There are lots of intriguing questions posed by Saturday’s key Western Conference showdown between the Loons and the Galaxy, but only one will be in the mind of fans. How will Minnesota move on from the man who scored more goals than any other and provided value off the ball even when he wasn’t scoring? The gut-wrenching loss to Seattle provided some tactical clues, if not any emotional ones.
The clubs have an eventful MLS history, even if the results have been one-sided. Minnesota lost the team’s first match in 2017 at home, despite owning over 65% of possession and playing one of its best tactical matches of the season. Christian Ramirez scored at both ends of the pitch in the second half, tying the game first before ultimately giving it back on an own goal. The match in Los Angeles was a more lopsided affair, with the Loons actually winning the possession battle, while the Galaxy played rope-a-dope and repeatedly beat Minnesota on the counter.
Los Angeles FC
D Rolf Feltscher (shoulder surgery) – Out
M Sam Cronin (cervicogenic dysfunction) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
D Jérôme Thiesson (right leg injury) – Out
M Maximiano (right knee injury) – Out
One of my favorite little moments watching Christian Ramirez over the years came against the Colorado Rapids in 2017. The Rapids were coming off a historic 2016 from a defensive standpoint, and Jared Watts was the tough, physical center back playing opposite Ramirez on the evening. Watts is not a guy Ramirez would be expected to fend off physically, but here was Superman going shoulder to shoulder on a cross just a few feet in from the end line. Ramirez won the fight, put a head to the ball, and scored from an impossible angle.
Physicality – hell, just a willingness to make contact – was something the recently departed Minnesota striker had worked on in his transition to MLS. It was great to see him adding pieces to his game, never being satisfied. Those abilities actually paid strong dividends in 2018. Despite only scoring seven goals in an injury-embattled year, Ramirez was consistently providing value by pulling defenders around to create space for others. His hold up play improved dramatically and made everyone around him better. Revisiting the 5-1 match against Los Angeles FC, even just a glance at the highlights shows the forward pulling these strings. Ramirez set up Ibson for a first half open look by holding off a marker and letting an incoming pass roll right by him, and in the second half, he all but set a pick on a defender to allow Miguel Ibarra to run onto a ball and score his for the night. Both selfless moves, both examples of value that doesn’t show up in the stats.
But the sentimentality of his departure – it stings – and even the pragmatics of losing his unique and diverse abilities up top should not automatically spell doom and gloom. Ángelo Rodríguez showed well in his sixty minutes against Seattle, putting in a couple of golden opportunities and showing that he, too, may be more than just a me-first goal scorer. The sample size on Rodríguez is unfortunately still very small, while Ramirez is a proven performer at this level. That makes the move tougher. One of the genuine challenges of being a member of the front office is that sometimes the timing doesn’t fall the way you want it to. Sometimes the other team makes a deal that you just don’t know will come around during the next transfer window. I would hate to make the gambles that need to be made in real life front offices.
Make no mistake, then, that this is a gamble. Rodríguez is still too unknown to call this a simple and obvious move. But if Rodríguez turns out to be even three-quarters as good as Ramirez and if the trade ultimately nets us a high caliber defensive upgrade, would the trade have been worth it? If your answer is yes, then it must be said that trading one-quarter of a Ramirez for up to a million dollars would be a damn good business move. Even if it hurts.
It’s still “ifs,” though. Rodríguez has to capably fill the role up top. The allocation money obtained for Ramirez has to be spent well; for me, that means on upgrades at center back and defensive midfield. If both of those things happen, I see no reason whatsoever that the club could not contend for the playoffs next year (barring other major developments). But if Rodríguez is nothing close to the man he replaces or if the money is squandered on players that don’t pan out or that don’t play in positions of need, then the club will have gutted its fan base for sport and nothing more.
Watch Rodríguez Saturday. Watch him when he doesn’t have the ball. Watch whether he is creating space for those around him. Don’t draw conclusions only on whether he finds the score sheet, although that would be nice as well. If he is starting to do those things, it may even be time to put down the pitchforks and torches.
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