Matchday Eight: Better Lucky Than Good For Victorious Loons

by on 30 April 2018

Soccer is a funny game, and it often breaks in unexpected ways. Against the very-bad-on-the-road Houston Dynamo, the Loons played poorly—worse than they did at home against Atlanta and on the road against Portland. They gave the Dynamo chance after chance, and didn’t exactly muster much on the opposite end. Yet, Minnesota emerged victorious on Saturday night, helping get past the memories of the four previous defeats.

Things didn’t look headed for a happy ending early on, as the visiting Dynamo gradually controlled more and more of the balance of play. Their pressure paid off (as it does so often against the Loons) with an early goal. Romell Quioto hit a low cross in the tenth minute that found Alberth Elis wide open at the back post. It was an early taste of catastrophe for both Minnesota full backs, as Carter Manley wasn’t able to keep close enough to Quioto and Thiesson completely fell asleep on Elis, the most dangerous player for Houston.

I’d like to be able to write that the Loons learned their lesson and tightened up, but that wouldn’t exactly be true. Houston had attacking opportunities all night long, but their finishing deserted them. Funny enough, we’ve seen this story before…

The other side of the story came in the attack, where Minnesota never once mustered sustained pressure, but did get occasional punches in with transition play. United’s goals however, were more the product of individual breakthroughs than any specific tactical approach or phase in the game.

The equalizer came before the half, after a unbelievable cross from Miguel Ibarra managed to land on the head of Darwin Quintero, one of the league’s shortest players, right in front of goal. Quintero’s header was deflected by Houston defender Alejandro Fuenmayor’s outstretched arm. After a brief moment and some help from his assistants, referee Ted Unkel awarded a penalty, which Quintero put away.

Similarly, the winner came more or less out of nowhere. The Loons had been enjoying a bit more of the ball after a tactical switch (more on that below) midway through the second half, when Mason Toye won a corner kick. In the aftermath of the set-piece, the ball fell out to Miguel Ibarra on the right, and he put in a low cross that was somehow deflected by Ibson and dribbled into the net. It was hard to tell exactly how much of the play was by design, but nobody in the Loon Army will be complaining.

The lead in hand, the Loons did a decent job of holding on, although the Dynamo had a few half chances. But the one thing Minnesota have done well this year is holding onto leads late, and they did it again to earn their third three points of the year. With nine points (3-0-5) in eight matches (three at home), things aren’t sunshine and lollipops in the North, but the bottom isn’t falling out anymore.

For now, we’ll take that.

Miscellaneous notes

5. Just so we’re clear, that was Minnesota’s worst game since the fourth matchweek when the team was kicked around by the New York Red Bulls on the shores of the Passaic. The Loons were out-shot 6 – 19 and out-possessed 47% – 53%. Houston had over a hundred more passes in the attacking half (215 – 319), over sixty more passes in the attacking third (95 – 157), and twice as many crosses (12 – 24). Most of the game was played with Minnesota on the back foot.

United was at home for this match. Those statistics won’t fly, and most games they’d portend a loss. The Loons made their own luck to a degree, but they still had things go their way.

Now, you can argue (and this is basically what the players and coaching staff have been saying) that there’s some karmic justice in the result, since the Loons previously outplayed opponents like Atlanta and Portland and came out with nothing. Even if that kind of thinking makes very little sense, it sure feels good. But the team has plenty to work on.

4. Minnesota must mull defensive changes because uh… things still aren’t looking that good.

I was really stunned to see Adrian Heath come out in defense of his defenders, especially the center backs, after a bad showing in Seattle. He started the exact same back four against Houston, and got away with it. But Calvo was bailed out with a spectacular save from Shuttleworth after he just totally abandoned marking Mauro Manotas in the second half. Late in the match, Michael Boxall was spared after a woeful attempt to clear the ball surprised everyone including the intended recipient, who could only muster a weak shot.

Meanwhile, right full back Carter Manley, who was fine against Seattle, was demolished by Quioto. That’s going to happen sometimes; he’s a rookie and the Honduran is a full international. Jérôme Thiesson has less of an excuse. The Swiss full back remains a great one-on-one defender, but he repeatedly fails his marking assignments on crosses and the Loons conceded yet another goal as a result.

Minnesota escaped Saturday’s match with only one goal against, but it could’ve been more. I’m not betting on the coaching staff to be proactive and make changes, so this group is either going to figure it out eventually, or we’re just going to be sitting around waiting for the next time a team that can finish shows up and the defense is exposed again. But I did start betting on and have been able to make some extra money. Here’s hoping Christian Ramirez isn’t seriously hurt because the Loons attack looks dramatically better with him than without.

It comes back down to what I’ve written about after the Portland and Seattle matches. Ramirez offers a focal point for balls out of defense and the midfield that allow the entire Minnesota team to advance up the field and break out of pressure. Neither Abu Danladi, who started against Seattle, nor Mason Toye, who entered against Houston after Ramirez went off with what looked like a hamstring tweak, offers the same.

Toye was more creative and effective with his runs than Danladi had been the week before, which shows that he’s learned and is A Student Of The Game™. Minnesota are so deep at striker that it’s not the end of the world if Ramirez does need to miss time. But they do need to figure out how to play as a team with a player like Toye or a player like Danladi. Both of those guys need to get a better handle of their roles as well. That doesn’t mean dropping back like an imitation of Ramirez, but rather more diagonal runs out to wing positions, to draw apart center backs and provide an easier target for long balls.

2. Perhaps responding to the absence of Ramirez means a formation change. That’s what happened midway through the second half, when Adrian Heath swapped Sam Nicholson for Collin Martin.

On paper, replacing a winger with a central midfielder isn’t an inspiring move, but in reality, it solved a major issue the Loons had been having. Houston had three men in the midfield, and they were outnumbering and smothering Ibson and Rasmus Schüller. Without Ramirez to drop deeper, and with Darwin Quintero running all over the field trying to single-handedly play both central and attacking midfield, Minnesota spent most of the game getting abused in the center of the park, and struggling to do anything besides counter.

The addition of a third midfielder (and later replacing Ibson with the defensive-minded Alexi Gómez) improved the team’s structure and staunched the bleeding in the middle. It also marginalized Darwin Quintero a bit by putting him on the wing, but this week, that may have been on the balance a good thing, since it held the Colombian in position. In the 4-3-3, the Loons weren’t really more dangerous, but they certainly seemed less vulnerable and more able to do things that were not long-balls to no one.

1. Quick hits. Quintero was good again, what a joy it is to have a player who always seems to find a way to be dangerous, may it please continue… How ironic that after all the discussion of Gómez as a full back, his first action as a Loon comes in defensive midfield. I don’t have a ton of genius things to say about the new Peruvian; I thought he was fine, but I’d like to see more… Ibson had another bad game, despite the goal. It’s hard to see Heath souring on the Brazilian, but maybe there will be room for Gómez, Martin, or Maximiano (is he even fit?) as the season goes on… The atmosphere was incredible, especially late in the match as the Loons were hanging on. Midway is going to be amazing, I cannot wait.

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