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Matchday Twenty-Four: Minnesota Battles To Ugly Point On The Road, With Big Elephant In The Stadium

by on 15 August 2018

Happily for much of Minnesota’s time in MLS, there has been surprisingly little drama. Sure the team may have been bad and players have come and gone, but there’s rarely been a behind-the-scenes soap opera that other teams seem to attract. But this week was different. Days after sending beloved striker Christian Ramirez to LAFC, the Loons’ away clash in Greater Los Angeles was the most serious test yet of the MLS era. Adrian Heath and Manny Lagos have surely gambled their jobs on such a risky and adversarial move. Would it pay off?

The Los Angeles Galaxy’s StubHub Center is just 10.34 miles to the south of Los Angeles FC’s home in Exposition Park. On Saturday night, the Loons played in the same time, in the same metro area, as Christian Ramirez, but in different games. The stage was set for a sharp contrast.

But it didn’t materialize. Ramirez entered late in an already-losing effort by LA and made an instant impact, missing a diving header by inches and then being denied a goal by a spectacular Tim Melia save. Meanwhile, the Loons battled to a draw against the Galaxy, with Ramirez replacement Ángelo Rodríguez making a strong impression, but failing to find the net. In a city known for scripted drama, little of it materialized.

The verdict on the Christian Ramirez trade will be decided in the waning months of this season, and perhaps reevaluted if circumstances change over the next. But it must be seen first and foremost in context. If you had woken from a coma and been asked to evaluate the Loons’ roster on the eve of the trade window, you might well have made the deal. But as is evident to any longtime observer, Minnesota’s MLS technical staff never trusted the NASL-seasoned striker, and collaborated with the front office to deliberately made him expendable, a process that was repeatedly thwarted by his annoying habit of scoring goals at a consistent and productive rate.

That does not mean that the hard decision to push him out the door was necessarily the wrong one. But it depends on what comes next. Rodríguez must prove a superior replacement, given his age, and the allocation money that the club acquired must be put to good use. Neither of this conditions is a fool’s hope. The Colombian has earned for himself four good opportunities in his two games so far, provided solid hold-up play, and hustled defensively. Meanwhile, early indications suggest the front office has done well with the Rodríguez signing and his fellow summer recruit, Romario Ibarra, who scored on the weekend. Both additions already look the part.

But these two hopes still require faith. Many foreign strikers succeed in MLS, but some end up like Nelson Valdez, whose hard work and otherwise good play could not ultimately make up for his lack of goalscoring. Off the field, this is still the same technical staff that made Vadim Demidov the club captain after nearly a full preseason, and has spent two international spots on Frantz Pangop and Bertrand Owundi Eko’o. Both the player and management have much more to prove, and have asked supporters to take a massive leap of faith with them. If it works, it’ll look like genius. If it fails, it’ll look like vandalism.

Miscellaneous notes

4. Minnesota’s formation and tactics continue to evolve. I still cannot tell you exactly what type of team Adrian Heath and his staff intend for Minnesota to become. On Saturday, they played again in the 3-5-2 that has endowed them with greater defensive stability. But perhaps as a pragmatic gesture on the road, the Loons seemed to pulled the reins on their usual counterattack, and it often seemed to leave Rodríguez and Darwin Quintero on an island. In particular, Miguel Ibarra struggled to get into the match, with Ibson frequently drifting from midfield out to the right in front of him. It’s hard to say if this was deliberate or not, but the Loons did not threaten much for most of the match.

The exception came when trailing 1-2. Heath opted to make a very similar double change to the one he had made two weeks earlier, on the road against Vancouver, with a swap to a 4-2-3-1 through the addition of Romario Ibarra and Abu Danladi, and the withdrawal of Eric Miller and Collen Warner. Both Romario and Danladi assume the roles of wingers, the central midfield became a two-man operation, and Miguel Ibarra and Francisco Calvo took on the responsibilities of fullbacks.

