Photo Credit: Alex Schieferdecker

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As Their Expansion Partners Lift The Cup, Loons Face Critical Third Year

by on 10 December 2018

The 2018 MLS Season is now officially over. The Damned United are holding the cup, reaching the pinnacle of league success within just two years of existence. While the newly minted champions now face an uncertain offseason, with their coach and a number of star players leaving, this has been a moment that nobody can take away from them.

Meanwhile to the north, Minnesota United are looking towards a tumultuous offseason as well, but without the lingering taste of champagne to round the edges. The Loons feel like an expansion team again—having utterly wasted their second of two years in MLS, they unloaded a number of players and are now starting afresh at mutltiple key positions. Not again will the team start the season with a nearly identical line-up to the one that finished the previous one.

Where the team will look the same is on the touchline. Despite essentially admitting through these cuts that the team’s roster construction was inadequate, the same technical staff that scouted, signed, and trained these players will return for a third season. By now, there are good reasons to doubt the ability of this staff to build a team that can compete at the highest levels. Of the international players scouted by the club (who were not already known to be star players), just one, Romario Ibarra, has the look of a success. Of the club’s big transfer targets, virtually none have been successfully recruited. Of the team’s young players, few have gotten the minutes they need to develop, and of the team’s overall tactical identity there is vanishingly little evidence of two years of work.

Hardly any observer would dispute that better players are needed to bring the team to the heights achieved by their expansion partners down south. But every team would be improved by better players. The question that cannot be confidently answered is, is this the technical staff that bring in such players? If it is, is this the coaching staff that can use them properly?

As any reader of my work will know, I was hoping to never know the answers. Alas, we are doomed to know. So let this be my last word on the subject this season. Hope springs eternal, and I am ready to turn the page and embrace new possibilities. Let’s look ahead at this critical offseason for the Loons, and reexamine where the team’s priorities lie.

The Tip Of the Spear

Minnesota had important decisions to make about three attacking players all coming off injury. They decided in favor of all three, which means that the attacking group for the club is actually surprisingly settled. Here’s how it looks:

Striker:
1. Ángelo Rodríguez,
2. Abu Danladi
3. Mason Toye
(Also R. Ibarra and Quintero)

Second Striker/Free Attacker:
1. Darwin Quintero
2. Kevin Molino
(Also M. Ibarra)

Wings:
1. Romario Ibarra
2. Miguel Ibarra
3. Ethan Finlay
(Also Quintero, Molino, and Danladi)

Between these eight players, the team has a wonderful degree of flexibility. Just Rodriguez and Toye (who will likely go on loan to the club’s new partners at Forward Madison) are probably not able to be deployed at multiple positions. The Minnesota attacking corps, when healthy, is among the league’s deepest and most interesting. There are a variety of different options and looks available to any coach dexterous enough to use them.

There are two goals for the club with this group. The first is to keep them healthy. A home grass field might help in that regard. The second is to improve their cohesion. The Loons excelled last season with Christian Ramirez’ savvy movement opening up space for the likes of Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra. When Ramirez was traded and replaced by the immobile and unsubtle Ángelo Rodríguez, the goals (and the interest) dried up. The Loons have an entire offseason to better incorporate Rodriguez and add more craft into the attack. There will also hopefully be preseason opportunities for Danladi, Toye, and even Romario Ibarra—who shone in his few minutes deputized in that position last fall—to audition for the starting striker role.

The Engine Room

No area of the field has been more lacking for the Loons in their two years of MLS play than in midfield. Despite the talent of Ibson and the effort of Rasmus Schüller and the promise of Collin Martin, the team has never been able to find a pairing or troika that could hold sway in the middle of the park. Against opponents with players like Ilie Sanchez, Diego Chara, and Ozzie Alonso, that deficiency often proved fatal.

This offseason, the club has set itself up for dramatic changes to correct this issue. Just three midfielders remain on the roster.

Attacking Midfield:
1.
2.
3.

Central Midfield:
1.
2. Rasmus Schüller
3. Collin Martin

Defensive Midfield:
1.
2.
3. Sam Cronin (Injured???)

The club has never signed an attacking midfielder in their history in MLS, although they repeatedly attempted to secure the services of the young Colombian Nicolás Benedetti. That pursuit seems at last to be over, (although you never really know, right?) and it may be that with their surfeit of second strikers/free central attackers, there is no need for a player in the attacking midfield mold.

But the need for an excellent defensive midfielder is immense. Briefly in 2017, the club had a solid option in this position with Sam Cronin. But Cronin’s issues with concussions prevented him from seeing all but one preseason game in 2018, and it’s hard to imagine him returning to the field in 2019. The club seemed to have been blindsided (inexplicably) by his issues last season, and thus started the year without a single defensive midfielder on the roster. Belatedly they brought in a young Brazilian, Maximiano on loan, but they never trusted him. At the end of the season, they gambled again on an older Brazilian, Fernando Bob, but he struggled to defend. Ultimately both were cut and the Loons are back to square one.

