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After Productive Offseason, Loons Look Set For 2019, But Not Beyond

by on 11 February 2019

A couple months ago, after Minnesota United announced their roster cuts, I surveyed the wreckage of two years of a “soft open” approach to team building. The team’s roster had massive holes, especially in midfield and defense.

Although the club did not move as swiftly and confidently as I expected, they have made five big player acquisitions, all of whom will top the depth chart in their positions. The first-choice XI for the Loons will look dramatically different when the upcoming season kicks off in Vancouver, and unlike last season, the changes are all upgrades on paper.

In the past two seasons, United have been a team that could’ve made the playoffs with good managing and injury luck. They have had neither. Now, with the team’s offseason investment, this is a playoff roster on paper, and with some tolerance for injuries and international absences.

But where fans ought to be more concerned is how the team is positioned for the years to come. The youngest of these five major offseason signings will be 29 in March. Meanwhile, the team’s most promising young players, from Dayne St. Clair to Mason Toye, appear unlikely to get the starting minutes that could aid in their development. In this respect, the team’s affiliation agreement with Forward Madison could be their most important offseason move.

With the season fast approaching and the last of the Loons’ obvious holes now seemingly filled, let’s take a second look at the team’s roster. Unlike last time, when I numbered the options at each position, this time I’ve divided the team’s options into four categories; starters, subs, projects, and emergency options. New additions are in bold.

The Tip Of The Spear

Striker:
Starter: Ángelo Rodríguez
Substitute: Abu Danladi
Project: Mason Toye
Emergency: R. Ibarra, Quintero

There may be no position on the Minnesota roster with more options and also more questions. At least five players have previous experience at this position, but none are proven. Burly Colombian DP Ángelo Rodríguez will likely start the season in this role, but he has looked far off the pace in preseason and has yet to score in 150 minutes against three teams. After his fraught experience with the team last season, which correlated with the team’s most unproductive and least exciting attacking play, Rodríguez has a lot to prove to fans and the club’s front office.

Waiting in the wings should be Abu Danladi, but the Ghanian striker has spent as much time injured in his two years with the Loons as he has spent on the field. A promising debut season was undermined by a huge step backward in his sophomore year. The team sent him to Barcelona in the offseason to see a specialist, but his complete absence from preseason training suggests that his medical issues may not have been resolved.

That leaves 20 year-old Mason Toye, who impressed the club with his offseason regimen, and has looked intriguing in preseason flashes. It will be fascinating to see if the young American is rewarded for his hard work by getting a chance to compete for the starting spot in the upcoming preseason matches, but his likely destination is Madison. In a pinch, the team can also call upon Romario Ibarra, who was prolific in some very limited action as a striker last season. It’s been disappointing to not see him get a look up top in preseason. Darwin Quintero playing as a central free role with nobody in front of him is probably a last resort option.

Second Striker/Free Attacker:
Starter: Darwin Quintero
Substitute: Kevin Molino
Project:
Emergency: M. Ibarra

In his one-and-a-half seasons in Orlando, Adrian Heath had Kaká’s name written in permanent marker at the #10 position. But in his two years with Minnesota, Heath has instead eschewed a classical #10 and deployed Kevin Molino, then Darwin Quintero a little higher up as a second striker. Quintero is the team’s attacking heart, but his production faded late in the season, and the club sometimes seems too reliant on his ability. Skilled on the ball in space, he is not quite as brilliant with the ball in tight quarters, and the Loons will need to find a way to open channels for the best player, instead of standing around waiting for him to create via distribution or dribbling. That’s not the role of this position, and it’s not what Quintero is best at.

When he returns from injury, Kevin Molino will surely re-enter the line-up discussion. A talented but frustrating attacker, the Trinidadian is similarly limited in his passing vision and ability to take players on. But he is aggressive, sometimes surprisingly quick, strikes the ball well, and has a good knack for finding space if given a free enough role. It remains to be seen how well he has recovered from his horrible injury last season, but if the signs are good, it’ll be interesting to see one of these two players pushed to the wing to accommodate a line-up where both start.

Wings:
Starter: Miguel Ibarra and… Schüller?
Substitutes: Romario Ibarra, Ethan Finlay
Project:
Emergency: Quintero, Molino, Danladi

It’s long been a joke, but the Loons have a lot of wingers. That’s a good problem to have for Heath, who has his most tactical flexibility in this area. Perhaps as a result, he has opted to spend the preseason so far deploying Miguel Ibarra and Rasmus Schüller in the wide areas. The former is no surprise. After an opening season in which the coaching staff didn’t appear to understand him, the man they call Batman was the team’s secret weapon in 2017, scoring seven goals and supplying eight assists. Hard working, quick, smart on the ball, and tactically flexible, Ibarra is not a pure creator or goal scorer. Instead, he acts as a force multiplier all over the field, creating numbers advantages where they would not otherwise exist. His best position is “somewhere on the field.”

