Are the Loons good?
Yes, I know it’s only week one. Yes, I know Vancouver are a team who are so thoroughly rebuilding that they more resemble an expansion side than this year’s actual expansion side. But on a Saturday afternoon in the Rain City, Minnesota United did something I haven’t seen in over three years. They exceeded expectations.
This has a team that has won plenty of games before and they’ve occasionally routed their opponents thanks to great days of individual play. But not since their penultimate season in the NASL have the Loons looked like a real team, especially from the midfield on back, for ninety minutes. The season has just begun, and already Adrian Heath and his men have shown more promise than they did in last year in week three at home against Chicago. That previous outing proved to be the season’s high point, but this year things feel different.
Five big reasons why things feel different are the club’s five big offseason recruits, all of whom started, all of whom finished the game, and all of whom impressed. The team’s new spine was as advertised, which is something we have not come to expect from United. Pair that with an attack that still has the raw talent we glimpsed last season, and there’s a lot of reason for optimism.
Again, yeah, week one. They still turned off on set pieces. But the Loons have already equaled their away win total of all of last season (which admittedly they did in week two of last year) and that feels worthy of hope and celebration. There’s a lot more MLS to come, a brand new home, an actual way to get young players minutes, and more. It will not all be joyous evenings like Saturday’s, but ninety minutes in, and Minnesota fans should be feeling better than they have in years.
5. The importance of these three points is hard to overstate. The biggest change in MLS this season is the revised playoff format. Gone are the two-legged home and away series. Instead, the higher seed will host a single elimination match. Now, I actually liked the two-legged system, which gave us unforgettable classics like the 2016 Toronto-Montreal series, and allowed both teams a chance to host and share in the postseason magic. But it also took a long time, and didn’t really reward season success. I think I’ll enjoy the new system as well.
One of the most important things about the rebooted playoff format is that regular season seeding now matters far more. Hopefully, that will add more emphasis to every match of the regular season. For a team like Minnesota, who expect to compete for the playoffs, but not the top seed, that ultimate position will be really important. The fat part of the Loons’ likely placement curve probably stretches from fifth to ninth, and those are some extremely different outcomes! When you’re on the bubble, locking down every available point from week one is mandatory.
It’s even more crucial when you face an opponent like Vancouver, who might ultimately be right there on the bubble with you. The Caps are rebuilding, but United fans know that Marc dos Santos is a coach who will build teams that are cohesive and competitive. It’s completely plausible that we will look back on this match as a six-pointer.
As I wrote before the match, the Loons play an opening stretch of away matches against extremely beatable opponents. They have three points down already. If they can head into the home opener with seven to nine points from this stretch (seven was my guess in the Dunord sweepstakes), they ought to feel extremely positive about what it means for their playoff chances, even less than a month into the season. Playoff teams should win games like this one on the road, and Minnesota passed that test.
4. Minnesota might have the best fullback duo in the league. Emphasis on “might,” but my goodness were Francisco Calvo and Romain Métanire impressive. Both United fullbacks pushed extremely high, where Adrian Heath has wanted his fullbacks to play for two years and where Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas used to play in the NASL days. They got away with it because the Caps were not great, because the Loons’ center was so much more solid than in years past, and also because they are really good.
Calvo, bless his heart, still prefers to play as a center-back, but he should never get a sniff of that position again with the Loons as long as two of Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Brent Kallman, and Wyatt Omsberg still draw breath. When Calvo plays as a fullback, there are two main advantages. First, he isn’t in as critical a defensive role, which means he can take the gambles that he enjoys and is legitimately good at without giving away a certain goal if he doesn’t succeed. You may remember that used to be a problem! The second advantage is that playing as a fullback allows Calvo to take some liberties with his position and enter the attack, which is another thing he seems to enjoy and is also good at. That’s how he scored twice against Columbus at the end of last year, and why he made a lung-busting run into the right center of the box as a leftback to score Minnesota’s second on Saturday. You can do things like that if you’re not a critically important central defender.
We knew most of that about Calvo already, but his counterpart on the right, Romain Métanire was an enigma. Since he had not joined the team during Minnesota’s streamed preseason in Arizona, this was the first time that most Loons fans had actually seen him play. The French-born, Malagasy international made an instant and positive first impression. That man can cross the ball. He can also defend. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s not shy about making runs. He had a clear chemistry with Miguel Ibarra. There was very little not to like. While Calvo stole the show on the scoresheet, Métanire provided the most consistent threat to the Whitecaps.
The two Minnesota fullbacks are going to have the space to make things happen this year, and they seem to have the talent to do it as well. This could be fun.
3. Vito Mannone was (almost) every bit as good as you’d expect. When you get a goalkeeper with the kind of past employers that Vito Mannone boasts, you expect him to be good. In MLS, just Tim Howard and Brad Guzan have a comparable CV. Although the ball twice found the back of his net, the new Minnesota netminder had a strong game. His sure-handling of loose balls in his box was striking for how rarely you see it in MLS. I’m actually not sure if I want Dayne St. Clair to go on loan anymore, Mannone’s class was so evident that I wonder if DSC might be better off staying in Minnesota and learning from someone who has played in leagues where a single missed punch or a fumbled cross is enough to lose a starting spot or see a transfer to a different team.
The play that impressed me the most was the one time when Métanire truly got beat on the right. A Vancouver player whipped in a hard, knee-high cross that could’ve deflected off of anybody. But Mannone dove and caught it before it could enter the six yard box and ping-pong around. That’s an intervention that few goalkeepers in MLS make.
The Italian also had two nice punches through traffic, the first of which was remarkable for how well it was taken. Most MLS goalkeepers make a habit of flailing about and crashing into people when they come to clear the ball, and never seem to decide to catch or punch until the last moment, but Mannone managed to cut through the crowd and get clean contact while looking like he meant it.
