At points last season, I sometimes felt like reprinting my previous columns, as Minnesota United FC made the same mistakes over and over again. Well, it’s deja vu all over again, after a fourth straight loss from the Loons, a third straight winnable game that was never as close as it should’ve been, and another early season mess to sort out.
Minnesota came into their match against Seattle after a promising but disappointing loss in Portland, which had in turn followed a promising but disappointing loss at home against Atlanta, which had in turn followed a bad loss in New York that nobody expected to go any different, which had in turn followed a pretty solid first three games of the year.
The Loons were facing a Sounders team which had a bad start to the season, and was counting on the returns of a number of key players from injury to make a difference. Early on, it looked exactly according to the script for the hosts, who pressured United and kept them pinned back in their own half.
Seattle’s first breakthrough came after a nice sequence of passing, in which Minnesota were eventually forced back into their box, allowing the space for a rocket of a shot from Gustav Svensson, that was savable by Bobby Shuttleworth—had he been able to see the shot a split second earlier.
A second goal would soon follow, as just like in Portland, the Loons conceded twice in quick succession. A cross from Christian Roldan found Will Bruin at the top of the six yard box. The Seattle striker had just hung back a few steps as Francisco Calvo moved a bit too close to goal, and the ball across found him perfectly.
After the goals, Minnesota found their feet and the Sounders took a break. The game changed further when Sam Nicholson replaced a dinged-up Ethan Finlay at halftime and Christian Ramirez replaced an also dinged-up Abu Danladi fifty minutes in. The new entrants changed the team’s structure (more on that below) and the game was mostly one-way traffic after that. United got a goal back through nice work from Ramirez and Quintero, and had a few other chances in the half, including from Ibarra and Calvo, but they could not find the way through.
Seattle put the game to bed in stoppage time, as the Loons were committing forward. A bungled series of clearances involving virtually the entire back-line let to Rasmus Schüller receiving the ball with no options in midfield. He was tackled and the Sounders broke on the counter with left back Kevin Leerdam the unlikely finisher.
The game ended 3-1, a result that at once seemed both fair to the Loons’ defensive quality, and unfair to the team’s overall performance.
5. Enough with the comparisons to last season. The results from last season have been too often selectively abused, especially and frustratingly by the team’s own coaching staff, for misleading effect. We heard endlessly in the offseason about how the team finished the year on a 4-4-2 (W-L-T) run, which crucially omitted that they played two of their worst games of the year in that stretch, against Vancouver and LA, and relied on wondergoals from Abu Danladi to win two other matches. Towards the end of last season, the results weren’t bad, but the actual quality of the play remained inconsistent, if not just as frustrating as before.
We’ve also heard the story of the team’s starting four games last season, as if the same coaching staff and many of the same players only came into the fold after that debacle. That story too, has been selectively told, because just about anything looks like improvement when you pair it with the Vadim Demidov era. Yet through seven games last year, the Loons had five points. Through seven games this year, they have six.
Other comparisons don’t work out so well either. Last year, the Loons allowed 70 goals in 34 games, a rate of 2.059 goals a game. This season, they have allowed 15 goals in 7 games, a rate of 2.143 goals a game.
It’s still early days, and Minnesota have played just twice on the road. These comparisons are not fair. But neither have been the self-serving ones that have been used by the coaching staff for far too long, to show dramatic improvement when there were more modest gains. After four straight losses (last year’s Minnesota team never lost more than two in a row), let’s put to rest these selective comparisons to last year.
Everyone who understands soccer can see that this Minnesota team is more sophisticated and cohesive in the attack than before. We can see that the defense is full of players who are at least mildly capable. We can close our eyes and envision a playoff caliber team, because there probably is one there, especially in this wide open western conference. But its past time that the Loons start getting results that speak for themselves, and not just leaning on dubious comparisons with the past to try to create a narrative of improvement in results and not just attacking play.
4. Minnesota must mull defensive changes because what’s happening isn’t working.
Any reader of my columns in preseason will know that I have been dubious from the start of the strategy of setting a starting defensive pairing from the first week of camp and not deviating from it. After six weeks of play and twelve goals allowed by the first choice pairing of Calvo and Boxall, it’s the right moment to go back and question the premise.
Francisco Calvo is undoubtedly the Loons’ best centerback, but he also often seems like their worst centerback. His poor marking of Will Bruin was the main cause of the Sounders’ winning goal on Sunday, and he has repeatedly made mistakes this season that have cost the team dearly.
