Matchdays Seventeen: Hope For The High Road

by on 1 July 2019

When we last left off with Minnesota United, back at the start of the month, the club was reeling off the back of three straight league defeats. An embarrassing mess in Atlanta. A gun punch at home against Philadelphia. Worst of all, an ugly display in Colorado.

The club was notably struggling on offense, and they were also struggling to keep goals out of the net when it counted. None of their opponents had played Minnesota off the pitch. The games were there for the taking, but the Loons had seemed to lack the gear to do so.

Now, at the end of the month, the vibe has completely changed. Between league matches, United won twice in the US Open Cup, first in a rout, the second in a stirring comeback. They had also beaten Forward Madison in a friendly. To cap it all off, they walloped FC Cincinnati by that most infamous of soccer scorelines, 7-1, exorcising some of the bad memories from their own inglorious expansion season.

What to make of this?

Let’s start with the quality of opponent. Minnesota’s three defeats heading into the break had some against teams on hot streaks. Philadelphia lead the east, Atlanta are now fourth after a poor start, and Colorado have been much improved since firing the woebegone Anthony Hudson. In contrast, the Loons have rebounded against poor teams in bad runs of form. Their first Open Cup opponent, Sporting KC, are improbably at the bottom of the west. The second Open Cup, Houston, have a better standing, but have been in a swoon since early-May. The most recent victims, Cincinnati, have started to earn some chatter as a candidate for the worst team in league history, after earning just four points since the last week of March.

So just to start, what we’ve seen from the Loons has likely been, in large part, a reflection of the quality of their opponents. From the early days of the season, Minnesota have made the impression of being a middle-tier MLS team. You may think (as I do) that they could and should be better than that. But even as the results have gone up and down, we’ve seen fairly consistent evidence to justify that evaluation.

But beating up on worse opponents can have some advantages, especially when you need a confidence booster and the space to work on some things. The most pivotal development has surely been improvement from Darwin Quintero. It’s hard to say he’s back to full form, but the Colombian has found a groove in June. The team has also seen strong performances from Kevin Molino (who should be starting) and Ján Greguš. Best of all, the youth movement led by draft pick Hassani Dotson has been joined by fellow draftee Chase Gasper and last year’s seventh overall selection Mason Toye, who has now scored four goals in three games, across the US Open Cup, Madison friendly, and Cincinnati match.

The biggest cause for optimism isn’t the good results against bad teams, but these emerging good performances. Whatever Minnesota’s “three year plan” was or wasn’t, it would be a failure if it had not produced a core of young players. Belatedly that may be developing.

Next up for the club is a much tougher match. United will face San Jose on Wednesday. The Quakes looked abject when we last saw them in the second week of the season. But Matías Almeyda has managed at last to impose his ideas on the team, and the outcome has been a remarkable turnaround. This will be a far different experience than the last time, and a good test of just how much is to be believed from Minnesota’s June turnaround.

Remember too that the Loons surged last summer, only to plummet back to earth as they went on the road in the fall. With six of their next nine league matches in Midway, this is the time of year when they need to fatten up on points, because the ending weeks of the season might be a lean time. If the club is not firmly in fourth or fifth place by mid-August, the playoffs may slip away. As RSL and Houston fade, San Jose has made their move. Meanwhile, just about everyone expects Portland to make the playoffs, after they navigated their first few months entirely on the road with some grace.

Already the margin of error is shrinking in this highly competitive western conference. In July, the Loons play San Jose, Dallas, and Salt Lake, in games that will go far to deciding their playoff fate. The recent uptick in results must reflect a meaningful improvement in their own form, if Minnesota are to conclude this season with the barest of accomplishments.

Miscellaneous Notes

4. Minnesota’s youth movement is great, but accidental. Hassani Dotson is getting his moment in large part because Romain Metanire is at Afcon with Madagascar, and the coaching staff plainly does not trust Eric Miller (although I have no idea why). Chase Gasper is now getting starts for the same reason. Meanwhile, Carter Manley is out of the picture almost completely, and the club is reportedly looking for a fullback on the transfer market. As much as I enjoy seeing young players come in and contribute, it’s hard to get the sense that this represents a true change in perspective for the team.

