Every passing match can have the feeling of an inflection point, when the Loons’ results keep seesawing up and down. About a month after hitting rock bottom in Colorado, they’ve now won two of their last four league matches in high scoring affairs, and were shut out in the other two games, both loses. The defense continues to allow goals at a near-record pace, and the team’s lead striker isn’t scoring, but two new highly-touted attacking signings are on the way and the team’s two shortest players are tearing up the league.
Saturday’s match against Real Salt Lake was as wild as the season as a whole. The visitors had the better chances in the scoreless first half, but the Loons had the better of the balance of play.
Then, the second half opened up, with Minnesota scoring three straight goals in precisely the same minutes that they scored against Salt Lake at home last year.But after taking a seemingly dominating lead, the Loons seemed ready to throw it all away, conceding twice to Joao Plata before grimly hanging on for the victory.
What to make of this team? What to make of flashes of brilliance and boneheadedness? What to make of hard work and slacking off? What to make of a terrible defensive team that refuses to sign new defensive players or try out different ones? What to make of a team that is behind the pace of last season with the league’s second worst goal differential, yet still within striking distance of the playoff positions?
Give the Loons some credit. They have spent a year and a half in MLS being generally bad, but rarely ever have they been boring.
5. Adrian Heath was furious postgame at unspecified players whom he accused of not doing what was asked of them and thinking they know everything.
It was a weird rant to say the least, and nowhere near the first time the manager has thrown his players under the bus. It wasn’t undeserved either, the Loons have given up soft goals time and time again this year, and there is a teamwide responsibility for this issue.
But at the same time, Heath’s tirade was off-putting because his own decisions were hardly blameless. At 3-0 up, and certainly after RSL scored to make it 3-1, Heath had the ability to shift the team’s formation and lock down the win. The Loons had been playing in a 3-5-2 with Miguel Ibarra and Alexi Gómez as wingbacks. Both are energetic players, but neither are defenders. On the bench, the Loons had centerback Wyatt Omsberg and fullback Eric Miller. The seemingly obvious switch would’ve been to replace one of the forwards—best Darwin Quintero who reliably tires after seventy minutes—with Miller. He would’ve moved to right-back, Francisco Calvo would’ve shifted to the left-back position, Gómez and Ibarra would’ve moved into wide midfield, and the relatively fresh Collin Martin would’ve moved slightly higher to hare after the opposing midfield and prevent distribution from deep. The resulting 4-4-2 would’ve been far harder to break down, and would’ve locked down wide areas in a way that the 3-5-2 cannot do.
I have a lot of pet peeves with Adrian Heath, but one of my biggest frustrations is his Klinsmann-esque determination to put everything on the players when he hasn’t always set them up to succeed.
4. Mike Petke also got super mad about the match’s refereeing. Go check out his postgame comments if you haven’t already.
I’m not going to write too much about this, but I think Petke is right on some things and not on others. He’s on the firmest ground complaining about the yellow card shown to Minnesota’s Rasmus Schüller for a studs up tackle in the first half. It was clear that Schüller had no ill intent, and I don’t think he came into the tackle with any reckless speed. But nonetheless, it was a bad tackle and it ought to have raised questions. On another night with a different official, it might’ve been a red card and I wouldn’t have had much to complain about. But I want referees to avoid deciding the game if they can, and I applaud referees who show restraint in sending players off for borderline infringements. I can see Petke’s point, but it’s not as cut and dry as he makes it out to be.
The other major RSL gripe of the match came on the Loons’ first goal. On this, I see only sour grapes. While battling for a long ball with the 5′ 5″ Darwin Quintero, the 6′ 1″ Justen Glad fell over, allowing the Minnesota forward to race in behind and feed Ibson for the opener. It’s hard to take seriously the howls of Salt Lake fans, who are convinced that the diminutive Quintero manhandled their centerback. There’s evidence of contact between the two players, but no clear evidence of a foul. Give me a break, Glad should’ve been stronger there and Quintero took advantage.