However the choice of Schüller to man the opposite wing is surprising. A central midfielder by training, the Finn does not play in the wide position like a winger. Against Houston in preseason, he played almost centrally, essentially ceding the entire left side of the field to his left back, while instead supporting the players in the middle of the field. It’s an interesting tactical choice that the team flirted with last year, and appears dedicated to making A Thing.

There are a lot more traditional options if the Schüller experiment doesn’t work. Romario Ibarra seems to struggle with fitness but never be injured. Only 24, he should be favored to make the left wing position his own long-term. The Ecuadorian has looked isolated while playing with the reserves in preseason, putting the responsibilities of creating chances all on his own shoulders and not exactly succeeding. It would be good to see him with the first team.

Likely a little later on in the season the club will regain the services of Ethan Finlay coming back from his ACL tear. Fast and direct, the Loons may find themselves in need of his skillset if the team takes their preseason trend of not scoring into the season itself. Kevin Molino is also a wide option, and Darwin Quintero and Abu Danladi can be played there as well.

The Engine Room

Central Midfield:
Starter: Ján Greguš
Substitutes: Rasmus Schüller, Collin Martin
Project:
Emergency:

Minnesota have not lacked for central midfielders in their two years in MLS, but they have lacked for a good central midfield. Gone were the days of Aaron Pitchkolan and Juliano Vicentini. Players like Ibson and Schüller, despite their clear talent, did not make a good partnership. To remedy the issue, the team has invested heavily in this area with the signing of Ján Greguš. The Slovak is billed as a bit of a combination of Pitchkolan and Vicentini—the build and tenacity of the former with the long passing ability of the latter. He’s also got a great shot from distance. The Loons need him to play to his reputation.

If he doesn’t, Schüller and Collin Martin are reserve options. But the Loons where the Loons once had a lot of unconvincing options in this area, now they have a marquee player and not a lot of depth behind him. Trialist Drew Conner, who last played with the Chicago Fire, looked good in preseason and should be a cost-effective, domestic depth signing. I’d be very surprised if the team doesn’t make him an offer.

Defensive Midfield:
Starter: Ozzie Alonso
Substitute: Sam Cronin (Injured???)
Project:
Emergency: Schüller, Martin

The situation in defensive midfield is quite similar to how it is in central midfield. United went out in the offseason and made a big signing. But behind that big signing, there are extremely limited options.

What a big signing it was though. Longtime Seattle stalwart Ozzie Alonso may be thirty-four years-old but the Cuban has been one of the league’s elite defensive midfielders for years, and looked to still be in good form last season. Minnesota absolutely need him to stay healthy this year, and playing on grass every weekend might help out. If he’s healthy, Minnesota are a playoff team.

If he’s not healthy… then who? Sam Cronin is listed on the official roster, but hasn’t been seen or heard from in a year. Currently the team’s Plan B would be to play one of the central midfielders in a more conservative position. We’ve seen that before.

One option might be trialist Tah Brian Anunga. The Cameroonian is just twenty-two, has a green card, made the USL Best XI last year, and was the Charleson Battery’s team MVP (Alonso first played for the Battery before joining MLS). I thought he was impressive against Phoenix, but poor against Houston. Maybe he’s the answer and maybe he’s not, but the Loons could use an understudy for Alonso in this position and someone who might also develop into a long-term answer at this position.

At The Back

Centerback:
Starters: Ike Opara, Brent Kallman
Substitutes: Michael Boxall,
Projects: Wyatt Omsberg
Emergency: Calvo, Eric Miller

The Loons’ centerbacks have been much maligned since the days of Vadim Demidov. They haven’t been entirely the reason for the team’s abysmal defensive record, but let’s just say that they haven’t helped either. That’s why it’s so interesting that the team has not made too many changes in this area. Francisco Calvo and Brent Kallman have been with the team since the beginning and Michael Boxall has now been with the team for a year and a half. Last year, the team’s woes forced a move for Calvo to a fullback spot, but the team’s defensive record really did not improve—for all of his mistakes, he also took gambles that frequently paid off.

