Hoesen’s run well, but was probably more focused on the man than the ball and whiffed on his clearance. On the right flank, Tyrone Mears reacted a full half second later than Vako to the turnover, and he could not get on the ball side of his man before the Georgian slammed it into the net.

The winning San Jose goal came from a teamwide breakdown. It started as Kevin Molino was too late to pressure Godoy. The Quakes midfielder cut out Ibson and Schüller with a single pass and Hoesen and Vako played a one-two to create the chance. Boxall was too slow to step up and Calvo was too slow to follow Hoesen’s cut. Thiesson smartly left his man to cover, but Hoesen simply blew past him.

That was not the end of it, there was also this awful marking from a corner from Boxall, and other mistakes. Check out this great post from Dave looking at what the stats say about defensive pairings. For my part, I think the centerback discussion may be academic. I remain most worried about Minnesota’s fullbacks and would rather play with three center backs. If Adrian Heath and defensive coach Mark Watson won’t go that far, then I’d like to see Carter Manley given a shot at RB and Brent Kallman at RCB.

2. I thought Schüller was good, actually. I saw a lot of consternation about the Finn on Twitter during the game, and there is no doubt that he had a few really loose touches and bad passes. But I really liked how aggressive his passing was. He was on the ball more than Ibson and had more success passing between the lines than Ibson.

I would like to see less red on this map, but I also like how many times he passed into the final third. I am not going to actually do the counting, but I feel safe in saying that nobody did better at passing between San Jose’s defensive lines than Schüller. If I had to choose between Schüller and Ibson, I am taking the former. And that might become a choice soon because…

1. The Loons need a defensive midfielder STAT. I do not know what Luiz Fernando is doing now, but I hope he is just living at an embassy or the airport waiting for his ITC to come in so he can come play for us. I have written before that there is no player who could single-handedly transform the Loons’ fortunes more than a real #6, and currently Fernando is the only healthy person who could fit that role for the Loons. (Why has Minnesota not traded for Tony Tchani?) On Saturday, Schüller and Ibson were intended to share defensive duties, but, as you might expect, Schüller ended up doing most of the actual man marking and tracking back. 

The result of that setup is that the opposing team inevitably gets several runs at the defense per game, when Ibson dribbles away the ball or Schüller passes it away. If there was someone who was always wary of that who could break up or delay the counter, (and that person was good) then that could actually be a game changer for the Loons.

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