3. Christian Ramirez was poor in front of goal, but pretty good everywhere else. There has been a lot of worried talk about the Minnesota striker this year, and with good reason. In 1162 minutes of play, the longtime Loon has mustered just four goals. There’s this recurring thing that keeps happening where Ramirez is an inch away from getting on the end of a chance, and it happens so often that I’m starting to question whether this is just bad luck. Even accounting for the large part of the season where he played semi-injured, his scoring rate is not inspiring, and the team has seemed to respond by signing Colombian striker Ángelo Rodríguez as a designated player. With Rodríguez into the team and Abu Danladi presumably getting healthy sometime in the future, there is a lot of pressure on the job of leading the team’s attack.
But it might not be right to give up on Superman just yet. On Saturday, despite missing several chances in front of goal, Ramirez was an important part of the team’s attack through some very good hold-up play. As the Loons currently play, he is receiving the ball very deep and playing passes to runners moving forward, which is exactly how I’ve called for the attack to work in the past. The best moment of the match for Ramirez came on the team’s third and winning goal. Check out his header win off the free kick:
— Perry Laskaris (@PerryLaskaris) July 15, 2018
That’s a great bit of work, and he knows exactly what he’s doing with that flick-on. The whole sequence is wonderful and it comes because Ramirez was selfless enough to run all the way to the sideline to win a header off a goal kick. Miguel Ibarra runs into the space that Ramirez has vacated (that’s the center-back Glad who was marking Ramirez) and scores.
There’s been a lot of that work from Ramirez, and it’s largely thankless and frustrating. But it shouldn’t be ignored.
2. The one exceptional aspect of Minnesota’s game on Saturday was distribution from the back. In the 3-5-2 there is no need for a defensive midfielder to drop deep between the center-backs and help cycle the ball around. Instead, the whole midfield can play a bit higher, and this gives more options for the defense to pass the ball. Both Minnesota defenders, but especially Calvo, had tons of joy spraying long balls to Gómez and Ibarra on the wings. It helped that RSL were extremely passive (naïve?) about this strategy, but regardless it worked to perfection. United repeatedly forced their opponents to defend while running back to their own goal, all with simple long diagonal balls.
Next week’s opponents, the New England Revolution, have reinvented themselves as a pressing team this year. But if Minnesota can pass out of the initial pressure and win themselves time and space on the back line, there ought to be targets for long balls once again.
1. Quick hits. Darwin Quintero keeps chipping keepers, and I am here for it… …Miguel Ibarra has been the Loons’ best player this year and it’s not even close. Sometimes I had to remind myself that he was playing as a wingback, because he was everywhere. The run he made to score is not a run that many wingbacks would’ve made… …After DC United opened their new digs at Buzzard Point this past weekend, the next new stadium to open in MLS will be at Midway. I’m looking forward to traveling down to DC for the Loons’ game there later this year, and will have a better impression of the park when I do. But from what I can see, Minnesota’s new field will be a notch above, and the atmosphere will almost certainly be better. I don’t know if MLS knows what’s coming for them… … France won the World Cup on Sunday. I had Les Bleus as my pick before the tournament, but that was about the only thing I got right (I had Spain as the other finalist). France were not always pretty, but I think so highly of the generation of players that they have, that I’m confident few will remember their hiccups in individual games, and ultimately the transcendent talent of Kanté, Mbappe, Pogba, Umtiti, and co. will shine through. France are a nation just starting off their championship window with these players, they will be tournament favorites in the World Cup and Euro Cup for a decade to come.
FiftyFive.One is now on Patreon. Do you like the independent coverage of soccer news from Minnesota and beyond that FiftyFive.One offers? Please consider becoming a patron.
Tags: Adrian Heath, Alan Kelly, Allianz Field, Audi Field, Christian Ramirez, Darwin Quintero, Eric Miller, Francisco Calvo, Matchday, Midway, Mike Petke, Minnesota United FC, MINvRSL, Rasmus Schuler, Real Salt Lake