His partner, Michael Boxall, has made fewer egregious errors, but has hardly looked faultless either. He is a big body in defense, but is surprisingly weak in the air, and sometimes lacks the mobility that the Loons could use. Frankly, it has never been exactly clear to me how he won the starting job in the first place. While not a bad player by any stretch, it seemed as though he was the presumptive starter as soon as he signed last year, and little has shaken the coaching staff’s faith in him, even as the results have changed little—indeed, slightly to the worse—since he was installed.
The second choice pairing of Brent Kallman and Wyatt Omsberg was certainly not flawless against the New York Red Bulls. But Kallman (with Calvo) was part of the team’s best defensive pairing last season, and Omsberg was the more impressive of the two, despite being under significant pressure, in Red Bull Arena. Both are better than either Calvo or Boxall in the air.
The best defensive pairing is probably not one or the other of the current set pairs, but rather a mix between them. The opportunity to figure this out is what was lost in preseason, but with yet another match in which the defensive work was sub-rate, here’s hoping that there is a stiff and open competition for starting spots this week in practice, because the status quo cannot continue, and there need to start being consequences for mistakes—no matter what the original plan was in preseason.
3. Adrian Heath and his staff badly bungled the tactics in the attack and it had repercussions all over the field.
The addition of Danladi up top was seriously surprising to see in the starting line-up. Adrian Heath has tapped Danladi more than once this year on the road, clearly with the idea that a counter-attacking style is more suitable away from home. But the Ghanian has looked seriously out of sorts this season.
In the first half, he was making one, essentially vertical run, and it wasn’t working out because that pass is enormously hard to hit. Towards the end of the half, he started to make more diagonal runs and checked back a few more times, but the Loons lost at least half of an hour, and were down 0-2 by the time that Danladi got involved in the game.
The consequence of Danladi playing up front is that Darwin Quintero has to drop deeper to receive the ball, and the Loons are playing an extremely one-dimensional style of play in which Quintero or Ibson must get the ball looking up and forward, and hit a pass to one of three straight-line runs from either Danladi or a winger. It’s a total mess.
When Ramirez entered the game in the fiftieth minute, everything changed. Ramirez is a complete striker. He can make runs in behind, but this year he has been exceptional at dropping back into midfield, receiving the ball, and either laying it off for a player coming up the middle, or quickly spraying it wide to a winger with a diagonal ball into space. This frees up Darwin Quintero to either play off of Ramirez and receive that lay-off, or to lead the line himself and make a diagonal run forward. This also gives the wingers much more realistic opportunities to get involved (Miguel Ibarra got so much better when he had a maypole to wheel around), and ultimately leads to a lot more dangerous crosses or interplay in front of the box.
Ramirez also plays defense, which neither Quintero nor Danladi do. Ramirez forced a very advanced turnover (which led to Ibson being fouled for a decent free kick), headed out a corner kick, and even ran back to play defensive midfielder for a sequence after he turned the ball over and exposed his midfielders.
The Loons looked dramatically better when Ramirez came onto the field, even though Seattle’s two centerbacks are much more comfortable with a player like him than with a speedster like Danladi. I thought it was blindingly obvious the week before that Ramirez was the perfect partner to Quintero, and Adrian Heath even said the same in his postgame comments from that match. So why on earth did Danladi start? I have absolutely no idea, but it was an experiment that may have cost Minnesota the game.
2. Carter Manley was drama free and that’s just fine right now. The cross on the game winning goal came from his side of the field, but he generally did not allow too many balls into the box, and in the second half had a number of solid blocks on attempted crosses or shots. He has some way to go before he is a full-time starter however. What didn’t offer was much in the attack, and that’s why Tyrone Mears will probably come back into the eleven when he gets healthy. But given the age of the other fullbacks, I expect Manley to get more time, and I think he has proved to be serviceable in his two and a half games so far. If he improves on his crossing, then he’ll be the regular starter in his own right by the year’s end.
1. Quick hits. Darwin Quintero assisted and looked again like a DP. But he played as the right winger for the game’s final quarter, switching roles with Miguel Ibarra. I liked this idea as a way to switch it up, but I didn’t understand why both players stayed in that position. It minimized Quintero’s influence at the moment when it was most needed. I love Ibarra, but Quintero needs to get most of his touches in that central position, and they should swap positions only temporarily… …Rasmus Schüller is getting roasted again for another turnover at the end of the game that resulted in a goal. But I thought he again had a stronger match than Ibson overall. I have no clue of Maximiniano is healthy at all or whatever, but if we have a central midfielder ready to step up, I’d probably replace Ibson over the Finn… …Bobby Shuttleworth replaced Matt Lampson in goal, after the latter had some struggles in Portland. Shuttleworth made a few great point blank saves late, but he also probably could’ve done better on both Seattle goals. Minnesota have two goalkeepers who probably won’t steal games for them, but who haven’t really cost them the games either.
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