I am running out of things to say about Minnesota United.
Part of that is due to summer doledrums. The team’s composition has been stable, there are no gaping holes in the roster, or egregious line-up decisions being made week after week. We’ve been living with this team for a few months now, and we have a good sense of who they are. The 2019 season is about half over, and Minnesota sit in sixth place in the west, on the good side of the playoff bubble.
But part of the story is not just about this year, but about the last one, and even the year before that. The team has gotten better players at every position. But the improvement on the field has not been commensurate with the improvement on the roster sheet. This is a team that has, for two and a half years, felt lesser than the sum of its parts.
The theme for the past two weeks has been ennui. The team lost in Atlanta, then lost against Philly, their first defeat at home. The most recent weekend, they were bested in a dreadful game of soccer in Colorado. Three losses in a row is never good, and it’s embarrassing that the Loons managed this ignominy in sixteen games while the Twins have yet to do it in sixty-four. The fanbase is understandably restless.
What’s funny is that you can make a pretty compelling case that this steak of losses is not as damming as it seems. Atlanta, the Loons were close until stoppage time, when they pushed high to get an equalizer (that some have argued they actually did score) and were exposed in the back. Against Philly, many neutral observers credited Loons as the better team. In Colorado, neither side played well, but a narrow, sloppy loss at altitude is sometimes to be expected. Two of the losses were on the road in tough places to play, and all three came against teams in really good runs of form.
Like I said, you can make a case.
But why would you want to? What is worth defending about Minnesota United, as currently constructed, that merits the benefit of the doubt? You don’t need to #PANIC to be deeply frustrated and unsettled about the state of this team. Simply put, it’s not good enough.
It was never good enough, but fans were somewhat mollified by the fabled “three year plan.” The team really did go out and spend this past offseason, and their investments have all seemed to be wise ones. Each of the five major signings the team made have paid off, plus some surprising contributions from their second round draft pick. The player acquisition department has done as many asked. The roster is much better.
But improvement has not come from the other side of the technical staff. This has been my worry for a while. In the first two years of MLS, the team’s coaching has struggled to organize a defense, recognize and deploy the talent at their disposal in the attack, and balance a midfield. In past years, they were able to hide behind the obvious deficiencies in the roster. That excuse no longer exists, and yet the exact same problems remain.
Last year, despite a season in which the team’s defense did not improve on the previous year despite shedding Vadim Demidov, the team’s offense did not improve on the previous year despite adding Darwin Quintero, and the team’s overall record was identical to the year before, the front office infamously gave the sporting side of the equation a “passing grade.” I’m sure Chris Wright wishes he had those words back, but they were no doubt honest, because there were no offseason changes made to that personnel. With just a US Open Cup match between the Loons and a couple-week break, it’s worth asking again, is this a “passing grade?” Is this where the club intended to be? Is this how the club expected to look on the field?
What was the “three year plan” anyway? In my head, I always assumed it went something like; Year 1, find your feet. Year 2, contend for the playoffs. Year 3, contend for the title.
Was that too optimistic? Seattle made the playoffs in their first year. Atlanta made the playoffs in their first year and won the league in their second. Los Angeles made the playoffs in the first year and look heavy favorites to win a Supporters Shield in their second. But Minnesota’s “three year plan” was never really spelled out to anyone. What if it was different?
If the “three year plan” was: Year 1, find your feet. Year 2, don’t improve at all, Year 3, be a playoff bubble team; would you have bought into it?
4. I’m very on the record as not liking mid-season firings. That said, if the Loons are thinking of making changes, this mid-season break is the best time to do it. I’m not sure that elevating Mark Watson as the interim boss really fixes anything, though.
3. Congratulations to Chase Gasper on making his MLS debut and immediately getting into a number of scrappy plays. The Loons’ fullback situation is really confusing at the moment. With Eric Miller and Gasper available, why not start the game in Colorado with those two as the fullbacks and Hassani Dotson in midfield? The good news at least is that the team has a bunch of options. But I don’t understand why Michael Boxall is on the depth chart at right back ahead of the guy who came in this year and immediately stabilized the back-four.
2. The attack seems seriously broken. The big problem used to be finishing, now it’s gotten worse and the team isn’t even creating chances. Darwin Quintero does not seem to be able to operate with Angelo Rodriguez in the same way that he thrived with Christian Ramirez and Romario Ibarra. Meanwhile, Mason Toye and Abu Danladi really haven’t demonstrated that they are ready to be the starting striker either.
Here’s an idea. If he’s healthy, why not try Kevin Molino in that role? The Loons don’t really play with a classic, goal-facing, goal-scoring striker anyway. Put Molino up top with Quintero and let them try to create for each other. It’s worth a try, because the current set-up is not working.
1. Miscellaneous Notes. Jan Gregus is gone one game, and suddenly everyone misses him. He hasn’t provided the highlight moments of his fellow offseason acquisitions, but he’s a useful player, folks… …Ally Ng’Anzi has started two games in a row for Forward Madison. That’s two more games than I expected him to start all year, so credit to him. He’ll certainly go out on loan next year as well, but it’ll be interesting to see if he continues to get minutes. Some of the other players in the Rainbow FC/MFK Vyskov pipeline are doing well… …The Twins are 43-21, one of the four best teams in the league, and heading into a homestand against some truly awful teams. Their starting pitching has fallen a bit back down to earth in the past couple weeks (or at least, three of the five), and the relievers have had some shaky moments. But this was a tough stretch in their schedule, with ten away games, and they went 6-4. This team is for real.
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