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Matchdays Twenty and Twenty-One: Minnesota Change The Narrative With Two Important Wins, One Big Week

by on 23 July 2018

Even a year and a half on, Minnesota United have struggled to shed the first impression they gave in MLS. Hopelessly inept at defending, mercurial in attack, adrift in midfield, struggling to make a splash in the transfer market, and beset by an endless parade of wingers. Now, thanks to Darwin Quintero, Miguel Ibarra, and a long overdue change in formation, the Loons might finally get the chance to start a new chapter in their short but eventful MLS history.

The last time Minnesota United had gone three games without suffering defeat was fifty-six games ago, in October of 2016. The last time they had won three straight was eighty-six games ago, in October of 2015. Those ignominious streaks ended on this past week, as the Loons completed a three-game homestand with a 2-1 win over New England and a stunning 5-1 win over Los Angeles FC. Less than a month after hitting rock bottom in Colorado, the team is just two points shy of the playoff place in the west.

The Loons have been fortunate. Last weekend, they beat a Salt Lake team who started with a baffling formation and whose coach got sent off after arguing about the calls. On Wednesday, they played a New England team missing key pieces with injuries and suspensions. On Sunday, they played a Los Angeles team resting their four or five most important players after a midweek U.S. Open Cup win and already looking ahead to the upcoming second edition of El Traffico. All three games were at home.

But the Loons have also taken the opportunities given to them. It’s been three years since we could say that consistently about a Minnesota United team, and this week’s results hold out hope that we might be able to start saying that again.

The catalyst for the team’s good form has been a change in formation to a 3-5-2. The team has four wins and two losses since making the switch and was also the better team in one of those losses. Here’s what I wrote in M-A-R-C-H, of this year.

There’s been a ton of turnover in the attack for the Loons since then, but the calculus is still the same. Minnesota are deepest at striker, center back, and above all, a crowd of box-to-box midfielders. They are shallow at fullback. They could solve these problems by trading two fullbacks for an extra center back and another box-to-box midfielder. That pushes your attacking midfielder into a second striker role—which just so happened to be Kevin Molino’s best position, and also seems to fit Darwin Quintero perfectly.

Three other factors make the 3-5-2 perfect for the Loons.

The first is that they have a center back, Francisco Calvo, who possesses a good range of passing and a reckless playmaking instinct on defense. The 3-5-2 allows him more space to pass the ball and more space to hit long diagonals into. It also provides twice the usual center back cover for when he gambles defensively.

The second is that Miguel Ibarra is an incomparably valuable player, whose intelligence, speed, and improved crossing have made him a superb wing back. Batman has also been brilliant as a winger and a central attacking midfielder this season, and I’m convinced that you could put him virtually anywhere on the field, save for goal, and he would be useful. But as a wing back, his uncommon instincts for when and how to attack have baffled opposing defenses, and his unbelievable motor has allowed him to mostly hold his own defensively. Did you notice that he scored and assisted from opposite sides of the field? As a wing back? Who does that???

The third reason is that Minnesota has an absolute assassin in Darwin Quintero. Not every Loon is necessarily built for the counterattack, but they’re going to have to learn, because it’s Darwin’s world right now, and everyone else is living in it. After a World Cup in which the signature strategy was to be organized in the back and lethal in transition, the Loons are leaning into the same approach. It makes all the sense in the world. There are parallels with France, but the best comparison is with Belgium, who relied on excellent goalkeeping, three stout center backs, a midfield of scrappers, a savvy and strong center forward, and two luminescent attacking talents to orbit around him. Sound familiar? Hell yes, it should sound familiar. Two weeks ago, I asked what type of team exactly the Loons were building. I’m quite sure that Adrian Heath didn’t expect it to shape up this way, but now that it’s happened, it’s time to embrace it.

