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Matchday Three: Minnesota Bury Chicago In Dominant Second Half, Continue Impressive Form

by on 18 March 2018

It was a completely different home opener for Minnesota United FC in their second year in MLS. The sun was shining, the temperature was well above freezing, and the team on the field looked—dare we say it?—downright good.

The previous Saturday, the Loons turned in a classic road performance and emerged clutching three points in Orlando. Against Chicago at TCF Bank Stadium, they improved in exactly the ways you’d expect for a team playing at home. After a relatively even first half, in which the local faithful could be forgiven for being a bit nervous with the balance of play, Minnesota played their guests off the pitch in the second half. They were poised in possession, quick and creative in attack, and relatively organized in defense. All together, starting from the fightback at the end of the San Jose match, the Loons are in the midst of the best 190 minutes of soccer they have played in MLS.

Last week, I wrote that if the Loons played well as they did in Orlando about 60% of the time, they would make the playoffs. It’s early days yet, but here we are three games in having witnessed a good Loons team in about 70% of the club’s minutes. We’ve seen a Loons team who can make a comeback, a Loons team who can take the lead, a Loons team who can respond to equalizers, and a Loons team who can close out games. It’s not really that the Loons have won two in a row, it’s the way they’ve won those games.

It should be possible to acknowledge both that it’s too early to say anything definitive about this team, but also to admit that if they combine in the right way, these Loons have the pieces to compete. Oh, and by the way—reinforcements are still coming.

On the most recent Extra Time Radio, the hosts discussed those reinforcements, specifically the rumored transfer of former Club América star Darwin Quintero. Everyone was in agreement that DQ would make the Loons better, but friend of the site Bobby Warshaw spoke against the deal, on the grounds that minutes for the Colombian star would mean less minutes for Abu Danladi, Mason Toye, and Sam Nicholson, who could all be future stars, and less money and time for a younger star. While I’m pretty sympathetic to that type of argument, I have to dispute the premise that Warshaw and the ETR team uncritically accepted, which is that Minnesota have no chance to make the playoffs in this season (and shouldn’t be focused on it as a goal). That seemed a safe assumption in preseason. But now, is it still so obvious?

You can make all kinds of explanations for Minnesota’s early success. They have beaten an Orlando team without five key starters, and a Chicago team without their World Cup winning midfield star Bastian Schweinsteiger. These rationalizations are completely plausible! But I don’t think you can count out anymore the possibility that Minnesota might just be a decent team.

Miscellaneous notes

5. Miguel Ibarra replaced Kevin Molino, and brought a completely different spin on the central attacking position. There has been a lot of consternation about how Minnesota would cope with the loss of Kevin Molino to an ACL tear. The not-entirely-surprising answer was, “just fine.” One of the benefits of Minnesota having so much depth at strikers and on the wings is that when your first-choice converted-right-winger-playing-as-a-withdrawn-striker goes down, there are a bunch of other options to choose from. I expected that Adrian Heath would either roll out the 4-3-3, which has been United’s Plan B for a while now, or else play Mason Toye in place of Molino as a like-for-like replacement. But instead, he brought in Ibarra to play as a #10, and I thought the Loons actually came out ahead.

Adrian Heath has never quite known what to do about Miguel Ibarra. But in his second season in charge, I think he’s learning all of the things about the player that longtime Loons fans know well. Ibarra can play across the attacking midfield line, but he is not at all the typical player in those attacking positions. While Sam Nicholson wants to run at the defense and cut inside, Ethan Finlay wants to cut to the endline and put in a cross, and Kevin Molino wants to play high up, vacuuming up loose balls, Ibarra mostly wants to play the ball laterally and combine in close quarters with his fellow attackers.

Check out his passing chart from Saturday’s game (on the left), which is one of the weirdest charts you will see from a central attacking player. It looks like he’s allergic to the center of the field or a line-breaking pass. Compare it to Kevin Molino’s chart from the game against San Jose (on the right), where you see a player trying to play as a classical #10.

In truth, neither player are the kind of Diego Valeri-esque passing #10 that so many expect. Molino, as I’ve covered endlessly, was being played as a withdrawn forward. Ibarra, meanwhile, is something like an auxiliary winger, creating overloads on both flanks and actually vacating the center of the field, which allows the opposing winger or a central midfielder to move into a more advanced position. The Loons endlessly frustrated Chicago in the second half with their ability to keep possession, and that was mainly because Ibarra would force Chicago’s defensive midfielders to commit to preventing interplay on the flanks, at the expense of leaving an advanced release valve wide open (usually Ibson) in the center of the field.

Miguel Ibarra’s motor is an incredible asset. He’s been used primarily as an impact sub so far, but he was superb in a starting role as well. His quasi-secondary assist to Ibson that started the scoring was taken from the most random position you’d expect to find your central attacker, basically on the endline. Of the six goals the Loons have scored this season, Ibarra has (1) picked the opposing defender, (2) screened the shot, (4) assisted, (5) basically secondary assisted, and (6) secondary assisted.

