Minnesota United are rolling. Following wins this week against San Jose and in Montreal, the Loons have now won three league games in a row, five competitive games in a row counting the US Open Cup, and six in a row counting the friendly against Forward Madison. They have outscored their opponents 22-8 during this stretch.
The good results are also painting past results in a more favorable light. Before this purple patch, United had dropped three games in a row to Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Colorado. As I wrote at the time, you could make a case that each of those defeats was not as bad as it looked. But I wasn’t in a forgiving mood, and dismissed that argument. Perhaps I was wrong!
Of course, it could also swing the other way. Last year, the Loons won three straight games in mid-July, sparking hope that the team could turn a corner and make the playoffs. They would earn just eight more points in the following thirteen games and finish far away from any contending position.
But the team is in a far better position this year. For one, the roster is much improved. For another, the team is sitting above the playoff line, while last year they were only ever in pursuit. Finally, the team has a more favorable schedule remaining. When Minnesota made their July run last season, they had just five home games remaining. But this year, the team has played more games on the road than at Allianz Field, and has a slightly home-tilted second half to look forward to. Apart from a three game stretch from late August to September, the Loons will not play consecutive road games again. This team is in the driver’s seat not just for for a playoff berth, and but for the preseason goal that I set: a home playoff match.
Don’t pop the cork just yet. The Western Conference is extraordinarily tight behind runaway leaders Los Angeles. Just eight points separate second place from eighth (and the Portland Timbers, in ninth place, are widely expected to make the playoffs given their home-heavy end of the year). Minnesota sit in fourth place, just four points below the Galaxy in second, and four points ahead of Salt Lake in eighth. Every win and loss will jumble the standings considerably, and there’s a lot of room to move up and a lot of space to fall.
5. The Loons might’ve gotten better by losing one of their best players. Everyone can see the results have improved. But what is Minnesota doing better on the field to get those results? There’s no obvious big thing, but in general the offense is looking far more dynamic. In an upside-down way, the absence of the brilliant Romain Métanire, who is away with Madagascar making a surprise run through the African Cup of Nations, may have helped.
The Loons attack had become stale in the weeks before the international break, and that lack of imagination was typified by an overreliance on crosses. In their three straight losses against Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Colorado, they hit far more crosses than their opponent, including a season high of 36 against the Union (who hit just 13), and 31 against the Rapids (who hit just 14 in a game with Kei Freaking Kamara). In that final game, just 6% of Minnesota’s crosses were successful.
Now, Métanire only played in the game against the Union, and I want to be clear that I am not saying the Loons were losing because of him. But I do think that they were, in part, struggling in the attack because of the style of play that his talents lend themselves to. The team discovered that they had one of the league’s best fullbacks and a brilliant crosser of the ball, and they began to increasingly rely on that part of the game.
In the chart to the right (which includes US Open Cup matches), you can see that as the season progressed, United began to increase their number of crosses. While other teams crossed the ball more times than Minnesota in each of their first five matches, Minnesota crossed the ball more times than their opponents in nine of the next eleven leading into the international break.
But Métanire’s absence has forced the team to gradually rediscover other parts of the field and other avenues to attack. With Métanire in the line-up, the Loons hit 18.5 crosses per game. Without him, they have hit just 13.6. That’s been good for the team, because even very good crosses are not particularly effective ways to score. In their wins, the Loons have hit just 12.6 crosses per game, while hitting just 20.1 crosses per game in their losses. Since the international break, Minnesota have again started to “lose” the crossing battle, with more crosses than their opponents in two of the five games (including the US Open Cup) since.
Again, this is not to say that Romain Métanire is bad or that you should never cross the ball. But it can only be one club in the bag, and perhaps a part of the story of their offensive struggles before the break is that they had become too reliant on it. As good as the Malagasy international is, this team is better when it runs through Darwin Quintero.
4. Mason Toye is ready. I was just about ready to crown Mason Toye as the second coming of Christian Ramirez last week. Then he went out and scored a brace against the Montreal Impact. Both of his goals were two of the most well-taken strikes you will see anywhere. In each, he had to perfectly settle a lobbed pass, then put a shot on goal. Neither was an easy play, and yet he made them look so. It was an eye opening performance in his first start of the year.
Last year, the young Indiana University product was not ready. His movement was raw and he didn’t seem strong enough. You could see the talent and the drive, however.
