There’s that well-worn adage in politics, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Minnesota United FC are doing a lot of explaining this week, after yet another game in which they dominated for extended stretches of play, won the expected goals tally, and really looked the part of a dangerous team—yet lost.
Two weeks earlier, the Loons turned in a deeply polarizing performance in which they huffed and puffed and could not blow down the fortress that a ten man Atlanta had built in front of their goal, all to protect a lead gifted by Minnesota’s own errors. The story in Portland was a bit different, the Timbers never saw a red card (though there’s a case that they should’ve) and the game was quite open throughout. But the constants were Minnesota’s control of the run of play, inability to finish chances, and propensity to hand their opponents incredible opportunities.
The struggles got started midway through the first half, when the Loons conceded twice in a matter of minutes. Portland had been battering the Minnesota left flank early, and they broke through with fullback Alvas Powell surprising his opposite number Marc Burch by cutting inside and leaving him in the dust. Powell caught Francisco Calvo retreating and absolutely slapped him silly, turning him this way and that with feint after feint. He finished his mesmerizing run with a rocket to the short side of Matt Lampson in goal, who should’ve done better.
Then, just a minute later, a cross from Powell took an unfortunate deflection off Miguel Ibarra and ended up right on the foot of Diego Valeri, who was quicker to react than Calvo. Just like that, and despite a reasonably good start on the road, the Loons were behind by two.
But Minnesota responded quickly. Just a few minutes after conceding, they appeared to have cut the lead in half with an utterly brilliant passage of play, involving Thiesson, a dirty back heel from Christian Ramirez, a return from Darwin Quintero back to Thiesson, and Miguel Ibarra at the back end of his cross. But after consulting the video assistant the goal was (correctly) overturned as offside, and the hosts took their lead into the half intact.
Even after the cosmic cruelty of allowing two bad goals and having a stellar goal of their own wiped off, the Loons emerged from the locker room determined and not dispirited. They took the game to the Timbers in the second half, fashioning three absolutely first rate chances, two of which were saved breathtakingly by Portland goalkeeper Jake Gleeson.
At last, Minnesota broke through, thanks to the individual work of new designated player signing Quintero, who spun the superb defensive midfielder Diego Chara like a top, broke in on goal, and somehow got the ball past Gleeson, who could only have been furious to concede so poorly.
But the Timbers bailed him out with their third goal. It came after a poor turnover from Rasmus Schüller. The Loons collapsed in their six yard box, but Valeri cleverly cushioned a header back towards the top of the eighteen where Cristhian Paredes volleyed a bouncing shot at net. It likely would’ve been saved, but Portland striker Fanendo Adi got his head to redirect it, whether intentionally or not, and it went into the net to reëstablish to two goal cushion.
Adi thought he had his brace later on, but was unluckily ruled offside thanks to yet another video assistant review.
Again to their credit, Minnesota pushed, and were again rewarded when a Quintero pass for Abu Danladi was instead mistakenly dinked for an own goal by Timbers defender Bill Tuiloma.
With a road point in their sights, the Loons pressed, but they could ultimately not find the breakthrough as Portland locked up shop, and eventually fell to defeat.
4. How can we assess a team that is playing the best soccer we have seen in well over two years, yet is achieving some of its worst results? You are well within your rights to choose differently, but from the grey skies of the Pacific Northwest, I took with me the sunnier view. I thought the Loons played with a cohesion in the attack that I had only previously seen last preseason. Though still young, the pairing of Quintero and Ramirez at the cutting edge of a 4-4-2 looked extremely fruitful to me. Their movement and ability to keep possession of the ball, (which Kevin Molino could not do) and quickly put the defense under pressure centrally (which was a limitation that hampered Miguel Ibarra’s attacking effectiveness) freed up space for the wings, who were finding not just runs on the sides, but also runs in behind.
In midfield, the Loons still had difficulties, but both Ibson and Schüller appeared comfortable with each other and positive in possession, even when it would’ve sometimes served to play safer. On the bench, I like the Loons options. They have speed, guile, directness in the attack, and even some defensive savvy to call upon. Head Coach Adrian Heath appears to trust his options a bit more than he did last year as well, and has rarely held onto his subs for two long this season.
I really truly do think the Loons are playing well, and they’re also playing with more confidence and heart. They should feel that if they can just cut out the stupid errors, they will start getting the results their effort deserves.