Just saying.

4. Christian Ramirez has no goals in three games, and that’s… pretty okay? Usually when your striker is goalless for an extended period, that’s a reason for #PANIC. But the Loons are scoring goals as a team, and Ramirez has been an important part of that. On Saturday, his check back and one-touch pass to Ibarra was the first part of a sequence of three perfect passes that ended on Sam Nicholson’s head and the back of the net for the winning goal. The Saturday before that, his hold-up play helped crack open Orlando’s defense on the opener. And on the first week of the season, he assisted on Minnesota’s first goal.

Ramirez will probably be mad that he hasn’t found the net, and it’s certainly not a good thing that the Loons have created basically chances for him in just under three games. It was a little weird that he let Ibson pass him on the first Minnesota goal. But everything else you want a line-leader to do in a well-functioning offense, Ramirez is doing. He’s checking back, making runs, combining with teammates, contesting headers, holding the ball up, and pressuring on defense. And at one point in the match, he seemed to be pulled back illegally by a Chicago defender whom he had just turned, but the referee ignored it. He should’ve gotten a penalty against San Jose had Molino not scored. He’s putting in the work. The goals will come.

3. Mears may be out for a while. The journeyman right back had been having himself a good game before he limped off the pitch late in the second half. There didn’t seem to be all that much in the injury, which of course means that it appears to be serious. Postgame, Adrian Heath mentioned that he may be out for a month or more. In the moment, Heath subbed on Marc Burch, who was on the bench for the Loons instead of Carter Manley, who had been on the bench for the previous games. Burch was serviceable in relief, moving to left back while Jérôme Thiesson moved to the right.

But in the future, let this please be an opportunity to introduce Manley to MLS. Mason Toye has adapted to life in MLS comfortably, why not give Manley the same chance? Even if the Loons sign Alexi Gómez, they are still going to need fullback relief in the near term, and Manley is the only fullback on the roster who is not yet getting mail from AARP. He has looked good to me whenever I’ve seen him play, and will certainly be at least in the eighteen for Minnesota next week. But let him get some minutes during Mears’ absence.

2. Boxall and Calvo were pretty good! There was just a single bad mistake to report from Minnesota’s defenders against Chicago, which must be an all-time low. Of course, however, it led to the goal. The Loons gifted the Fire their equalizer, through two failed clearances, both of which bounced off of Ibson. But the fault primarily belongs to Michael Boxall, who shied away from the ball because it would’ve meant clattering into his Brazilian teammate. There’s a time and a place for not body slamming the other players on your team (which is: most times and places), but the center of the box with the ball tricking towards the goal is not one of them!

It’s a shame, because Boxall otherwise had an excellent game, and stood out of the two center-backs. In the first half, the Kiwi was the main reason why the game was scoreless, making three strong defensive plays to break up or delay Chicago counter attacks. He was alert and active the whole match. Calvo was under a bit less pressure, but passed every challenge. When they have been organized, opponents have scored just a single goal against them this year (San Jose’s tiki-taka third). The other goals have come on counters and goofy individual mistakes. Obviously it’d be nice for those not to happen, but on the whole, Minnesota’s defensive four has been relatively solid.

This coming week, that new solidity will be seriously tested, with both starting centerbacks out on international duty. It’s surely too early for newcomer Bertrand Owundi to step in. I’d assume Adrian Heath will turn to his secondary defensive pairing of Brent Kallman and Wyatt Omsberg, who have played together since the start of preseason. They will be sorely tested against a very good New York Red Bulls side. But it’ll sure be exciting to watch them play for the whole match. Kallman made a short cameo on Saturday against Chicago, and I wish Heath had brought him on a bit earlier. He is the Loons’ best centerback in the air, and when opponents are pumping in crosses to try to get an equalizer, Kallman should be the closer.

1. Quick hits. What on earth was Ibson doing playing as a #9 on the first goal? Embrace the Ibsonanity… Speaking of Ibson, he was the first star for our postgame awards, and his partner Rasmus Schüller was the second. The two were generally excellent in keeping the possession in the hands of Minnesota and pinning Chicago back. Schüller in particular was a defensive monster. He’s not great tracking back, but he won a huge percentage of challenges when he was able to get in front of the ball… Mason Toye got about ten minutes and earned a yellow card for an exquisite bit of time wasting when he was offside on a breakway and scored well after the whistle had blown. He got a yellow card for it, but I’m thinking it was worth it… Sam Nichsolon had a great goal and nearly scored a second. He looks far more comfortable than he did last year, just like Schüller, and we’re really getting to see the games of these players… What a perfect cross that was from Ethan Finlay on the winner. He got so much space from the Chicago defense (why? idk.) and made the most of it… I will be at next week’s game against the Red Bulls, and I’m really hyped for it. This will be the best team the Loons will have played this season and a serious measure of their newfound capabilities, especially given the international break absenses of Calvo, Boxall, and Schüller.

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