Welcome back to our regularly scheduled post-game notes. Three games in one this week, because I was on vacation last weekend, and after the midweek match, it seemed prudent to let these results percolate and see what came of this past weekend.
What a series of three games it was. From one perspective, the Loons were wildly inconsistent. They lost, then drew, then won. They conceded a horrific four goals to start, briefly on pace to allow a new club record, then turned in two successive shutouts right afterwards.
But from another perspective, these three games showed a kind of consistent good performance, in the run of play, that the team hadn’t had since their second weekend in San Jose. To put it simply, the club began the year with two dominating performances (winning both), followed up with four absolute clunkers (winning once, drawing once, and losing two), and is now on a streak of three straight matches in which they spent the majority of the match as the better team (as mentioned above, a win, draw, and a loss). Results are finicky, but if you go out every week and play better soccer, in the aggregate things will go in your favor.
The irony in that respect is that I was perhaps most impressed with how the Loons played in their loss to Toronto. That’s not an easy place to go and impose yourself, but Minnesota did just that. They also managed to utterly fall apart by the end of the game, and made a series of mental mistakes so bad that the culprits, (Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo, previously seemingly undroppable) fell swiftly out of favor. The match against the Galaxy at home was another strong performance, although the team created fewer scoring changes and converted none of them, they easily handled a dangerous LA side. Finally, against DC, the Loons played the poorest game of the stretch, but the visitors were equally exhausted. Minnesota grew into the game and got a break, and for the first time in several weeks, held onto a late lead.
Three games, three different results, three improved team performances, four points, and at last a Wonderwall.
5. Attacking formation is still a difficult thing to define for the Loons. Minnesota played with different ideas going forward in each of the three games.
Starting from the most recent outing, I thought the third was the worst. Darwin Quintero is best underneath the striker. Against DC, that’s clearly where he wanted to play, while at the same time he was nominally a winger in a 4-3-3. He didn’t really commit to either role, and the game changed when he left the field for Miguel Ibarra, who played essentially as a positionless force multiplier (his best role), but was far more willing to go into wide areas. Then there was Abu Danladi, who was supposedly a right winger, but in practice played more as a slightly wider forward than Rodriguez. I’m not sure I understood the intention, but the more Danladi started wide (facilitated by Ibarra) the better he became.
That was also the case against LA, where the Loons played a traditional 4-2-3-1 with Danladi starting opposite Kevin Molino. The Ghanaian and the Trinidadian are players who always have the ability and the desire to make something happen on their own. That leads to lots of turnovers, but it also leads to chances. On the wings, both had ample space to operate, and they poured on the pressure. The team was really unlucky not to score in that match, but they ought to have felt good about the way they attacked.
But the best attacking performance came in Toronto, where they scored three goals and looked constantly dangerous. That match featured a return for Rasmus Schüller to the left attacking midfield role where he started the season. I know some fans are sick of this, but I think it’s a useful club in the team’s bag, and that Saturday demonstrated why. The Finn was tidy and unselfish in possession. He knows he is not the star attacker, but he is smart about recovering balls and making dangerous late runs. His opposite was Ethan Finlay, who plays with the sideline chalk on his boots and loves to make straight-line runs and crosses. Those two operate in completely different but complimentary ways, and it was effective for Minnesota. Then, later on, both were replaced by the Danladi-Molino combination, which offered a totally different look and put Toronto off-balance.
Minnesota simply have a wealth of attacking options. They can offer the opponent a number of different looks from both wings, up top, and in the hole. The entire attacking corps is healthy and hungry to make an impact. There are some formations that will work better than others, but the pieces are all there. Even as Quintero has struggled a bit to start the year, the team around him is so skilled that there has not been a clear drop off.
4. Ángelo Rodríguez has been fantastic in these three games. I didn’t see it coming, but the Colombian has been one of the team’s best players of late. He hasn’t magically overcome any of his liabilities, he’s still slow, he’s still not as good in the air as you would hope, his finishing is still suspect. But he’s made a big impact without scoring goals by positioning himself smarter and playing to his strengths.
For three successive weeks, I complained about Rodriguez’s hold-up play. I saw him dropping too deep and taking too long to distribute the ball. This often resulted in turnovers, because he’s not a brilliant passer. But if he made the right pass, it wasn’t much more useful, because he could not get into position to finish attacks before the opposing team made it back to defend.
First against New York Red Bulls, then against New York City, we got a better sense of the area in which the big man can thrive. When Rodriguez receives the ball in or around the box, defenders can no longer manhandle him without conceding a penalty or dangerous free kick, and that allows the big man to use his size without being challenged. In these positions, he also only needs to make short passes or layoffs, which he has a good sense for. Finally, although obviously not a track star, he turns on the ball well, and his big body is a huge asset in that regard.
He has three goals through nine game this year if you don’t count the goal against DC which, come on, he didn’t touch. But he’s also making a big impact regardless of whether he scores, as that goal against DC proved, because it does not happen without his near post run to freeze Bill Hamid in goal.
With a deep pool of attackers around him, Rodriguez does not need to be the team’s go-to goalscorer. He needs to use his gravity to manipulate space, tire out defenders, and cause chaos on the box. The more he gets into the box and the less he tries to play distributor or even midfield backboard, the better Minnesota will be. He seems to have figured this out now.