This week, we’ll see players like Minnesota native Jackson Yueill and one-time-wunderkid Tommy Thompson take the field on behalf of San Jose. Both were talented players who did not enjoy the trust of the previous coaching regimes for the Quakes, starting with the ultra-conservative Dom Kinnear. But under a self-confident, progressive coach from the outside, both are undergoing a career renaissance. To bring young players into the fold, you need to invest in their development, give them opportunities without waiting for them to pay their dues, and have a system and a plan that they can get into and start settling into roles.

There’s no evidence that Minnesota United have taken that approach. Dotson is just the second young player, after Abu Danladi, who has ever seemed to enjoy favor from the coaching staff. Either there’s something badly wrong with the team’s scouting, or something badly wrong with the team’s first team development, but that number is far too low. Especially given how the team cycled through underwhelming international players for the first two seasons, and it’s hard to justify the team’s lack of attention to development.

3. Angelo Rodriguez is getting on the scoresheet, but he still seems misplaced. The Loons have tried to play the big-man hold-up style of play that Adrian Heath evidently has always wanted for Rodriguez, and his physical attributes seem to lend themselves to. But it has never really been as successful as it ought to have been. The team has had far more success with Quintero back as the centerpiece, bringing the ball forward and moving with his wingers. That’s not Rodriguez’ game and never has been, and the Loons have been never really able to manage this tension in the year since the Christian Ramirez trade.

The big issue has been a lack of other options. Abu Danladi has somehow picked up yet another injury, and out-of-the-box solutions that I’d certainly like to see, such as Kevin Molino at forward, don’t seem likely to be tried. But maybe Mason Toye is at last ready to fill the gap. Drafted as a 19 year-old, he’d be heading into his junior year at Indiana if he had stayed in college. He’s still young, and still raw. But he made a huge impact in the US Open Cup comeback against Houston, scored a brace against the team he’s spent so much time playing with in Madison, and then notched his debut goal and debut MLS primary assist on Saturday. Sure, they came at the end of a rout, against a depleted and dispirited Cincinnati defense. But they were really well taken. His goal was a perfectly taken shot, and his assist was even savvier. He made a nice run, but the pass was late, and he smartly let the ball go past him without playing it. Ethan Finlay collected, passed to Toye, who let the defense draw to him, before feeding a wide open Kevin Molino. It was a nice move. He could’ve done the same thing just moments after coming on, but elected to shoot instead. This is a hungry, dangerous, player, and the Loons need to find ways to get him more time at the expense of Rodriguez.

2. Vito Mannone fell asleep on Saturday. The lone goal allowed on Saturday to Cincinnati was poor goalkeeping. There are few more forgiving times to make an error like that, and maybe Mannone was on auto-pilot a bit thanks to the scoreline. But the Italian has had a few more costly hiccups this year, and hasn’t been as faultless as you would hope.

Unlike with the forward position, it’s probably too much to suggest that Dayne St. Clair is nipping at Mannone’s heels. But it was a bit disappointing to see the young Canadian not get matches in the US Open Cup. So far, he has been restricted to the friendlies against Madison and Hertha Berlin, where he has conceded a goal apiece. He will surely start against Aston Villa as well and Pachuca in the fall. It’s tough to find loan minutes for goalkeepers, but it’s certainly essential. This is where having an affiliate that you control can be really beneficial.

1. Miscellaneous Notes. Speaking of Pachuca, of course, Minnesota announced a friendly against the Mexican side on September 7th. Romario Ibarra is of course with Los Tuzos, and the Loons trained at their facilities and scrimmaged them in one NASL preseason. One thing the club, and Manny Lagos in particular, has done well over the years is building these relationships with other teams around the world… …They’ve also always made a point to get friendlies out of them. In addition to the seventeen league matches this year, Minnesota United have booked Allianz Field for three friendlies against top-tier competition, and (at least) two US Open Cup matches. You think the club isn’t enjoying having their own stadium to play with? I really recommend going to these games if you can afford it, it’s fun to watch without any pressure, as well as see some top players from other places.

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