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Matchday Eleven: Lapses in Concentration Persist, Sink Loons Effort Against San Jose

by on 13 May 2018

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Minnesota United put in an overall strong effort against their opponent (in this case the San Jose Earthquakes), but individual mistakes gifted goals away, and ultimately the Loons played much of the game from behind and could not complete the comeback.

It is beyond a broken record at this point, not only has the same story played out repeatedly over the course of this young season, but the malaise stretches well back to last year as well. Taken as a whole, the Loons’ effort is not usually lacking. Nor have their tactics always been wildly off base, especially since Kevin Molino’s injury and Darwin Quintero’s signing. The one consistent problem is individual mistakes.

Adrian Heath has pointed this out constantly, and he is not wrong. To his credit, Minnesota have a lot of things going for them right now. The attacking pieces seem to understand each other. The midfield is generally working well. The team has, for the second straight season, made shrewd mid-season moves in the transfer market. This team is much better on paper and in practice than they were when they lost 2-3 on the road to San Jose to start the season. For all of these reasons, I still think we ought to take seriously the thought of these Loons as a possible playoff team—but for these bedeviling individual mistakes.

But I do not understand Heath’s consistent bafflement about why this keeps happening. There are two clear ways to solve this problem, and there is no visible evidence that the team has tried either of them.

First, let’s talk about the “mistakes.” These mistakes are not usually fatal in and of themselves, but they become so because they are being compounded by other, smaller errors that lead to a total breakdown. On Saturday, San Jose scored their third goal through a penalty kick that was given because Francisco Calvo blocked a shot with his arm. Though it was Calvo’s error that was the direct cause of the penalty, it was Ibson who should have been marking Danny Hoesen, who took the shot in the first place. Instead, the Brazilian gambled on closing down Vako Qazaishvili, who was already being contained by Michael Boxall and Rasmus Schüller. Calvo, who got all of the blame, was responsibly positioned, covering for Jérôme Thiesson who had been caught upfield, and also keeping close enough to Hoesen. Errors like these are not inexplicable and unfixable. Good defensive teams bend but do not break in the face of mistakes. That Minnesota continues to snap like a potato chip is a tendency that is on the coaching staff.

The second thing that Heath gets wrong about United’s parade of failplays is about the “individual.” Everyone can see that the Loons are consistently undone by their own errors. Everyone can see who made the primary error, regardless or what other mistakes compounded the problem. If these errors are constantly being made by the same players, the coaching staff has a simple remedy—play someone else. Yet despite all of his talk about internal “competition for spots,” Adrian Heath has yet to alter the starting centerback pairing that he has deployed since playing the FIU Panthers on February 3rd. Minnesota have repeatedly allowed goals from the center of the box. Minnesota’s individual mistakes have repeatedly come from the centerbacks. In ten games with that centerback pairing, the Loons have allowed eighteen goals. It is simply unbelievable that there have been no adjustments in this area of the field.

What will it take? Francisco Calvo was predominantly culpable for both opposing goals in Los Angeles. He was predominantly culpable on San Jose’s second goal on Saturday. Michael Boxall had opportunities to bail him out on the second LA goal and the San Jose goal, but both times lacked the concentration of the player who scored. I really, really (really) want to stress that neither are bad players. Both should always be in competition for starting spots, because they have that quality. Calvo is a playmaker on defense, and Boxall has been solid, most notably in defending against breakaways. But recently, they have been error-prone, and the simplest fix to this issue of individual mistakes—while you are working on the larger tactical mistakes that are creating these teamwide breakdowns—is to bench the people who are making the mistakes and let someone else get a try. 

Miscellaneous notes

4. Overall, Minnesota played well against San Jose. Postgame, Adrian Heath said that he thought the team put together some stages of their best soccer of the season, and I agree. After a really horrid first eighteen minutes, the Loons finally got going, pushed San Jose back, and put them under tremendous pressure all the way until the Quakes’ second goal in the sixty-ninth minute. Overall, very nice.

In particular, I thought the front four were moving and combining extremely well. I have written in past weeks about what Christian Ramirez adds to the Minnesota attack, even when he is not scoring goals, and that was on full display as he created an enormous amount of space. The three players behind him took full advantage. One of the benefits of Miguel Ibarra is that he really has no natural position in the attacking midfield, and so can roam basically anywhere. Last season he was frequently shackled to the left wing, whether by coaching design or his own timidity. This season, we have seen none of that. He and Darwin Quintero have an instinctive connection, and Alexi Gómez seems to be catching on, because this week was his best performance yet (aside from some wasteful shots from distance).

