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Matchday Thirteen: Longtime Loons Lead Against Miserable Montréal

by on 28 May 2018

In a must-win match against a very bad team, the Loons finally delivered the three points that was expected of them. Despite a horrible start to the match against Montréal, the club rallied and earned the win through goals from the North’s favorite tag-team duo of Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra.

Over at The Athletic, our friend Jeff Rueter has a nice piece reflecting on what we have learned about Minnesota United in their recent run of five in six at home. The Loons emerged from that stretch with ten points. They have thirteen in total from seven home matches and three from six away matches, for sixteen overall. That comes to 1.23 points per match—on pace for 42 points on the season, which is usually just shy of playoff form.

Jeff’s piece asks, essentially, what is the identity of this Minnesota United team? It is a question I have been thinking about recently as well. The Loons started off this season playing with a lot of the ball. Recently, they have been shifting increasingly to a counter-attacking style, even against teams who do not force them into it. They started this year in a 4-4-2 formation which switched to a 4-2-3-1 after Kevin Molino’s injury. The formation has recently starting looking an awful lot like a 4-4-2 again. This mirrors what we saw last season, where Adrian Heath scrapped his opening 4-3-3 for a back-to-basics 4-4-2 that stemmed the bleeding, but also ceded a lot of the ball to the opponent. The Loons spent the rest of 2017 building back into the kind of formation that Heath wanted to play, and yet here we are once again.

To paraphrase Jeff’s piece, he marshals good evidence that the Loons’ identity on the field can be best summed up as ‘hard work.’ This rings true to me. Others may feel differently, but I have never found Minnesota’s effort wanting at any point this season. When behind in the score, they have given other teams hell. When ahead, they have been excellent at grinding out wins. Goodness knows I have a lot of grievances about how this team has been managed, but I see no evidence that the players have quit on the coach or the club. Just contrast the Loons with that despondent Montréal team and you can see clearly what a difference morale and grit can make.

However, while ‘hard work’ is as good a foundational identity as any, it is not a substitute for a tactical approach. No team works harder in MLS than the New York Red Bulls, but they have the tactics and structure to match. Minnesota do not, and that, more than any single or collective result, is the biggest indictment of the Adrian Heath era so far. Do Minnesota play with two strikers or one? Do they play with two midfielders or three? Do they press, press highly selectively, or low block? Do the fullbacks push high, or stay low? I do not have clear answers for these questions because the team’s answers seem to change frequently. I want to believe that the coaching staff is building towards a clearer conception of the team’s shape and approach, but I have yet to see it. Eventually it needs to come, or Minnesota are going to have a tough time progressing.

Miscellaneous notes

5. This was the best defensive game of the year for Minnesota and of course we can give credit for it. Francisco Calvo was excellent in his ‘playmaking’ defensive role, accumulating an astonishing twenty-two defensive actions, and made no serious mistakes. Michael Boxall coolly extinguished the remaining fires. Eric Miller has not put a foot wrong since joining the Loons. Tyrone Mears handled Ignacio Piatti. Ahead of the back-line, I was pleased with Rasmus Schüller’s defensive positioning. Overall, it was a good, complete effort from Minnesota, who only really allowed Montréal a single good chance in the opening minutes, and buttoned up tight after that.

That being said, the Impact went into the match on a 292 minute scoreless streak, and their best striker, Anthony Jackson-Hamel, was only subbed on in the 71st minute. As far as tests go, this was an easy one to pass.

Francisco Calvo is now headed to the World Cup, and Brent Kallman will likely be called upon to replace him. Meanwhile, Wyatt Omsberg logged more minutes down in Tulsa this weekend—he has played four full games now, and it is really encouraging that he has been able to get time. For all of his struggles this season, Calvo’s absence will be a challenge for this defense to make up for. But there are players available and healthy who can step up, I think they are good players, and the Miller trade has locked down a longstanding vulnerability on the flanks. There is some room for optimism at the back.

4. Minnesota’s biggest unanswered questions remain in central midfield. It was a surprise to see Ibson and Schüller return so quickly to midfield, after the former sat out last week with injury and the latter took a wallop to the head and had to exit that match. Yet there they were, the Finn and the Brazilian, same as ever.

I think we have a pretty complete sense by now of what that combination of box-to-box players offers. Both are good with the ball at their feel, with Ibson looking to break lines and make plays, while Schüller plays more quickly to cycle the ball around. They are both active defenders and will fight for the ball if allowed to close. But they are also too easily sucked out of position and prone (especially Ibson) to dangerous giveaways, which quickly become transition opportunities against an exposed defense.

We have talked about the need for a defensive midfielder endlessly. But now with Maximiano on the roster, Adrian Heath has declined to use him. Instead, the Brazilian appears to be fourth on the depth chart, with Collin Martin—another #8—on the bench on Saturday. Later Heath also dropped Alexi Gómez back into central midfield. It is all rather mysterious and frustrating. We have seen Maximiano get just about ninety minutes so far with decent results. But if Heath feels that he is not good enough, then it is a position that will need to be addressed yet again in the transfer window.