I had only one beef with the goalkeeping, and that comes on the first goal. How did Vancouver’s Godoy get so open? I think that Greguš and Calvo both saw the trajectory of the kick and stopped marking because they figured it was easily Mannone’s territory to catch. But he had instead hesitated—his one moment of indecision all night—and the ball dropped kindly for the opposition instead. A lot of blame certainly belongs to the marks for not following through, but I don’t think their instinct was entirely wrong. If he could do it over, I bet Mannone finds a way to catch that set piece.
He was otherwise not really tested with a difficult save, and he’ll surely do something more seriously wrong eventually, nobody is perfect, but I felt in safe hands all night thanks to the birthday boy. The Loons finally have a #1.
2. The attack is reliant on individual brilliance, the tactics are a work in progress. The Loons scored three goals, took fifteen shots, and put four of them on target. They had a decent attacking night. But only one of the goals was anything worth remembering.The others were lucky, but lucky in a way that Minnesota could take some credit for. They put the Caps into a lot of uncomfortable positions, and out of that pressure, two bounces went their way.
It can sometimes take a while for the attacking end of the field to find a rhythm, and so it wasn’t a poor night. But of all of the parts of the team, it was the one that was the most disjointed for United.
One part of the issue was probably due to Rasmus Schüller’s unorthodox deployment on the left, in a part central midfielder, part inverted winger role. It asks a lot of a player. The Finn was active defensively and helped the midfield pair of Ozzie Alonso and Ján Greguš retain possession. At the same time, he offered little in the attack when compared with Miguel Ibarra on the side opposite. The Loons functioned almost like a lopsided 4-3-2-1, with the left attacking position vacant and open to whichever of Calvo, Schüller, or Romario Ibarra decided to enter it. It was weird, and it kinda worked because the midfield was very stable, and it kinda didn’t because the team was completely missing one entire half of the field as an attacking threat. Vancouver, who started a young centerback at the left fullback role, were perhaps uniquely vulnerable to an offense as lopsided as Minnesota’s. The Loons will ultimately need to figure out how to get more attacking options on the field, whether that means helping Schüller and Calvo offer more from the left, or replacing the central midfielder with a true winger.
Speaking of true wingers, the other issue that emerged was Romario Ibarra’s movement as the team’s lone striker. A lot of what he did was excellent—I’ve written repeatedly about how the team needs a forward who is willing to range all over the field and show up in unpredictable places in order to create space for Darwin Quintero. Romario did that, almost too well. He dropped back into the midfield more times than I would’ve liked, and never was really able to make the kind of darting diagonal run in behind that is the bread and butter of someone like Atlanta’s Josef Martinez. The Ecuadorian did score, although it looked like an own goal to me, and was certainly lively. But he never really had the kind of brilliant open chance that I want a starting striker to find.
Ángelo Rodríguez, who came on for the final ten minutes plus stoppage, actually had one, maybe two of those chances, and fluffed them both. In his time with Minnesota, we’ve seen that Rodriguez is a savvy operator who knows how to position himself to score. But we’ve also seen that he is not as deft at making the kinds of movements that allow others to score, and we’ve also seen that he is truly dreadful at finishing the great opportunities that he finds himself in. I don’t want to pour salt into a wound, but is there any doubt that a certain former Loons striker would’ve converted on at least one of those two last chances?
Minnesota’s opening match of the season did little to resolve the logjam of strikers that the team has. My hope is that Adrian Heath resists the urge to settle that tension, and instead allows Romario, Rodriguez, Mason Toye, and Abu Danladi all chances to state their case for the role. I think there’s some reason to believe in all four of those players. Hold a spirited competition for the top spot. Or, in other words…
1. Miscellaneous Notes. One big reason why Minnesota need more options at defensive midfield is because Ozzie Alonso is going to be suspended multiple times this season for yellow card accumulation. Is Hassani Dotson, who made a fairly surprising late debut on his first ever MLS opportunity, the answer? The staff is clearly very high on him, but I and many fans will need to see more before we settle down about this … …The Loons sent St. Clair, Omsberg, Carter Manley, and Collin Martin down to St. Louis to play a preseason match with Forward Madison against St. Louis FC. The latter three all played the whole game. The Flamingos play against the Billikens of St. Louis University on Tuesday, here’s hoping they get some minutes there as well before returning to the Loons… …The official MLS roster compliance day had a surprise for Minnesota fans. The team has signed 18 year-old Tanzanian defender Ally Ng’Anzi and immediately loaned him out to Madison for a full season. Who can say whether Ng’Anzi will ever suit up for United, but this type of move is exactly what the team should’ve done in leiu of signing Frantz Pangop and Bertrand Owundi Eko’o. Ng’Anzi is six years younger, and immediately is going out on loan, with no pretense of getting first team minutes right away. The club should absolutely be taking flyers like this on intriguing players they spot abroad… …Okay wait a minute, let’s talk a bit more about this Ng’Anzi transfer. Global soccer is weird. Before being on the books at Minnesota, Ng’Anzi was supposedly playing for MFK Vyškov, a third-division Czech team. MFK Vyškov appear to be something of a player laundering agency, kinda like the Cameroonian club Rainbow FC. A number of MFK Vyškov alums are now suddenly in the USL. One of them is Ng’Anzi’s new Forward Madison teammate Zaire Bartley, who also previously played for the NPSL New York Cosmos. I’m not saying Minnesota have secretly signed Bartley, they haven’t, but I’d expect the Loons to have their eye on the 20 year-old Jamaican attacker as well. With players like these and a number of Minnesota loanees and ex-Loons like Connor Tobin and J.C. Banks, Madison will be fun to watch this year for fans of United.
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