Are the Loons good?
Here’s what we know so far, through two games on the road: they’re not bad. With Saturday night’s 3-0 thumping of the San Jose Earthquakes on the heels of last weekend’s win in Vancouver, the Loons have already surpassed last season’s entire win and point total on the road. They also won their first ever game in California, and their first ever game against San Jose. That’s a lot of monkeys being shrugged off for just two games. To quote Ike Opara, who comes from a team that didn’t have these issues, “I’m learning all these new facts every game.”
If you’re not contending for the Wooden Spoon in MLS, you’re probably contending for a playoff spot. The last two seasons have seen Minnesota on the periphery of the playoff chase until the final month. But they have never been convincing contenders, in large part because of their inability to get business done on the road and against bad teams. Last season, United lost all four games against the Quakes and the Colorado Rapids, two of the three worst teams in the entire league. It was impossible to take the team’s chances of postseason play seriously with those dropped points. But in this young 2019 season, the Loons have aced two early tests. We’ve yet to see if they are a team that can go toe-to-toe with the league’s elite. But they no longer look like a team that will fumble away gimmies against the league’s bottom feeders.
What’s changed? It’s hard to argue with head coach Adrian Heath when he lays it out so plainly. The team simply has better players. I wrote last week about how the team’s five major offseason acquisitions impressed in the opener, and it was the case again this past weekend. Minnesota have a roster that, on paper, is a playoff team. That’s the bare minimum. The goal for this group must be a home playoff seeding.
Can they make it? There was some talk on Twitter about Heath’s comments that I thought was instructive. Like Bobby Warshaw, I think they are many things at once. The comments were certainly accurate. Minnesota have a roster that can automatically compete. The comments were also disrespectful to players who fought hard for the club in the previous two years. They don’t deserve to be publicly dragged like this. Most importantly, the comments were arrogant because they abrogated Heath’s own culpability for that roster construction and the way that roster was used. That cuts to the big question that is hovering over this club and Heath’s head this season.
It’s no surprise that teams with better players will do better. That would be the case whether the manager were Pep Guardiola or my upstairs neighbor. But the manager is Adrian Heath, and he must justify his work, not just fulminate about the pieces he had been given. Everyone understood the roster was poor in the previous years. But relative to that, you can still make a strong argument that the team underperformed. Relative to that, the team was not organized. Relative to that, the wrong players were still selected to the wrong roles.
Early games have confirmed that the club has the roster quality that they thought they had. Now the big question is, do they have the coaching that can make them better than the sum of their talented parts?
We can’t answer that question this early, but look, there’s reason to believe both that Adrian Heath bungled his first two years, and also that he might be a good man for the job in this year! When he managed Orlando City in USL, he had one of the league’s best rosters, and they were entertaining and successful under his direction. The past two years in Minnesota may have been underwhelming, but this is a coach who also has some history of beating expectations. What might matter most is the kind of team he has.
In a Twitter exchange about Frank de Boer’s early difficulties in Atlanta, Kim McCauley singled out Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer and DC’s Ben Olsen as managers who seem to be able to get the most out of talented line-ups. As she wrote, it’s a skill, just as much as getting the most out of talentless line-ups. But it’s a different skill. You’d never give Tony Pulis to keys to a top European side. You might not give Zinedine Zidane the keys to a club in a relegation battle. It’s a well-taken point about managing styles, and I think there’s some reason to believe for Minnesota fans that this is the type of team with which Adrian Heath can really add value.
5. Yikes! San Jose! No bueno! I wrote on Twitter that San Jose might be knocking on the door of history and not in a good way. These are the defending Wooden Spoon holders, who have returned most of that awful roster. Their hopes for a revival rest in the hire of head coach Matías Almeyda. He is a dogmatic manager who wants to play a unique, physically demanding style. At best, the Quakes are going to take a while to get comfortable with the system, and they are going to hemorrhage a lot of points until they do. At worst, they simply aren’t able to play it, and will be dreadful all season. They may need summer reinforcements, but the San Jose front office does not have a good track record in that area. Meanwhile, Almeyda will surely be receiving constant attention from Mexican teams looking to lure him back. If he feels like he isn’t being properly supported by the front office, he might just opt to leave.