The Loons face a different quandary in the central attacking midfielder position. Famously, the team has played in MLS with second strikers like Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino instead of a #10. Darwin Quintero seems capable of playing both positions. Earlier in his short tenure with the Loons, he seemed to be playing more as a midfielder, picking up the ball from Ibson and making passes and runs, with Christian Ramirez as a backboard. Recently, it feels like he has played higher up and been a target himself, or else collected the ball deep and dribbled instead of immediately looking to combine. To my eye, this change has been a step in the wrong direction. Ramirez is the correct focal point for the offense, and Quintero is a better and quicker distributor than Ibson.

Subjectively, Quintero has also seemed to contribute less to the midfield defensive shape recently. The Loons got overrun for much of the game in central areas by the Impact and they had very little control of the game outside of the minutes before and after the half.

In both defensive and attacking respects, I think the Loons would benefit from clearer roles (or a 4-3-3). The midfield players are plenty talented, but the shape is not working.

3. What a joy to watch Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez back in form. When the Loons entered MLS, a lot of new fans came into the fold who were starting fresh with the team and its players. I know a lot of people spent 2017 mystified by the devotion that fans from the NASL-era had for Batman and Superman, and not without some cause. But Ibarra has been the Loons’ best player this season and Ramirez has been excellent after recovering from his early injuries. Party like it’s 2014.

Several notable people who were not familiar with the abilities of Minnesota’s dynamic duo happened to be Adrian Heath and his coaching staff. It never seemed as if Heath was a believer in either player throughout the previous season. That was especially the case for Ibarra, who he appeared to shackle tactically to his designated wing when on the field, and who he repeatedly singled out for criticism. Overall, the less that is said about Adrian Heath’s player evaluations in the preseason of 2017, the better.

But all’s well that ends well, right? Well, kinda. The deeply unfortunate long-term injuries of Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay, and the repeated small knocks for Abu Danladi, have had the positive effect of locking Ramirez and Ibarra’s places in the starting eleven. Their instant chemistry with Darwin Quintero has been a delightful surprise. But best of all has been their work with each other.

Look no further than both of Saturday’s goals. On Ramirez’ opener, Ibarra’s lateral run from the sideline to the heart of the box occupied two defenders who otherwise might have been able to react in  time to Ramirez or slide to keep his shot from dribbling in. Then, on Ibarra’s strike, it is Ramirez’ run that opened the space that Ibarra shot from.

Fans or critics do not often know better than the coaches, but in this case, the emergence of Minnesota’s two brilliant attackers has been a vindication for the club’s oldest supporters, and a great deal of fun for everyone to watch.

2. Minnesota relieved some pressure on their position in the standings by beating up on a team they should always beat up on. But two prior losses look worse and worse for the Loons. How on earth did they lose twice to an awful San Jose team that has yet to beat anyone else this year? And how did they concede three goals in one game to a Seattle team that has scored just four goals in their nine other matches? Seriously, 100% of San Jose’s wins and 42% of Seattle’s goals on the year to date came against Minnesota.

The Loons’ are going to need to get some unexpected positive results to make up for these two unbelievable losses. The upcoming schedule would be a good time to kick into another gear, because these games are tough on paper. Next week, the team travels to Kansas City, where they got pasted twice last year. Then there is the World Cup break, followed by an away trip to Colorado (who are bad, but altitude is always tough). They then host Dallas and Toronto (who will be much healthier by then), and travel to a Houston team who are among the league’s best on their day. With the exception of the Colorado game, you might count United as the underdogs in each of these matches.

1. Quick hits. As everyone noticed, Alexi Gómez had another poor game. It is a small sample size, but I have liked his work in central midfield better than his work on the wing, and that is one of the factors that has me itching for a 4-3-3… …Darwin Quintero has played pretty much nonstop since signing with the Loons, and I was glad to see him subbed off and get some rest. The World Cup break will be good for him… …Montréal did not quite achieve meltdown on the field, but their fans are melting down on Twitter. They spent a sneaky amount over the summer and were betting on former Ligue 1 and Premier League manager Remi Garde to make a difference. Instead, he allowed his team to get fleeced in trades by not caring about draft day, has publicly attacked some of his players, and has many of the notoriously impatient Impact fans calling for his head. Never change, never change… …I know part of it is probably just better mic placement on the broadcast, but the atmosphere at TCF Bank Stadium sounds better and better over my stream. What I love most is how the entire crowd seems to be picking up on more cheers, and the total enthusiasm of the post-win Wonderwall. The giant flag that moved around the crowd was fantastic. I think the atmosphere in Midway is going to be incredible, I say this every week, I am beyond excited for this.

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