Alright Minnesota United, we get it. We love Minnesota, too, and we do not much care for any other parts of the country. Minnesota has followed up a stunningly poor seven game road trip with back-to-back home wins. If the Loons could replicate even a portion of their home success on the road, they would be contending for the postseason. Instead, barring a miracle of calculus, they have one eye on 2019, where they will absolutely need to solve the mystery of competing away from Minnesota. There is no better time to get a jump on that puzzle than Saturday at Philadelphia, against a Union team that has been terrificly (mostly) over the last two months and has everything to play for.
Saturday marks the only match between the two clubs in 2018. In 2017, the Union visited TCF Bank Stadium and played to a 1-1 draw. The Loons gave up a signature early goal, with C.J. Sapong scoring in the fifth minute, but Ethan Finlay scored the equalizer later in the first half. This weekend’s game will be Minnesota’s first-ever trip to the City of Brotherly Love.
D Josh Yaro (right adductor sprain) – Out
D Matt Real (left knee sprain) – Questionable
M Ilsinho (quad strain) – Questionable
M Borek Dockal (left ankle sprain) – Questionable
M Sam Cronin (cervicogenic dysfunction) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
F Abu Danladi (right leg injury) – Out
M Colin Martin (right ankle injury) – Out
D Collen Warner (suspended) – Out
M Romario Ibarra (hamstring injury) – Questionable
Let’s start with some data. Minnesota United has earned five points on the road this season. They have played a total of fifteen games away from home, representing 45 possible road points thus far this year. Five points from fifteen games makes for a road points-per-game (PPG) of 0.33. No team has a worse road PPG, no team has so few total road points, and the Loons are tied for the most road losses (with Orlando, a team so poor they handed Minnesota its only road win this year).
Given such a profoundly poor road record, it is irresistibly tempting to ask a few what-ifs. Turn just three of those road losses into wins and Minnesota is fifth in the Western Conference on PPG and occupying a playoff spot. Turning three road losses into wins would bring Minnesota’s road PPG to 0.93, hardly an elite figure, but it would be enough for the postseason. In fact, the number would still land the Loons in the bottom half of the West for road PPG. In other words, it is hardly a monumental ask.
What, then, is happening that contributes to Minnesota’s terrible struggles on the road? A few possible answers stand out, and the truth is probably some combination thereof.
One issue, and one of the core reasons that home field advantage is so much stronger in MLS than in many leagues, is that Minnesota’s playing surface is unlike just about any other in the league. It obviously takes less adjustment moving from one grass firld to another. Even moving from one of the league’s finer turf stadiums, such as Providence Park in Portland, to a grass field requires comparatively little adjustment. But I invite you to take a walk on TCF’s turf if you never have. It is spongy and springy, and surely the ball reacts differently here than in most parks. Additionally, Minnesota’s strengths this year (at least offensively) have come through quicker attacks rather than methodical poking and prodding. TCF’s turf plays faster than grass, which is more likely to absorb the momentum of the ball. In short, moving from the Loons’ home turf to most other surfaces requires more adaptation than most teams in the league must make, and muscle memory is slow to be undone.
Another potential problem, though much less unique to Minnesota, is the travel aspect. In European leagues, travel within a country is generally short and requires little or no time adjustment. In the United States, teams must adjust the clock as much as three hours on the road. This seems like a small thing, but it is more than just noting “it seems darker earlier than I expected.” One’s body becomes used to metabolizing on a certain schedule and pattern, meaning that it can be harder to precisely prepare to be ready physically and nutritionally for peak performance on the road. This is to say nothing of uncomfortable flights and hotel stays.
However, this is not unique to Minnesota. Being located in the Midwest, one might make the argument that the club only has two other teams remotely nearby and thus its road travel is always long distance. But the same argument could be made for Sporting Kansas City, who has been fine on the road. Further, although Minnesota has few opportunities for short travel distances, it never makes the three hour time transition that coastal clubs must make. Travel in the United States stinks, but it stinks for everyone.
Another major element of road form is how the team prepares for it. How is the team and the coaching staff getting the players ready to execute in road matches? This is an area into which I have less visibility, and thus I will not make too many assumptions. The players left for Philadelphia on Friday for a Saturday game. Would traveling a day earlier allow more time for preparation and adjustment? Would travelling with more than the required eighteen players (Minnesota typically only brings the minimum number of players on the road; they could bring more but this is also not unique among MLS teams) give the Loons more on-the-fly tactical flexibility in road matches? Perhaps. Again, I would like my Twitter account to be relatively free of threats, so I will not speculate further.
What I can speculate about is that Minnesota’s lack of depth hurts the team more on the road than it does at home. It is not a provocative statement to suggest that the Loons lack depth across the pitch. What many forget, however, is that this depth is tested more in road situations. When playing at home a team can more commonly play its own style, dictate the flow of the game, etc. On the road, with the other team enjoying all those benefits, a club is often required to adapt to what is thrown at them. It may be preferable to adjust a formation to respond to the opponents’ strengths or weaknesses, or it may be wise to absorb pressure and counter when the team otherwise prefers to play a possession-based style.
Unfortunately, if a club does not have the depth to make confident adjustments to the starting XI (either in formation, tactics, or lineup), or if the players a club has are not versatile enough to play multiple styles effectively, then the team will struggle with incompatibility. If Minnesota had success in a 3-5-2 at home with Alexi Gómez playing on the front foot, but on the road requires him to play a lot more of the “back” part of a wing back, then the club will struggle on the left because Gómez is not confident defender. There is no other player that can then adequately fill both the attacking and defending elements of that role as the flow of the game requires, not the way Miguel Ibarra does on the right side. Similar corollaries could be made for just about every position on the field. Minnesota often must choose between doubling down on a tactical bet that no longer seems advisable, or gamble on changing personnel or tactics that do not suit the strengths of the players available. It is a losing proposition, and that is what Minnesota has done on the road: lose.
This might seem like a long and circuitous way to say “Minnesota would play better on the road if it had better players,” but the key here is that it is more than just finding a better version of what the team already has. I am of the controversial belief that the Loons are better health and a few better depth players away from being a genuine playoff contender in 2019 and, although I find myself on the caboose of the #HeathOut train at the moment, I believe the club can accomplish this with or without Adrian Heath at the helm. It will require investment into a single vision for what the team wants to look like. If the club wants to play with wing backs, it needs to genuinely look to two-way players rather than asking wingers to change their game (I love Romario Ibarra, but he will only succeed on the attack). If the club wants to have a physical hold-up striker that will help enable Darwin Quintero as a second striker, then it needs someone who can do that when Ángelo Rodríquez is out (Abu Danladi and Mason Toye do not have hold-up play among their toolset). It would be nice to see more flexible central midfielders who are more than just “close-down-on-the-ball-quickly-then-get-rid-of-it” guys like Rasmus Schüller or Ibson, or “physical-defensive-midfielder-who-breaks-up-dangerous-plays” like Maximiano. Diego Chara and Michael Bradley are great No. 6’s who can break up plays, but are also excellent distributors in the build up. These are two rare talents and Minnesota cannot hope to just snatch one up, but the point is that flexibility could allow tactical adjustment.
It can be done. It has been done. And if Minnesota’s home form is any indication, having a complete picture is not as far off as it seems.
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