3. Francisco Calvo’s position is suddenly and surprisingly in big jeopardy. Last Saturday’s defeat to Toronto was not necessarily Calvo’s worst performance for the Loons. He has certainly had games where he was more directly culpable for goals (the match before against NYC, for instance), and goals where he has acted rashly and not like a captain. But somehow the match at Exposition Park has precipitated a remarkable fall from grace for the Costa Rican. He served his suspension on Wednesday, and then on Sunday he wasn’t even in the eighteen.
This omission was made possible by the play of Eric Miller in his place. The Minnesota native is in many ways an anti-Calvo. Defensive-minded, positionally-dutiful, and risk-adverse. He got beat a couple times against the Galaxy, but what was striking was that he got beat on the endline where the attacker’s options were more limited, and not near the corner of the box, where the attacker was more of a threat. Moreover, as the game wound on, he stopped getting beat like that, and the entire LA attack dried up like the California backcountry.
The success of Miller is a really good thing for the Loons, who had watched teams repeatedly exploit the left side of their defense week after week. It’s also good to see a player of Calvo’s stature finally held accountable. I spent all of the past two years complaining about the inability of key players like Calvo to play themselves out of the line-up. That has never been to say that they are bad players, that is to say that when you make a mistake or aren’t picking up your slack, someone else should get a change to take your spot. I’m trilled to finally see the coaching staff practicing the accountability that they have often preached.
At the same time, let’s not let ourselves forget that Francisco Calvo truly is one of the most talented players on the Minnesota roster. It is a problem for the team that he has not been able to nail down a position on the field. Early returns were promising for him at left-back, but after the first couple games he started to drift out of the attack, and too often found himself chasing the ball in defense. The proof is in how other teams have repeatedly targeted him in the attack. Maybe Eric Miller starts the whole rest of the season and Calvo is relegated to a bench role. The early evidence suggests that would make the team’s defense better. I just don’t know what’s in the cards. But this is a player the team has invested a lot in, and not for no reason.
2. Sometimes, it does seem to come down to “wanting it more.” There are few clichés that are worse in sports than the idea that one team won because they “wanted it more.” But reader, how else could you explain the fourth Toronto goal, in which Jordan Hamilton somehow beat Michael Boxall to a ball that was bouncing towards his own net, directly in front of him. The Minnesota player, for whatever reason, didn’t have the focus or sense of emergency that the situation required, and he ended up having to apologize for one of the worst mistakes of the season. What can you conclude other than Hamilton wanted it more?
I’m happy to see Brent Kallman back as a starter because I think he’s better in the air than Boxall. But I also think he’s simply a better, more instinctual, emergency defender. Is that a matter of “wanting it more”? I dunno. But two clean sheets at home with the Minnesota brothers-in-law Kallman and Miller at the back had me thinking of Antaeus, the Greek hero who was unbeatable as long as he stood on his mother soil.
‘Wanting it more” is one of the big home field advantages. Against LA and DC, the Loons had a mighty crowd at their back, and they dominated the late stages of both matches. Although they scored just once, they had a tremendous number of opportunities, and they stymied their opponents, who only included two of the most decorated players in the recent history of the sport. It looked like the Loons were playing 12 on 11.
1. Miscellaneous Notes. Romain Métanire had just one bad half in the three games, and it was the first against DC. He roared back in the second and was incredibly influential, not to mention scoring a goal. Opposing teams don’t attack his side, and the Loons offense flows from it. To think that the Malagasy international was the least heralded of the team’s summer signings. He should be a shoe-in for the all-star game, and in the running for defender of the year. The Loons will miss him when he departs for Afcon… …Hopefully when that happens, Carter Manley is ready to step up. The fullback played the whole match for Forward 29Madison in their snowy home opener, which ended 0-0. I’m not sure you can read too much into a result in such weird conditions, but you won’t say no to a clean sheet. Mason Toye also played, but the Mingos were offensively challenged for much of the match, and Toye had few opportunities to truly be a striker… …Vito Mannone has been very good for the Loons recently, although I thought he maybe got bailed out a bit on the VAR goal reversal against DC. There’s no doubt that he was being held back, but I doubt he gets to the ball regardless… …To borrow a term from baseball, Hassani Dotson is being used as a high leverage reliever. While the draftee hasn’t started, he has frequently been used late in important situations to ice a lead. He’s getting these responsibilities over the veteran Lawrence Olum, which is really quite impressive. When Ozzie Alonso is eventually suspended for yellow card accumulation, we might see Dotson get his first start… …Minnesota sit in sixth place on the table. LA, LA Galaxy, Seattle, Dallas, and Houston sit above them. Salt Lake and Sporting KC are the best teams below them. You have to feel good about the Loons making the playoffs. They look far better than RSL. Even if Sporting shakes off their CCL hangover and climbs the table, it would take a big turnaround from Portland (not impossible) and continued strong play from the teams above, some of whom have well-documented issues with consistency. Loons are in a fine position, although they need to continue winning at home. An injury and suspension-riddled Seattle club is next.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Angelo Rodriguez, Brent Kallman, Carter Manley, Darwin Quintero, DC United, Eric Miller, Ethan Finlay, Forward Madison, Francisco Calvo, Hassani Dotson, Kevin Molino, LA Galaxy, Mason Toye, Michael Boxall, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United, Romario Ibarra, Toronto FC