The best MLS teams either have a sensational defensive midfielder (Chara et. al) or a pair of complimentary central midfielders (Feilhaber and Kaye for LAFC, or Nagbe and co. for Atlanta United). Minnesota attempted the second approach last season, with Schüller and Ibson, but despite the obvious talent of the latter and the constant hustle of the former, the grouping never worked out. It will go down as a strike against the club and the three coaches during this span that they had a player like Ibson at their disposal for four years and never once looked better with him on the field.

Only Schüller and the young, talented Martin remain with the Loons. Both holdovers could be useful in central midfield with a better defensive presence behind them. Schüller developed into a disruptor last season, while Martin, formerly a #10 at the youth level, has vision on the ball that it would be nice to see nourished. But given the club’s obvious intentions to overhaul this area of the pitch, they will have to fight hard for their minutes. With potentially two designated player spots open for use this offseason, at least one, if not both, should be filled here.

At The Back

Somewhat surprisingly, the team has opted to make few roster changes to the defensive back-line that has conceded more goals in two years than any other in league history. The cuts fell mostly on reserves, with the notable exception of the beloved Jérôme Thiesson, who struggled with injuries this past year and lost his starting spot. Fullback Eric Miller may also return, or he may not, the club and player are in negotiations.

But although many names return, one suspects that the starting group will undergo changes. It has to, right? Here’s the current depth chart:

Centerback:
1.
2
?. Michael Boxall
?. Brent Kallman
?. Wyatt Omsberg

Fullback:
1. Francisco Calvo (Left)
2. Eric Miller (Either)
3.
4. Carter Manley (Right)

Last year’s experiment with anointing Francisco Calvo and Michael Boxall as the starting duo in early preseason backfired tremendously. This coming season, Boxall, Kallman, and Omsberg all ought to be on even footing to compete for a starting job, as neither did much to nail down a spot, and a competition on merit is sorely needed. They will surely be joined by at least one, possibly two league-proven players who may end up the presumptive starters.

By the way, Joe Greenspan, who was cut last season by the team, was a finalist for USL Defender of the Year this season. Make of that what you will.

Meanwhile Calvo appears to have played himself out of the centerback role and into a starting left fullback role. The team could also gamble on youth and upside in the reserve fullback positions, leaning on a reliable opening day pair of Calvo and Miller, and with Manley available on a yo-yo loan to Madison. The Loons shipped a lot of goals thanks to poor fullback play last season, yet their offseason task is less to address a dire need and more to search for a good fit.

Between The Pipes

The Loons cut Matt Lampson and Alex Kapp this offseason, leaving just Bobby Shuttleworth on the roster. It’s a bummer to see Lampson go, given the work that he does in the community, but it cannot be denied that he disappointed when playing for Minnesota. It’s also a bummer to never see Kapp get a minute of MLS action or much of a loan anywhere, given how the Loons had plenty of meaningless games in both seasons in which he could’ve debuted.

Shuttleworth has ended up winning the starting job in both MLS seasons, but the team’s depth chart probably looks like this:

Goalkeeper:
1.
2. Bobby Shuttleworth
3. [Someone in the draft]

Shuttleworth had a fantastic first month of MLS action last year, but his form trailed off badly after that, and he ended the year with league-average advanced stats. At his best, he is a superb shot-stopper and a fearless actor in his box. At his worst, his strong hands desert him and he is not able to command loose balls in his area. We saw a bit of both in 2018, and it’s no surprise that for the third straight year the Loons will be at least looking to challenge him, but also likely supplant him. There are a lot of goalkeepers on MLS rosters, including other teams’ second choices (LAFC, for instance, have a ton of potential options), who could be targets here. The team might also go the riskier route of finding an international keeper. It’s hard to know what to expect, except at least one new name, and a new third keeper in the draft.

The Timeline Moving Forward

Already on Sunday the 9th, MLS held a half-day trade window for pre-arranged moves. Next, on Tuesday the 11th, FC Cincinnati will make their Expansion Draft selections. The day after is a Waiver Draft, then two rounds of the Re-Entry Draft. These drafts are often pretty quiet, but the Loons did pick up Tyrone Mears last year in the Re-Entry Draft, in what would shockingly and disappointingly turn out to be the club’s best transfer move of the entire offseason. Expect more this year overall, and remember that there is certainly an opportunity to make a move in these drafts this year as well.

Once these processes are over, buckle up for a long period of quiet, punctuated by news about the Loons from outside sources, followed two weeks later by the club confirming player news inexplicably at 5:00 PM on a Friday. We can all hope that we will hear big news to get excited about before the holiday season and New Year, but don’t get your hopes up.

The Loons can hardly fail to have a big offseason this year, as there are a ton of needed pieces. As to whether it’ll be successful? We have a lot longer to figure that out.


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