That all being said, the team has made one important move in central defense, paying a hefty fee to acquire Ike Opara from Sporting Kansas City. The 2017 MLS Defender of the Year has looked the part so far in preseason, and if he stays healthy, it’s hard to see Minnesota conceding so frequently. Good in the air, in space, and in marking, Opara is a stopper that his centerback and fullback partners can implicitly trust.

But who plays with Opara? In preseason so far, it’s been Brent Kallman, due in large part to a knock that Michael Boxall took. Given that last season, Heath kept the same defensive pairing throughout preseason and into the season, Kallman is probably a slight favorite to start. But Heath has also shown a pretty clear preference for Boxall in the time he’s been with the team. We’ll see who is called upon in the friendlies in Orlando.

More important to the team’s long-term success is the development of Wyatt Omsberg. The twenty-three year-old Mainer was one of my hobby horses last season, he has all the athletic ability, he just needs game time. He’s gotten some favorable press from the coaching staff early in the preseason for his communication and budding leadership. I hope that translates to him getting on the field regularly.

Fullback:
Starters: Romain Métanire (Right), Francisco Calvo (Left)
Substitutes: Eric Miller (Either)
Projects: Carter Manley (Right), Chase Gasper (Left), Hassani Dotson (Right?)
Emergency: Michael Boxall (Right), 3-5-2

While a lot of attention has been paid to the centerbacks, Minnesota’s fullbacks have had more than their share of culpability in the team’s poor defensive record. It’s clear that Adrian Heath wants fullbacks who can attack, but his preferences have been thwarted in past years because the team simply has not been able to avoid shipping goals from wide areas.

Romain Métanire is the man who has been entrusted with finding part of that balance. The Malagasay right-back is joining the team from Ligue 1, which is mid-season, and he will surely slot directly into the starters.

His opposite number will probably be Francisco Calvo. The Costa Rican started last year as a center-back in a back four, became a centerback in a back three, and ended it as the left back. He’s good with the ball, aggressive in positioning, and just was not mistake-free enough to be one of the team’s last lines of defense. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Calvo appear at centerback at some point this year, whether in a three or a four, but with the Loons his position seems to be out wide.

Behind the two internationals, the team will look towards a trio of Americans, including two recent draft picks. Those would be Carter Manley and Chase Gasper, who have gotten a lot of action in preseason so far and looked fairly solid. I’d expect both to spend some time in Madison, but also make their MLS debuts, with the starters likely to take some of the summer for international duty. Draftee Hassani Dotson might also figure in somewhere, but he’s further back on the depth chart.

Then there’s Eric Miller, who re-signed with the team last week. It was a necessary move, the team needs the Minnesota native’s flexibility across the entire back-four. If everything goes perfectly for the team, Miller might not see the field much. But uh… not everything is going to go perfectly, and Miller will be the team’s essential Mr. Fix-It.

Between The Pipes

Goalkeeper:
Starter: Vito Mannone
Substitute: Bobby Shuttleworth
Prospect: Dayne St. Clair
Emergency: MLS Emergency GK Reserve

The last of Minnesota’s positional gaps to be filled, the Loons have done well in the past couple weeks. Their latest move was to sign a new #1, Vito Mannone, formerly of Arsenal, Sunderland, and a few other English clubs. He’s good, battle tested, and only thirty.

The Loons have had two different season starters, but both years they were supplanted by Bobby Shuttleworth. The MLS veteran is a really good shot stopper, and he was all-around superb at the beginning of the last season. But he really struggled in the second half of the year. He’s a strong back-up regardless.

Then there’s draftee Dayne St. Clair, the first goalkeeper picked up in the draft and the consensus highest upside goalkeeper available. Goalkeeper coach John Pascarellarecently described him as a really good college goalkeeper who had room to grow before MLS minutes. Minnesota need to find him pro minutes elsewhere though, whether at Madison or somewhere else. The team’s plan in the next couple years (don’t say it!) should end with DSC between the pipes.

***

Minnesota’s prospective starting XI looks fairly strong to me. Of course, some of the team’s big signings might disappoint (Greguš and Métanire are unproven in MLS) or get injured (Alonso and Opara have serious injury histories). But the team does have most of last year’s starters as depth behind the new guys. It’s clear they have upgraded. They should make the playoffs, and the goal should be at least one home playoff game.

But as the team strives for success this season, they must also be laying a groundwork for success in the future. The youngest player in their projected starting XI will be twenty-six year-old Francisco Calvo. The team needs to get minutes to the next generation of Loons, even as the pressure is on to win now.

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