3. The stupid errors are getting pretty old though.
If the Loons could cut out the awful defensive mistakes, they’d be a good team. But if they could cut out those mistakes, would they be #MNUFC? 🤔
— FiftyFiveOne (@FiftyFiveOne) April 15, 2018
While there’s still improvement to be made in midfield, the only true glaring issue for the Loons remains in defense, especially in the wafer-thin fullback corps. The Loons have suffered for several games now due to off-again, on-again injuries to Jérôme Thiesson and Tyrone Mears. On Saturday, it was Thiesson’s chance to start, while Mears rested, while two weeks earlier it was the reverse. The constant over both games was veteran Marc Burch, who also started on the fourth gameweek against New York.
Marc Burch has had a great career in MLS, and he was an important factor last year that helped stabilize the Minnesota defense. But in the three games he has started this year, he has struggled. He was culpable on all three goals against New York, shaky against Atlanta, and ruinous in Portland. The Timbers targeted him from the very first minute and hardly though about attacking anywhere else. Their strategy worked well, with a parade of chances and two goals coming through the Minnesota left, and Burch picking up a yellow card that eventually forced Heath’s hand. The coach replaced Burch at the half with rookie Carter Manley (who shifted to the right and Thiesson went left). The Loons’ defense improved immediately, suggesting that, just like last season, some of these weaknesses could be fixed simply by starting more able players.
But it’s unfair to place all blame on Burch. Francisco Calvo had a total nightmare, getting demolished by Alvas Powell (!!!) on the first goal and reacting a step slower to Diego Valeri on the second. Michael Boxall was better, but we shouldn’t forget that it was his inadequate tackle that nearly gifted Portland a fourth goal—it was only because the rebound off his failed clearance bounced to an offisde Adi that his blushes were spared.
Calvo is supposed to be Minnesota’s best defender, but it’s probably more accurate to say that he is Minnesota’s highest upside defender. He makes stellar plays and egregious errors in the same games. But in the five games in which he has started, opponents have scored nine goals, two of which are directly attributable to his mistakes (an own goal against Atlanta and a last man turnover against San Jose) and a further two have been scored directly on him.
The Loons’ captain took some heat after the Atlanta match for his ‘respect’ comments, but if the team is to earn the admiration of followers of the league, Calvo’s own play is the first thing that needs to tighten up.
2. Christian Ramirez had his best game of the year after an extra week to rest his ankle, and absolutely earned more starts. I saw some commentary on Twitter calling for the Loons’ goalless striker to be benched after he again came up short. But these takes are shortsighted.
Playing alongside Quintero, Ramirez was constantly checking back into midfield to help Ibson and Schüller pass out of pressure. He reliably found the right pass, and more than once generally created a great opportunity. It was his back-heel that set up Ibarra’s offside goal. It was his pass to Quintero that almost ended with getting the ball back for a sure goal at the back post. Best of all was Ramirez’ surprise spinning kick that was spectacularly denied by Jake Gleeson.
I know Ramirez hasn’t scored. He probably should’ve scored on Saturday, and yes, it does still feel like his fitness or movement isn’t at 100%. But on Saturday, he showed hold-up play that was extremely complimentary to Quintero, and also some of the guile and willingness to try stuff that has so often resulted in goals for Minnesota.
Keep him starting.
1. Quick hits. Darwin Quintero scored, assisted an own goal, and just overall looked like the kind of difference making player that Minnesota have needed for a while. But some patience is in order too. He’s still getting used to this team and this league. His goal should’ve been saved, and his ‘assist’ was a nice ball but it was a bad mistake for Portland to hit it into their own net. What I’m saying is there was a lot of luck in his early success, and don’t count on it always working out that way… …Just L.O.L. at Alvas Powell winning MLS Player of the Week. That’s embarrassing for MLS’s media team, I thought they watched the games?… …Minnesota have earned three points through four games on the road. If they can beat or tie a bad and battered Seattle team, they’ll have four or six, in five away games, which would be mostly fine… …I traveled for this match and enjoyed it more than any away game I’ve seen, thanks to the incredible atmosphere in Portland’s Providence Park. If you get the chance, go see a game there. I’ll hopefully get an article in about the stadium and what it ought to teach Minnesota, but suffice to say, it’s my favorite venue that I’ve been to in MLS, and its imperfections are what makes it so.
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Tags: #PORvMIN, Carter Manley, Christian Ramirez, Darwin Quintero, Francisco Calvo, Jerome Thiesson, Marc Burch, Matchday, Matt Lampson, Michael Boxall, Minnesota United FC, Portland Timbers, rasmus schuller