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Matchday Twenty-Three: Late Gut Punch Dooms Loons, Raises Questions About Leadership

by on 6 August 2018

Through nearly ninety minutes, Minnesota United were in the process of eking out an undeserved but professional home victory over the Seattle Sounders. Then, in stoppage time, it all fell apart. With recriminations flying thick and fast over what increasingly looks like another season short of the playoffs, it’s time to return to some hard questions about the direction of the team and its leadership.

The importance of this game, at home, against a possible playoff rival, was obvious to all. Yet the Loons came out flat, and never really found their edge all game. The team was bullied by Seattle’s incredible defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso all match, and neither counterattacks nor slower-building attacks had much success breaking through.

Just three or four times did Minnesota threaten, and such is the odd nature of soccer that all were excellent opportunities. Darwin Quintero scored the first, Ángelo Rodríguez flashed a header over the bar, then another against the post, and Quintero hit the post from a tight angle on a counter. But beyond these chances, which all came in the waning minutes of the first half, the Loons were toothless. They hardly generated anything else.

Still, that single goal might’ve been enough to win the game. But on the cusp of extra time, Miguel Ibarra was (correctly) VAR’d for a handball in the box as he jumped to contest a Román Torres header, gift wrapping the visitors an equalizer. Then, with nearly the final kick of the game, a hopeful long ball was flicked on by Raúl Ruidíaz into the path of Will Bruin, who lofted the ball over an onrushing Bobby Shuttleworth for the winner.

There’s a lot of blame to go around. Ibarra conceded a poor penalty. He also shouldn’t have been assigned to mark the much taller Torres in the first place. On the winner, Michael Boxall inexplicably decided not to challenge the smaller Ruidíaz for a header, allowing the short Peruvian a free pass from a dangerous area. The team, as a whole, was not good enough, and got outplayed in their own park. There were few players who covered themselves in glory.

Yet the harshest spotlight must surely fall upon Head Coach Adrian Heath, who (both in foresight and hindsight) badly mismanaged his squad. In such a critical match, he opted to give Rodríguez his Minnesota debut and introduce a completely new player to the Minnesota attack. The Colombian was impressive in his first half of work, but faded quickly in the second half. The Loons especially needed his talents as a hold-up man in the second frame, as they struggled to retain possession. But Rodríguez did not look fully fit, and could contribute little before belatedly making way for Abu Danladi in the 69th minute.

Heath’s second gamble was deploying the speedy Ghanian. Of course, Danladi could not be expected to fix Minnesota’s issues holding possession, but he offered the promise of finding opportunities in behind (although after a long time of thinking of Danladi this way and not really having it pan out, I’m questioning some of the consensus on his best role). Yet the Loons were under such pressure that they had little time to play the ball to Danladi in the first place. For ten excruciating minutes after entering, the striker did not touch the ball once, all the while the Sounders piled on pressure and wore out the Minnesota defenders.

Those two coaching decisions were certainly justifiable, although I and many others disagreed with them at the time. But the one thing I could not and cannot understand or excuse was Heath’s choice to not use his final substitution. There was a significant delay in the game during which the referee went to the video screen to assess the late Seattle penalty, and another delay while the penalty kick was set up. That was ample time for the coaching staff to ready an attacking substitution in case the Sounders converted the kick, and a defensive substitution in case they missed.

With three absolutely essential points on the line, the team had to take a risk to score the winner. There was no shortage of options. Winger Romario Ibarra made an immediate impact the week before against Vancouver. Adding the Ecuadorian in the place of Collen Warner would’ve helped the Loons go directly at their guests. Another option would’ve been to replace Warner with striker Christian Ramirez, who would’ve provided the hold-up option for Quintero and Danladi to play off of. Finally, when the Loons had a late corner kick, subbing on the 6’4″ Wyatt Omsberg would’ve provided the Loons with a big body to challenge for the set piece.

Instead, Heath froze and did nothing, and the Sounders kept the initiative, continued to press, and stole all three points. There is no guarantee that any of those subs would’ve delivered. But with the team needing to change the game and go all out for a win, changing nothing was the only wrong answer.

It takes a village to implode as the Loons did. Both players and coaches are responsible. Again, it’s certainly not possible to claim, even with the benefit of hindsight, that the result would’ve been any different had the coaching staff done X, Y, or Z. But it’s the nature of leadership that you enjoy a disproportionate share of the credit when things go right, and must shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame when things go wrong. On the balance for the past year and two thirds, things have gone wrong for the Loons more often than they have gone right.

But the kicker for me at least, was that Saturday’s loss was, in ninety minutes, exemplary of a pattern of frustrations I have with the coaching of Adrian Heath. The overhanging theme of the Englishman’s tenure with Minnesota has been the uneven application of accountability.

On one hand, after gifting Vancouver a goal last weekend, Ibson started on Saturday as if nothing had changed. This is nothing unexpected, as the Brazilian had long ago proved to be one of the players who are automatic starters under Heath, no matter how they play the previous week.