The one concern I have is that the Loons did not score apart from a truly one-of-a-kind moment of Christian Ramirez magic. (Though Ramirez should have scored a second through a much more mundane sequence.) The attack is combining well in the approach to the final third, but not creating the chances that it should from central areas. There is still something a bit off about the runs that Ramirez is making that is not creating the space from defenders that it ought to, and Quintero is getting stopped too often on the dribble without close support. But overall, I am enthusiastic.

3. Minnesota’s midfield pairing was pretty good, but it is a funny sort of midfield. Minnesota are playing with a two man midfield, and both Schüller and Ibson are ball hounding midfielders. I think the end result of this is what Ben Schleuss describes here, Minnesota games are being played to a greater degree in the attacking and defending thirds than you will see elsewhere, in part because the Loons’ midfield either gets bypassed, or it wins the ball quickly and transitions back to the attack.

I do not have great stats on this, but I quickly looked up the percentage of total passes by both teams in their attacking thirds from Minnesota’s last two games. In Los Angeles, where the Loons played with a three man midfield, just 25.8% of the game’s passes were played by the attacking team in the final third. Back home against San Jose, 35.1% of passes were played by the attacking team in the final third. That is a tiny sample size with a million independent variables, so take that analysis with a fistful of salt. But it supports the eye test, at least.

The styles of the two players in the Minnesota midfield is a deliberate choice by the coaching staff, and it is a bit of a gamble. In the best possible scenario, Schüller and Ibson hunt as a pack, targeting the opposing team’s weakest link, harassing them, stripping them of the ball, and quickly moving the ball back upfield. In the worst scenario, Schüller and Ibson get beaten individually, and suddenly the entire back-line is exposed. In practice, both of these events occur multiple times per game, and sometimes it accrues to United’s advantage and sometimes it does not.

I think the sort of crucial thing about this is that Schüller and Ibson are often not well-supported by the front four, and that their success at winning the ball in midfield often has a lot to do with the support they get from the attacking players. Teams that press well create advanced turnovers and good chances, but risk being exposed. Teams that prioritize containing threats with a lower block and keeping their defensive structure must build their own attacks from scratch, but they are less vulnerable on transition. Minnesota have a midfield to play a press, but the rest of the team is not always sufficiently committed. The result is often awkward, and sometimes problematic (as when Ibson tries to play the same way on the edge of his own box, see San Jose goal #3).

Is there another way? Collin Martin is a midfielder of the same ilk of Schüller and Ibson, but Maximiano (like Sam Cronin before him), is a player whose first instinct appears more defensive. For a period last season, the Cronin-Ibson midfield appeared to have found a perfect balance, and then for a period it was a total disaster. I am not sure what the ideal midfield is for the Loons, especially when Darwin Quintero is a #10 who does not play defense, but is extremely adept at taking advantage of transition opportunities. But I cannot help thinking about this part of the field and whether it merits tinkering.

2. The referee was far from faultless, but he was not why the Loons lost, and it is dumb to focus on him too much. In his first MLS game, Victor Rivas did not get the kind of quiet, uncomplicated match that he might have hoped for. In the first minute, he had a major penalty decision to sort out, he had another penalty call, a possible red card, a double head-injury, and more.

With the luxury of watching the match on the stream, I had a different perspective on Rivas’ performance than the nineteen thousand plus in the stadium. The first thing to say is that he got both penalty decisions correct, although he should have seen the second one in live action. It was awkward when he needed to go to video review. He was also correct not to give Minnesota a penalty on the late head-to-head collision between Calvo and Florian Jungwirth. Both players had a right to go for the ball.

He was wrong not to award Quintero a free kick after the Minnesota player was clearly impeded on a second half breakaway, but did not fall down. That error was made all the worse by his gullibility on a number of San Jose falls, none worse than the late acting job on the play in which Francisco Calvo hit the post.

The other point of contention occurred when San Jose defender Harold Cummings cleated Christian Ramirez in the back of the leg, while already on a yellow card. Rivas was probably wrong to not give a second yellow there. But had the situation been reversed, and it was a Minnesota defender who had caught a San Jose attacker, we would all be applauding his leniency. Cummings and Ramirez were both going for the ball, Cummings had not been playing particularly violently, and a sending off for such a play would have felt unjust. I am not an expert on the Laws of the Game, but in my book, that is the kind of discretion that I want to see referees exercise.

1. Quick hits. It was interesting to see Alex Kapp on the bench as the back-up goalkeeper… …Kudos to Minnesota’s broadcasting staff, who had mic’d the crowd extremely well. Kudos to the fans who never stopped cheering the entire match, even when it seemed sure to end in a loss, the atmosphere was electric on TV… …Eric Miller was really solid again… …Losing to San Jose is really not a good look, and it puts more pressure on the Loons next Sunday. That match, however, is against Kansas City, who are on top of the west… …I want to repeat a line from earlier in the season; be frustrated, but not angry. The team is working hard. Things just are not falling into place.

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