Miscellaneous notes

5. Ángelo Rodríguez is not going to walk into the starting striker job, because Christian Ramirez will not cede it quite so easily. After handling some very public criticism, Superman responded this week with three goals and a beautiful assist. He is second behind Quintero with seven goals from open play. Scoring is important, as is hold-up play. But also important is the work he’s doing off the ball completely. Ramirez’s gravitational field is what gives Quintero the space to do the audacious stuff he’s been doing. Earlier this season, the runs he was making weren’t fooling defenders, and they weren’t being respected. Not anymore. When Ramirez makes a move, sometimes multiple defenders are being forced to respond to it. That was the case on the winning goal against New England (watch how Ramirez runs straight through the defense, clearing the hole that Quintero exploits—also, watch Ibarra’s pick), and the case for the first goal against Los Angeles.

There was some talk a week ago about how Ramirez’s goals per minutes played was the worst of his career. Now he’s back at a goal every 188 minutes. When you remember that he played a good deal of minutes at the start of the season while not being 100% fit, that number starts to look a bit more impressive. For those of us who worried about Ramirez having changed in some way, this week was an emphatic answer. He still scores goals in every way imaginable, he’s hungry and finds ways to impact the match, and he can combine well. There’s no benching a player in Ramirez’s form.

4. Romario Ibarra is not going to walk into a starting (wing back? forward?) job because, huh, he looked slow in his first MLS minutes with the Loons (shoutout to the knowledgeable soccer person who made this point to me via DM). Of course, it can take a while to adjust to the league, he was in an unfamiliar position, and it was only a short cameo at the end of a weird game. But LA were there for the kill, and you’d have thought a goal scorer with fresh legs looking to make an impression might’ve… well, made more of an impression.

That’s about all that’s worth reading into that. There’s time for him to find his footing.

3. Nicolas Benedetti is probably going to walk into Ibson’s job, if he actually comes this time. There’s been a lot of talk about the young Colombian going back to preseason, and I’m not going to believe he’s actually joining Minnesota United until I see an Instagram story from Camp Snoopy Nickelodeon Universe. But the rumors that broke on Saturday seem more credible, and came from a number of sources, so there might just be a there there.

Where would he play? I think he takes minutes from Ibson, who is Minnesota’s most attack-minded of the midfield trio, and who is turning 35 in November. It’s unbelievable how durable and hard working the Brazilian veteran has been, but provided he is willing to play some defense, Benedetti ought to be his successor.

2. Six of Minnesota’s next seven games are on the road, and the Loons have won just once away from home this year. When you’re in a playoff hunt, and yeah, the Loons might actually be in the playoff hunt, every game counts. With five remaining home games and eight remaining away games, the path to the postseason involves going nearly perfect at home. But that would leave the team with just 43 points on the season, which is usually a few points short of the playoff line. The team simply needs to win on the road. With the 3-5-2, they’ve got a system that theoretically should be optimal for smash and grab operations in hostile territory, but it’s easier said than done.

1. Quick hits. I cannot believe this team lost twice to San Jose and once to Colorado. Those losses will haunt this team until the bitter end. If the team had taken just four points from those matches, they’d be in 4th place! If they had taken six points, they’d be in 3rd!… … Maximiano is getting more playing time, which I approve of, and he’s been solid defensively. But credit where it’s due, Collen Warner has been playing quite well. The battle between the two bald midfielders will be an interesting sub-plot for the rest of the season, but I remain convinced that Minnesota’s long term interests are better served by starting the young Brazilian… … Eric Miller was very good as a wing back against LA, and he should replace Alexi Gómez next week, regardless of the Peruvian’s injury status. It’s not that Gómez has been bad, but Miller was better, especially defensively. It’ll take a while to erase the memory of the terrible penalty that Gómez conceded against New England… …Bobby Shuttleworth is in the best form of his career. I wish he’d be better at claiming crosses, but I can’t complain about anything else… …I’ve said it before, but the crowd came across incredibly on the broadcast on both nights. The Chivas USA chant was spectacular. You’re killing it, Minnesota.

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