On the other hand, Christian Ramirez did not come off the bench on Saturday, after not scoring against Vancouver. This was nothing unexpected, as it’s been abundantly clear for a long time that the longtime Loons striker does not enjoy the trust of Heath, no matter how consistently he has scored for the club.

The maintenance of two classes of players under Heath is so obvious and common that we hardly acknowledge it these days. But it is a system that repeatedly is undermined by results on the field. For example, a great irony of the team’s recent three-game winning streak was that it was led by players like Ibarra, Kallman, Ramirez, and Warner, all four of whom have spent extended and inexplicable stays in Heath’s doghouse.

The uneven results on the field are bad enough. But what I hate most about the coaching staff’s naked and unproductive favoritism is that it pits fans and players against one another. After the match, captain Francisco Calvo spoke to the media and made it clear that the proxy battle that Heath has engineered between Ramirez and Rodriguez has in some way been heard in the locker room.

A number of fans have criticized Calvo for this statement. I think that is extremely unfair—English is not his first language, and a good faith reading of what he said makes it clear that he’s trying to encourage fans to support the player on the field, no matter the politics of the squad selection. That’s what I want the captain to say, and I’m glad Calvo said it.

But man, things can get toxic on #MNUFC social media these days. It’s natural that fans become attached to players, and we all want the best for the guys who work every day to represent the state well. In a healthy team dynamic, fans can trust that the coaching staff will give the guys a fair chance, rewarding performance but also not shutting out players who are stuck behind star performers. Of course, winning also helps—if you’re getting three point every week, you can justify pretty much whatever the coaching staff are doing. New York Red Bulls fans have seen their team trade away their captain in successive seasons, but they trust the coaching staff because it has delivered excellent teams. But with Minnesota, we see very little squad rotation, with very little correlation between the coach’s preferred players and better results on the field. The impression is unseemly and the result is proving to be poisonous.

We all ought to do better, but we also deserve better. I shared on Twitter my view that the position of Adrian Heath is increasingly untenable. I’ve written before that I do not support firing coaches mid-season. I’ve also written before that if the season ended at that moment, I would not support the coaching staff returning for a third year. After Saturday night’s meltdown, my views are unchanged. I want better leadership for this team, and I think time is running out for the current leadership to prove they are the ones to provide it.

Miscellaneous notes

That was a darker and more negative preamble than I’ve written in a while. Yet I’m still optimistic about the long-term future of this team. Let’s close this piece off with a focus on the many positives:

3. This team has tremendous attacking talent. I saw enough from Ángelo Rodríguez on Saturday to make me a fan. The Colombian is a big guy, but surprisingly quick. He has that knack for subtly finding open space in between opposing defenders, and nearly scored with two good headers. I loved his backheeled pass to Ibson in the box, which resulted in a corner.

I loved what I saw from Romario Ibarra last weekend as well. He was quick and aggressive. Both summer signings look at first glance like the caliber of players who the Loons need at every position in order to compete in this league, and a notch above previous transfer moves.

Add these two to an attack that includes Christian Ramirez, Abu Danladi, Mason Toye, Darwin Quintero, Miguel Ibarra, and eventually Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay (these guys have recovered unbelievably quickly), and you have a remarkably talented attacking corps. It will be a challenge to get the best out of this group, but the pieces are absolutely there. Mason Toye needs to be loaned, and I’d like to see Abu Danladi get some chances at right wing or alongside another striker. I’d like to see Romario given an opportunity to play as a wing back, and I’d like to see Quintero get more rest and Ibarra given some chances back centrally. The Loons are so talented and so flexible right now up top, and it’s a joy to contemplate.

2. The central defense is solid. Aside from Michael Boxall’s late mistake on Saturday night, I’ve seen so much to like from this three-man defensive setup. It’s clear that Francisco Calvo should not be playing center back in a back four. But in a back three, his ‘playmaking’ defense is superb. Michael Boxall has also generally been very good. At the heart of it all, Brent Kallman has been a excellent fireman. The Minnesota native was indispensable on Saturday, making a number of last-ditch plays. That’s his role as the center man in the back three, and his discipline and athleticism make him the perfect counterweight to Calvo and Boxall. 

I do want Wyatt Omsberg to get more minutes, however.

1. The Wonderwall is killing it. Credit to the fans for a brutal and brilliant tifo, the moving banner, this amazing “Bobby” flag, and this amazing capo stand. Once again, the atmosphere came across really well on TV. I’m also impressed by the organization behind the scenes to unify the supporters groups under an overarching umbrella for business purposes. It’s not a super sexy move, but finding ways to coordinate and communicate while keeping the identity of individual groups is essential to preventing the kind of pointless rifts that have developed with a number of other clubs.

The one downside is that someone threw a beer at Nico Lodeiro which is not acceptable, and I assume that person will be banned. Don’t do that, folks.

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