This season, his breakout has been sudden. After playing 545 minutes with Forward Madison —and not scoring once —he suddenly found the late winner in US Open Cup play against Houston. Next, he bagged a brace for Minnesota against Madison. Back in MLS play, he completed the touchdown and assisted the PAT in the Loons’ thumping of Cincinnati. After a goalless substitute performance against the Earthquakes, Toye made the most of his start against Montreal. In less than a month, he has gone from uncertain prospect to professional on the MLS Team of the Week.
This meteoric rise should give caution. But it should also excite. Toye is still just twenty. Andre Shinyashiki, a rookie striker with Colorado who was drafted this winter, is two years older. Jordan Morris is four years older. Minnesota have a young forward with national team potential on their hands. He needs to get more time, and more opportunities to put the ball in the net.
3. Kevin Molino should be starting—unfortunately for him, so should everyone else. The success of Toye on Saturday was facilitated by two brilliant assists from Kevin Molino. The Trinidadian attacker has had to fight his way back into Minnesota’s rotation this year, after missing almost all of last year with an ACL tear. But since coming back, he has offered a spark every time he has played. Aggressive on the ball and without it, he can be frustrating at times and fantastic at others.
In a dispassionate sense, his best position may be on the bench, as a twenty to thirty minute substitute for Darwin Quintero. Directly underneath the striker, searching for scraps like a remora, is his best position. But that’s not fair to a player in strong form, and the Loons must clearly find other ways to include him. The problem is, Miguel Ibarra, Ethan Finlay, Rasmus Schüller, and maybe a future transfer target, will be competing for the other starting spots on the wing. Each are making their own strong case.
The coming weeks will offer so many opportunities to play, and so much need for player rest, that it should be possible to keep everyone happy. But come the fall, it will be fascinating to see who, assuming everyone is healthy, emerges as the first choice option in the attack, especially on the wings.
2. Squad rotation is critical, even though nearly every upcoming game is important.
The team’s upcoming schedule is tremendously congested, and as alluded to above, squad rotation is an absolute must.
That’s usually not what Adrian Heath likes to do, but he turned over a new and surprisingly leaf on Saturday by turning over almost his entire starting squad. Of the eleven players who started midweek against San Jose, just three, including Vito Mannone in goal, started against the Impact on the weekend.
That’s hopefully going to be the plan over the next two weeks as well. Minnesota will play New Mexico United in the US Open Cup this coming Wednesday, then FC Dallas on the weekend. The following Wednesday, they take on Aston Villa in a friendly, before matching up against Salt Lake that weekend. Should they win in the Open Cup, they will add another midweek game to their schedule on the 7th of August, sandwiched between weekend MLS fixtures, and the week following that they have a regularly scheduled two-match MLS week.
The soccer never stops, basically.
As a result, rotation to preserve the health of the players will be key. That ought to also provide opportunities for more players. I’d like to see Hassani Dotson get a start in place of Ozzie Alonso in midfield. I’d like to see Wyatt Omsberg get a start in defense. I’d obviously like to see more Mason Toye. I’d like to see Dayne St. Clair get a taste of MLS if he performs well against Aston Villa.
Maybe this is too much to ask, given the club’s prior disregard for developing young players. But if there’s ever a time to sprinkle in some depth, it’s now. The match in Montreal showed, the depth is ready to play.
1. Miscellaneous Notes.There was controversy about the penalty that Ethan Finlay drew against Montreal. Folks, it was a clear penalty. Evan Bush tries to make a play on the ball, misses, and blocks Finlay from running after it. He was lucky not to be sent off, and I’m not really sure why the referee didn’t pull the red card… …Minnesota native and Minnesota Thunder Academy product Jackson Yueill was the best player on the field for San Jose in their match against the Loons. After languishing under some bad coaches, he’s finally thriving under Matias Almeyda. The 2017 MLS Draft, where the Loons picked first, looks really interesting in retrospect. If you picked again, would Julian Gressel, Miles Robinson, and Yueill, be the top three picks?… …Shamit Shome, who the Impact picked forty-first, is still just 21 years old, and has started most games for Montreal this season. He took a while to get going in MLS, after breaking through in 2016 with FC Edmonton, but hey look, I told you so… …The USWNT are world champions yet again! I was cheering for the Oranje to make the final, but when the US and Netherlands play each other, I can’t hold onto my Dutch ties anymore. Still, both teams were great, and I’m very excited for the future of both nations with Mallory Pugh, Vivianne Miedema, and co. Neither country made the Men’s World Cup, credit to the women for showing those jokers what it’s like.
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