Saturday, May 11th, was the day that Minnesota United played the Chicago Fire out in Bridgeview, IL. It also happened to be the day before Mother’s Day and my grandmother’s birthday, and ended up missing that match.
It was a lucky escape. I haven’t watch the highlights yet, and I’m not sure I plan to. Given the parity of MLS, even the best teams can have a clunker now and again. But against a bad team, with all of the baggage of the Calvo trade, was an inopportune time for the Loons to misfire.
Thankfully, Saturday the 18th brought an opportunity to forget and forgive. Back at home, against a reeling Columbus Crew side, United had an excellent opportunity to pick up three points, and they delivered. The score was closer than it needed to be, but the balance of play was confident and inspiring. One week, the Loons looked to be fringe playoff contenders. The next, they looked like a solid playoff team with the potential to achieve even more. Which is it? Can they be both at the same time?
After the draw against Seattle, I wrote about how some results can only be understood later on, as the trend they are a part of reveals itself. Two weeks on, the picture is still foggy. The Loons must make Allianz Field a fortress. Beating teams like Seattle at home is what you’d hope for, but beating teams like Columbus is simply a prerequisite. You can’t make the playoffs if you can’t pummel poor teams at home.
After the draw against Seattle, I also warned about the tenuous playoff picture. The Loons now sit in fifth place through twelve games. But while seven points behind Minnesota, Portland have a game in hand, are improving week by week, and have yet to play at home, due to construction. Also seven points behind with a game in hand are Sporting KC, who have undergone an injury crisis, but who will be formidable if it abates. Then there’s San Jose, who are just four points behind the Loons and suddenly look like a good team. FC Dallas are just one point behind, and will be scarier as their young corps continues to get experience.
Minnesota will play a home-heavy slate of games this summer. Given the difficulties of their away-heavy end of the year, they must be comfortably in fourth or fifth place by the start of fall if they want to be somewhat assured of making the playoffs. The loss to Chicago was a big missed opportunity, but the win against the Crew should restore some faith that this team can still get important results. At 1.5 points per game, the team is on pace to end the year at a respectable 51.
4. Is the attack broken? The Loons were held scoreless in Chicago, which heightened anxieties about the team’s attack. In the previous three games, the Loons had scored just twice. Throughout the season the team has had difficulty scoring from open play, and had their offensive stats padded by a run of gifted penalty kicks. You can’t count on your opponent to make those mistakes every week, and recently they haven’t.
In this atmosphere, the 1-0 win over Columbus might be seen as either encouraging or as further reason to worry. The encouraging part was that the Loons created a lot of pressure and chances, and that all resulted in nineteen shots. The worrying part was that they missed almost all of their shots and failed to generate any truly golden opportunities. Their one goal came from a set piece routine.
The question is: is the lack of production a symptom of a larger problem, or is it the result of bad luck that will, in time, even out?
I’m not sure of the answer, but I did really like much of how the Loons attacked against the Crew. I was thrilled to see Darwin Quintero back in the XI and Kevin Molino out on the wing. I’ve previously written about the need for balance between different types of players in the attack. After the Chicago match, I summed up my theory in a tweet:
Pick two proteins: Quintero, Romario, Molino, Danladi
Pick two vegetables: Ibarra, Rodriguez, Finlay, Schüller
— Alex Schieferdecker (@alexschief) May 12, 2019
The former group of players, “the proteins,” are players who get on the ball and go direct towards goal. They are hungry to etch their name in the scoresheet, and they have the pace or ability on the ball to make it happen. The latter group, “the vegetables,” are players who get on the ball and generally go sideways or backwards, or towards the endline in order to put in a cross. You need both types of players! You cannot have everyone playing selfishly, nor can you have everyone deferring to each other.
On Saturday, the Minnesota attack featured Rodriguez and Finlay (vegetables), paired with Quintero and Molino (proteins), who repeatedly set the Columbus defense on their heels with aggressive dribbles through the center. I love Molino’s play when he is not the primary chance creator for the team. He tends to shadow the action, like a remora swimming under a shark, and he feeds on the loose balls and chaos that come when a player like Quintero challenges the defense. Molino has a funny way of moving when he gets the ball, where he seems to be frantically trying to keep control, the ball ping ponging off his feet and off defenders, and yet somehow always returning to him. On Saturday, both Quintero and Molino had far more success on the dribble than we usually see from both of them. Only the final pass was missing.
3. The Miguel Ibarra left back experiment… kinda worked? I’m not surprised that Miguel Ibarra could turn in a capable shift at left back. He’s played as a wingback in a 3-5-2 for Minnesota before, and practiced as a left back when he was with Club Leon. I’d put him anywhere on the pitch except goalkeeper and centerback and expect him to succeed. His best position is on the field.
But I thought the move worked in other respects. In Chicagoland, the Fire responded to right back Romain Métanire’s aggressive play by targeting the space behind him, something that no other team had yet attempted. Head Coach Adrian Heath responded to this by replacing the more defensive left back Eric Miller with Ibarra. If teams are going to target one of the flanks, the thinking went, the Loons are guaranteed to have an attacking threat on the other. This was the idea behind Francisco Calvo’s play at left back as well, but Ibarra played the role better on both sides of the ball. Teammates also seemed way more willing to pass to Ibarra’s runs, and further up on the left, Molino’s tendency to drift inside also gave more space for Ibarra to operate and provide width.
Just as the case for the attacking corps, the Loons were well-balanced at fullback on Saturday, and they seemed to benefit. We’ll have to keep an eye on how other teams adapt to this wrinkle, however.
2. The Loons play Hertha Berlin on Wednesday. The Loons have secured two friendlies against strong European competition this summer. Aston Villa (who are now in the promotion final) will come later on, but mid-table Bundesliga side Hertha will visit this week.
I won’t tell you how to spend your money, but one of my best soccer memories is of the Loons defeating Swansea City, late of the Premier League, at the NSC. That was one of Brent Kallman’s first games with the Loons. These games are great opportunities for younger and out-of-favor players to get minutes. I’m hopeful that we will see Dayne St. Clair, Carter Manley, Wyatt Omsberg, and Mason Toye get minutes.
1. Miscellaneous Notes. Jan Gregus was excellent against Columbus. Best game of the year from the tall midfielder… …Michael Boxall and Brent Kallman had a great game in defense. The Crew can’t score for beans, but it was nice to see a good performance from the big Kiwi… …Another great home atmosphere on Saturday. Allow me to second this endorsement of the new chant to “Shout” by Tears For Fears. Now what do I have to do to hear “That’s Mannone” to “That’s Amore”? Or “Métanire Tonight” to “In the Air Tonight”? Make it happen, people!… …How good are the Twins right now? As soon as the Loons game ended, the Twins started play against Seattle, and they absolutely destroyed them. The offense is superlative, the starting pitching has been solid, and the bullpen has conceded just one game where the team was leading after six innings. There’s something special here.
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Tags: #CHIvMIN, #MINvCLB, Angelo Rodriguez, Brent Kallman, Chicago, Columbus Crew, Darwin Quintero, Ethan Finaly, Fire, Jan Gregus, Kevin Molino, Michael Boxall, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United, Romain Metanire