The old saying “if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck” is being put to the test by Minnesota United. No longer does the team look like an utter catastrophe, even in its losses. There is more coherent, cohesive, and competent play happening from top to bottom than fans witnessed much of last year. But the results are largely the same. It is time for the Loons to decide whether or not they are ducks.
It is never a good sign when the MNUFC.com game recap focuses mostly on how throaty the roar was from the Minnesota faithful, but that is how the late season rundown of the Loons’ first match with Seattle was characterized. In a low point among many low points in 2017, Minnesota handed Seattle a 4-0 win at TCF Bank Stadium. Coach Adrian Heath’s men almost earned a measure of revenge by heading to Seattle two weeks later and playing a well-contested game, but after heading into stoppage time tied at 1-1, the vexing Clint Dempsey sealed a win for the Sounders with a late penalty.
Armando Villarreal is a level-headed referee who employs more subtle game management rather than throwing cards and fouls wherever possible. He was near the bottom of the referee charts in fouls per game in 2017 with 22.6 and yellows per game with 3.2. However, he is on the upswing so far in 2018 with 25.0 and 3.7, respectively. Finally, he awarded only one penalty and three reds last year, so fans will be hoping for a game decided by the players on the field and not the referee on the field.
F Jordan Morris (torn ACL) – Out
D Kim Kee-Hee (right calf strain) – Out
D Waylon Francis (right hamstring strain) – Questionable
M Victor Rodriguez (right knee sprain) – Questionable
M Harry Shipp (ankle sprain) – Questionable
M Sam Cronin (neck injury) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
D Tyrone Mears (lower right leg) – Out
D Marc Burch (knee) – Questionable
I’m not above quote tweeting myself:
At least #MNUFC is moving in the right direction. Except:
2.00 goals allowed/game – 2018
2.06 ga/g – 2017
1.73 ga/g – 2017 without first four games
1.00 points per game – 2018
1.06 ppg – 2017
1.17 ppg – 2017 without first four games
We are worse now than we were last year.
— Offensive Loons Fan (@Offensive_Loons) April 16, 2018
Now that very last line might have been an overreach fueled by a cask of amontillado, but the rest of it is objectively true. From a numbers standpoint, the team is about the same – and maybe a little worse – than it was last year after that historically poor opening month. The casual statistician among you will decry that our early returns from 2018 represent a small sample size weighted by an abundance of away games. It’s a fair point, but at 34 games, an MLS season never reaches anything approaching statistical significance. The rough patches matter, and teams that succeed know how to win even among the “noise” of tough stretches, injury troubles, too many road games in too little time, etc.
But Minnesota has looked better than this, has it not? What will it take for the club’s potential to start looking like returns? A couple of humble suggestions follow.
First, Christian Ramirez must be the starting striker. Darwin Quintero presents a wonderful hope for the Loons, and to give him the chance to shine, he needs hold up play that will enable him to score goals. Quintero is not a traditional No. 10, as none of the team’s center attacking midfielders have ever been. He is a goal scorer first, and it is much more likely that he can benefit from the setup of Ramirez than that he will enable the play of Abu Danladi. Danladi is less a hold up player, and is unlikely to find as much success if he is not being given prime service. So let Ramirez and Quintero develop a strong partnership and the goals should come for both.
Second, a 60th minute switch of Ramirez and Quintero for Danladi and Miguel Ibarra sounds absolutely delicious. The latter two play an entirely different style than the former two. Not only would each be fresh legs, but they would be fresh legs with serious pace. Further, Ibarra would put defenses on their heels as the No. 10 goes from playing centrally and looking for interplay with the striker to running wild out to the flanks, chewing up ground and forcing overload situations in unexpected spots. The late change of pace, literal and metaphorical, that these two subs would bring could help the Loons own the late game.
Third, it is time for the Loons to put their defensive midfielder into the bruiser mindset. Rasmus Schüller has actually been pretty good for the Loons so far: he is not playing in the same spaces as his box-to-box partner, which was a problem last year; he is not only completing passes but they tend to be more proactive forward passes rather than relief balls out to the flank; and he has had that ability to pop up in an unpredictable place that can be a big asset to a No. 6. But a true defensive midfielder he is not. He is more of a No. 8 asked to play deeper than another No. 8, and that just isn’t what Minnesota needs right now. What the team needs is an Ozzie Alonso type that can cover lots of ground, makes physical challenges on opponents to disrupt their flow, and builds more from the back in a Michael Bradley mold (Alonso’s passing ability has always been overlooked, as well, but let’s focus on his skull cracking abilities for now). Maximiano appears to have traveled with the team for this Seattle game. Whether it is he who makes the start or Schüller, it is time for the defensive midfield role to play more physical and with a defense-first mentality. The club’s still-prone back line desperately needs the support.
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