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Matchday Twenty-Two: Road Woes Continue For Loons In Deflating Loss To Vancouver

by on 30 July 2018

Even thought their impressive three-game win streak catapulted Minnesota United back into surprising playoff contention, it came with a significant caveat: all the wins were at home. Only one other team (San Jose) have won just a single road match this year, and for the Loons to make good on their playoff aspiration, they simply had to find a way to get points away from home. On Saturday night in beautiful Vancouver, they fell short of that task, with a bad loss to a playoff rival.

Last week I wrote about the benefits of the formational switch to the 3-5-2 and the team’s shift towards a more counter-attacking focus. But the Loons’ new conversion faced a natural test from a Vancouver team that has a similar interest in counter-attacking and no real desire to possess and play with the ball. The 3-5-2 clogs the center of the field and concedes space in between the wingbacks, with the idea of winning the ball in center of the field and hitting quickly in transition. How would Minnesota respond to a team that eschews the midfield entirely and instead looks to play long balls to the wings?

The answer, it turned out, was not so well. It’s hard to understand exactly what the Loons were looking for in the match, but the first half was a mess of from an aesthetic point of view, with neither team seeming comfortable on the ball. Minnesota’s wingbacks stayed at home to defend against the danger of Alphonso Davies on the counter, and so the team simply could not find the ball in the situations where they had thrived the previous week, with numbers pushing forward and the opposing defense scrambling. Vancouver was similarly wary and couldn’t find those opportunities either. The match devolved into a slogging match where both strikers were marked into oblivion and both teams were relying on their second forward (Reyna and Quintero) to produce a moment of magic. It happened for the Caps and not for the Loons.

The second half had a different complexion, as the Loons pushed forward a bit more and were absolutely gashed by Davies as a result. Egregious individual mistakes loomed large here, but the formation was also problematic. Minnesota could not get service into Christian Ramirez because he was amidst a crowd of defenders. The Loons needed to get attackers from wide areas to break into central areas, forcing the centerbacks to step out to meet the threat, and creating space. With only two wide players, both of whom also had defensive responsibilities, that proved impossible.

Adrian Heath changed the game with substitutions in the 68th minute. Abu Danladi replaced Christian Ramirez in a like-for-like switch, and Romario Ibarra replaced Eric Miller in a move that changed the team into a 4-2-3-1. Romario moved into the left midfield position, Miguel Ibarra dropped to become the left fullback, and Michael Boxall moved to become the right fullback. Technically Darwin Quintero should’ve moved to right midfield, but in reality he continued playing a free role, and the Loons actually completely abandoned the right side of the field.

Romario, who I criticized after his work as a striker last week, was electric in his brief cameo in his natural position. But his toolset also fit the tactics. He had the freedom and ability to go at the Vancouver central defense and break them out of their shell, opening space for Quintero and Danladi. The Loons quickly responded with two goals and a flurry of great chances, before another late breakdown allowed Davies to close the door on a comeback.

Saturday night’s loss sparked my largest overarching anxieties about Adrian Heath’s coaching. The loss, I can handle. It’s what comes next that I worry about. There are benefits to continuity, and there are benefits to squad rotation. With Heath, it feels like it’s all of one, or all of another. He sticks with a group of players in the same formation until it gets beaten. Then it’s on to another thing. Hindsight is 20/20, but one of the problems with this approach is that it makes you slow to adjust the team’s tactical approach to fit the opponent is a weakness. You don’t need to constantly tinker like former Mexican National Team coach Juan Carlos Osorio. But I wish the coaching staff was more comfortable making tweaks to the team to fit the circumstances. I’d feel safer if I knew what this team’s identity was, because once you have that, you can work from there to mix things up.

Heath continued to run out the 3-5-2 until it failed. I now worry that he will return to the 4-2-3-1 until circumstances again force a change. But the 3-5-2 has to be the essential formation in Minnesota’s toolkit right now. The 4-2-3-1 has a place too, but not as frequently. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, sometimes different looks are needed for different situations, but you also need an identity, and I’m just afraid that we’ll see a lot of good work abandoned after the 3-5-2 got pasted on Saturday night.

Miscellaneous notes

3. Oh my god, Ibson. I watched the champions league final, and I’m still pretty sure that Ibson’s blind backheel under little pressure in his own defensive third was the dumbest play I’ve seen this year. It led directly to the second Vancouver goal and I still can’t even.

The Brazilian has made a few really bad errors that have led to opposing goals this season (vs Chicago and at Houston) and, like Calvo and Molino before him, seems immune to ever seeing any consequences for poor play. I do not understand it, but I hope we sign Nicolás Benedetti.

2. Christian Ramirez didn’t really do anything wrong but it was hard to do something right when the attack is misfiring so much around you. In contrast to Ibson and others, it often seems like it doesn’t take much for Ramirez to lose the confidence of his manager. With Ángelo Rodríguez lurking and now Abu Danladi on the scoresheet (he looked good!), why do I have a feeling like Ramirez is going to get memory holed?

I hope we don’t forget that Ramirez is the only consistent, proven MLS striker that this team has. It’s disappointing that Mason Toye hasn’t been loaned out yet. If there was ever a case for Minnesota to embrace some squad rotation and use players to target opposing weaknesses, it’s at the striker position.

1. Quick hits. Alphonso Davies really is a joy to watch. He took a little while to warm up to the game, but he was excellent in the second half. Here’s hoping he continues to improve this year and makes an impression with Bayern in the winter. It’ll be tough for him, but he has the tools… …At one point last night, Francisco Calvo took a really dumb shot that ballooned over the goal and ruined an attacking move for the Loons, and Cal Williams said some variation of “It was the right idea but the execution was off.” Come on Cal…


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