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Matchday Twenty: Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way

by on 15 July 2019

Almost from the opening whistle, Saturday’s game against FC Dallas looked like a 0-0 draw. True, the Loons did start the game with a nice spell on the front foot. But as soon as the visitors found their footing, the game devolved into something that wasn’t entirely pleasant to watch. If great soccer has the grace and cohesion of a symphony, this match felt like ninety minutes of tuning.

That’s not a great sign for Minnesota, who still have a lot of packed-in matches ahead of them. This congestion of games in the heat of the summer is an opportunity for the team’s depth to shine, but it’s also a challenge for the team’s most essential performers to stay focused and in good condition.

But what was a good sign for the Loons was that somehow, miraculously, they took three points from the match. It was one of those rare games where the end result arguably told a fuller story about a team than their cumulative play over ninety minutes. United were not better nor worse than their guests. But through almost sheer force of will, they overcame them in stoppage time with a hustle goal from Mason Toye, then at the other end, Vito Mannone overcame his own mistake to save a penalty and preserve the result on the lack kick of the game.

Deliverance at one end. Redemption at the other.

Few could’ve predicted the breathtaking drama in stoppage time, but by the sound of the crowd, there was no shortage of belief among the faithful throughout. Did the Loons not score late against DC and Columbus? We’ve seen this drama enacted before, just never so well.

Minnesota have belief in themselves. That’s actually been one of their strengths, even back to their first year in MLS, and one of the points on which you have to consistently give the entire team and coaching staff some credit. The Loons could rarely ever be accused of giving up in a game. They’ve got the talent now to make these breakthroughs more often, and make it stick.

The team’s recent streak of winning results in now eight matches long; half have been in MLS, three in the US Open Cup, and one in a friendly. Those twelve points in the league have been pivotal, but they have only moved the Loons from the fringe of playoff contention to the center. With 33 points in 20 games, the team is in good shape, but nothing is safe. Just six points south is out of the playoffs, and several teams below that line are charging hard—or have the talent to make a run.

That’s one of the reasons I had to roll my eyes when I read the latest R-E-S-P-E-K comment from the team.

https://twitter.com/jeffrueter/status/1150255878995677186

Bobby Warshaw put it well in his weekly recap for MLSSoccer.com. The Loons are playing with joy, belief, and also a bit of fortune. They’re also playing a bunch of games at home and while the quality of their opponents has improved, they’ve also not been tested by a truly top team. This team is drawing eyes with their results and their play, as they should. But they haven’t won anything. They haven’t proved anything. I wrote last week about how the team’s July surge last year provided a cautionary tale for this team’s summer run—even if the comparison gives plenty of reasons for optimism this time as well. But every time someone from the team has said something like this in the past, it’s aged really, really poorly.

It’s all to play for. Every game for the rest of Minnesota’s season is either at home (where the Loons should win), or on the road against a western conference team (where the Loons must at least draw). In other words, there are no more matches like the one two weekends ago in Montréal, where the stakes were reasonably low. It’s all six pointers or must-wins at home from here on out.

From the beginning of the season, given their roster quality and two years of build-up and expectations, I’ve said and written that anything less than a home playoff match would be a failed season for United. It wasn’t so long ago that they seemed likely to fall well short of that. Happily, they’re now in the position that they should be in. Let’s see if they can keep it.

 

Miscellaneous Notes

4. The Loons are getting contributions from the whole team at just the right time. Darwin Quintero, Ángelo Rodríguez, Kevin Molino, and Ethan Finlay were not bad against Dallas, but they did not have the impact that they have had in previous games. That’s just how it’s gonna be sometimes. In previous years, Adrian Heath clearly did not trust his reserves enough to turn to them at pivotal moments. But this year, he had no trouble going to Mason Toye and Miguel Ibarra to jumpstart the attack. Ultimately, it was Toye, along with Ján Greguš and Lawrence Olum (the third substitute) who made the vital plays that led to the game’s only goal.

Minnesota has never really had a second striker option who could be counted on, at least since the tail end of 2017 when both Christian Ramirez and Abu Danladi were playing well. Now, Rodríguez and Toye are a solid double billing. The Loons also have a ready substitute with Molino replacing Quintero, should he not start on the wing. Ibarra and Finlay on the wings have also been solid contributors.

With the schedule congestion that the team is going through, it’s the perfect time of the year to have healthy depth. Even Ozzie Alonso’s bruised shoulder injury, had it been worse, would not have been the hammer blow that it could’ve been, given Hassani Dotson’s strong play and Lawrence Olum’s steady deputizing. Oh, and Romain Métanire is back. Even though the team may have started to lean on him a bit before the break, absolutely it’s a good thing that he’ll be manning the right side again.

3. The Loons are getting reinforcements. But it would be a mistake to trade away their depth. United have also added Finnish midfielder Robin Lod. Although his history suggests a central midfielder, he seems most likely to play out wide left. It’s a bit curious, but Lod’s reported skill on the ball may indeed lend itself to a wide position.

There’s been talk that Lod’s signing means that either Finlay or Ibarra are on the trading block. That may be so, and would be totally in line with the club’s tendency to trade good to dependable domestic players as soon as they acquire an international replacement, but the most likely player to lose out to the newcomer is his fellow Finn, Rasmus Schüller. Also a central midfielder who has been moved out to left midfield, Schüller has made recent comments that make it seem as though he is looking for a new opportunity as his playing time has dried up in Minnesota. Given that Lod is maybe a better fit for that attacking-minded role, perhaps it signals the imminent departure of one of Minnesota’s inaugural MLS starters.

Would that be smart? It’s obviously not great to have a discontented player, and if Schüller gets a good offer, you want Minnesota to be a club that lets players further their career and be happy. But Schüller is a versatile, useful player for the Loons. If Alonso were out for an extended period, he’d be a solid choice to absorb some of those minutes. He’s also a fine left midfield option for depth, as he demonstrated in a strong showing against the Impact. If the Loons are going to make a run, they are going to need quality depth, and Schüller (or Finlay and especially Ibarra) fit that description. Rotate the squad more and keep these guys happy and the whole team rested.

2. The Aston Villa friendly ought to to be about rest and building depth. Speaking about depth and rest, this midweek friendly against Aston Villa should hopefully not include any player who played significant minutes against Dallas. They all looked exhausted. Give everyone an easier week.

Instead, let’s see again (just as we did against Hertha) what guys like Dayne St. Clair, Carter Manley, Wyatt Omsberg, Collin Martin, and Abu Danladi can do. It’s also likely that Ally Ng’Anzi will play in this one, after getting some legitimate time with Forward Madison. The Tanzanian teenager is a total enigma for Minnesota fans, having just played a handful of minutes for the Loons against Madison in the away friendly. If he gets minutes on Wednesday, it’ll be quite a big step up in competition, but hopefully a productive one. Most importantly, it’ll mean a break for the first team midfielders.

Rest is so critical. So is finding new players to trust As I wrote above, just about every remaining game for United is really important to the playoff chase. These friendlies are a chance to see who you can put out there when you’ve got a midweek game that counts, and a weekend game that counts, and your guys are still tired from the last weekend game that counted.

1. Miscellaneous Notes. The penalty call on Vito in stoppage time was legit, same type of play that the Loons benefited from the previous weekend when Ethan Finlay drew a penalty against Evan Bush… …I feel like I’ve written this more than once, but the atmosphere at Allianz Field is coming through the broadcast incredibly. The final minutes against Dallas sounded the best I’ve ever heard, and I’ve seen people say the same of the experience in the stadium. Fans have been blessed with some truly incredible games at home. How can anyone who has attended these matches fail to become a fan?

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