It’s a bit of a risk, given that the Loons have really not defended well with two-man midfields and four-man backlines this year. But it’s necessary to get more help in the attack for the striker/Quintero combination, and it’s also a way to get Romario into the fray and running at tired defenders. Twice the gambit has succeeded at leading comebacks, although in Vancouver it wasn’t enough for a win. In LA, immediately after conceding, Heath returned back to the 3-5-2, by adding Tyrone Mears to replace Rodriguez, learning from his errors against Seattle by shutting up shop.

Minnesota are in an interesting position this coming week, with a Saturday match against FC Dallas looming. Due to suspension, Francisco Calvo and Collen Warner are not available. Do the Loons return to a 4-2-3-1? Or do they stick with the 3-5-2 and make straight swaps (Wyatt Omsberg for Calvo and Maximiano or Collin Martin for Warner)?

My preference is for the 3-5-2, which I think would improve with the addition of a true defensive midfielder like Maximiano (the first Galaxy goal was a classic example of what happens when you don’t have a dmid). But I’d also like to see Romario get more time. It might be reckless defensively to install the aggressive Ecuadorian as a fullback. But with both Eric Miller and Alexi Gómez doing little to lock down that spot, it’s an experiment worth making.

3. The Loons are all right. Listeners to the FiftyFive.One podcast will know that I have something of a morbid fascination with both the Large Adult Son capital of America, Orlando, Florida, and the MLS team that represents it.

The Lions have taken a pretty astonishing four points from their last fifteen games, and on Sunday, they lost a match in which they had a breakaway on an open net in second half stoppage time of a tie game. If you haven’t seen the highlights yet, check it out.

Anyway, after the match, it appears there was a bit of a donnybrook in the Orlando City locker room, and it’s not surprise, the team is heading towards its fourth year in MLS and fourth year of missing the playoffs, it has already fired two coaches, it has spent a ton of money on good players, only to see the fanbase savagely turn on them when they struggle. It is a deeply, deeply toxic club culture from the organized supporters, the front office, and the players.

This is a good opportunity to remember just how good Minnesota fans have it. The team is struggling, but it is impossible to accuse the players of not putting in the effort, and Saturday’s fightback was just the latest example. The front office is making tough and risky moves, but they are spending money and they are not attempting a fire sale or trying to disband the academy. The club is not feuding with supporters. The stadium is going to be incredible. The club is seeing its attendance rise. Most importantly of all, I think the club culture is headed in the right direction. The NASL-era foundation of positive, community-focused, inclusive support set by the Dark Clouds and later embraced by True North Elite has carried into MLS and helped create the kind of culture that people want to be a part of. The singing of Wonderwall after wins is an example of a tradition that is a source of infectious positivity.

Bad results will come, and who knows, they might keep coming. But a positive club culture is balm for the bad times and an accelerator for the good times. Spread the darkness. Stay positive!

2. Finally the loans are happening. Everyone and their grandmother has been calling for the Loons to start loaning out young players to get them playing time, and at last it is happening. Carter Manley was sent to Los Vegas (which hasn’t worked out so far because they are not playing a formation with fullbacks, what happened there?), Mason Toye was sent to Colorado Springs, and now Owundi has been sent to the Charlotte Independence. These moves feel a bit late, but at least they have happened. It’s essential that these guys get minutes. Toye played in his first available match, which is a good sign, hopefully Manley’s situation will change, and we’ll see what comes of Owundi’s move. Regardless, the intention was absolutely correct. It’s disappointing that Alex Kapp has not been given a new temporary home as well.

1. Quick hits. This is an explicit plug for the new Midway construction camera, which shows a view from inside the stadium. I’m super glad to see that the seats will not be the same color. I’m a bit bummed to see the light blue used for the supporters wall, it should be dark grey… …Michael Boxall had a great game against LA, credit to the entire back-line for not letting Zlatan score. The Swedish star had a good game overall, but didn’t find the back of the net… …The Galaxy are bad, but have a couple of star players and are slightly better organized than the Loons. That’s all it takes, folks, that could’ve been the Loons this year.

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