Here’s the problem with San Jose’s man-marking scheme: When you are slower than the opposition, it quickly becomes a no-marking scheme. #SJvMIN
— FiftyFiveOne (@FiftyFiveOne) March 10, 2019
The Quakes next play against the New York Red Bulls, then Los Angeles, then Portland, Houston, Sporting KC, Seattle, and Dallas. Finally on May 4th, they play at home to Cincinnati. Almeyda’s men could quite realistically lose their first nine games of the year and the wheels could come off very, very quickly.
4. Minnesota’s formation continues to evolve. Against Vancouver the week before, the Loons played a 4-2-3-1 with Rasmus Schüller playing as what you might call a “false 11,” and his opposite number Miguel Ibarra playing more as a true winger. But against San Jose, the look was different.
— Alex Schieferdecker (@alexschief) March 10, 2019
Both Schüller and Ibarra played central, taking up the space ahead of Ozzie Alonso and Ján Greguš, who once again were very conservative, and behind Romario Ibarra (whose movement was superb) and Darwin Quintero. Meanwhile, Francisco Calvo and Romain Métanire surged up and down the flanks and pretty much only the flanks.
In a significant respect, it was a return to my much-beloved 4-2-2-2 that the Loons played once they got their act together in the 2017 season. The team packed the center of the field, created constantly with positionally-fluid attackers empowered to create number overloads all over the park, and allowed a lot of freedom to both their fullbacks (and San Jose’s wide players) on the wings. It was fun to watch, the partnership between the Badger and the Goose is strong, and it will be fascinating to see how the Loons continue to evolve tactically as the season progresses.
As an addendum to my discussion of coaching at the start of this article, I think that one thing that Adrian Heath seems to do well is to let his talented attackers play the way that makes sense to him. That obviously works with Darwin Quintero, but a big sub-plot over these two plus years has been the manager’s slow-but-steady appreciation of Miguel Ibarra’s gifts. With the front four of this 4-2-2-2, the Loons allow Quintero and Ibarra to move with a lot of freedom, and ask Romario and Rasmus to provide the counterbalance.
3. I’m a little worried about Michael Boxall. Almost every Loon had a good game against the Quakes, but while Boxall wasn’t bad, he stood out for his shakiness next to Ike Opara. The big Kiwi nearly scored an own goal in the first half as he challenged Chris Wondolowski, but was saved by the post. In the game’s dying seconds, he again nearly gifted the Quakes’ captain a goal, slipping on the slick turf and fluffing a clearance. Of course, he was also the primary culprit on Vancouver’s second goal the week before.
The Quakes actually planned to take advantage of Boxall specifically, recognizing that the slower feet of the Minnesota defender could be exploited by low crosses. They came close to succeeding.
The Loons are winning, and they kept a clean sheet, so it’s certainly not time to #PANIC and break up the Mike and Ike combo. But there’s room for improvement. Minnesota’s next opponents are LA, who aren’t particularly a low-crossing team, and that should play into United’s aerial defensive strengths. But New England and New York, the two opponents afterwords, will be a particular challenge to Boxall and the rest of the Loons defense in this area.
2. Order up a round of finishing drills this week in training. The Loons had four tremendous chances to score in the first half. Romario struck the ball straight into Quakes keeper Daniel Vega. Then he did it again, and on the rebound, Quintero couldn’t get it much further from the man in net. Moments later, Calvo shot straight at Vega’s planted leg. Finally, Greguš hit a shot wide, after sprinting half of the field to make a late run into the box. The only good shots of the match came from Quintero’s penalty and via Miguel Ibarra on the counterattack. For everyone else, especially Greguš, who ballooned a few shots into Alexi Gómez territory in the second half, it’s time to do some drills and hit those balls low and into the corners next week.
1. Miscellaneous Notes. I thought the most impressive people on San Jose’s side of the ledger were their supporters, who threw a party for the whole match, even while their team was awful. Their stadium isn’t well designed and seems to have not really considered building a good home for supporters groups, but they made the best of it… …This is an absolutely fantastic chant for Vito Mannone, to the tune of “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin. Learn it. Practice it… … Speaking of songs, here’s my entry for Romain Métanire to the tune of “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. I read a comment recently from someone who thought supporters songs were getting repetitive, and to that I say, resist the urge to cosplay as an Arsenal casual and learn and organize something special.
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