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Matchdays Twenty-Three and US Open Cup Semi-Finals: Spark Joy

by on 8 August 2019

One of the things that bound me (and I suspect many others) closely to the sport of soccer was the culture that was built up around clubs. Sports are fun regardless, and to some degree all teams, from the Boston Red Sox to the Vegas Golden Knights, create their own culture. But what’s exceptional in soccer is the degree to which that is left to the fans to create. Given that freedom and responsibility, soccer fans become supporters and they organize and collaborate and do a lot of free labor because the team is more than a team, but a club to which players and fans and staff are all apart of. That club is seen as more than just a corporation or a franchise, but as a flagship for a culture that is something worth being a part of and building.

There are clubs in MLS that do not do a very good job of this. They play in stadiums that are far from city life. The ownership is checked out. The front office and fans feud. These are the clubs that everyone across MLS talks about as “problems” that need to be addressed. Chicago. New England. Columbus.

But one big reason why MLS has become so interesting in the past decade has been the increasing number of clubs that have truly built something unique and exciting. In my head, I often associate these clubs with ideals that they represent. When I think of the Seattle Sounders, I think of pride. When I think of the Portland Timbers, I think of community. When I think of Atlanta United, I think of confidence. When I think of Los Angeles, I think of diversity. When I think of Orlando, I think of deep insecurity. (Hey, they can’t all be winners)

Minnesota United are a club that has done a good job building something unique and exciting. When I think of the Loons, the word that comes to my mind is “Joy.”

I’ve written a little about this before. Minnesota United and its supporters have built a club tradition that takes itself only seriously enough to have fun. The comfort of the players to bring their children onto the field speaks to the fact that Allianz Field is an atmosphere of positivity. And there are few things more joyous as singing a silly song like “Wonderwall” in public and meaning it.

During a late corner kick on Wednesday, the camera caught a scarf-less fan waving a paper bowl over his head. That’s someone who probably didn’t totally know what they were getting into when they arrived at the stadium, but was so into the culture of the team by the closing stages of the game that they were drawn, almost unconsciously into participating in the best way that they could. I absolutely loved that.

I hope other people agree with me about joy being the central value of this team, because that’s the only way an identity like this can deepen and grow its roots. It takes work to make it happen too, these days more than ever. There’s a lot of anger and hatred and despair elsewhere in the world, and that makes it tougher for a spark of joy to sustain itself. But all together, we can make it happen.

Miscellaneous Notes

5. The personnel situation seems very fluid in the attack at the moment. On Sunday, the Loons started with a front four of Angelo Rodriguez, Miguel Ibarra, Ethan Finlay, and Kevin Molino. On Wednesday, Mason Toye replaced Rodriguez, Darwin Quintero replaced Ibarra and Robin Lod replaced Finlay. Abu Danladi also made substitute appearances in both games.

The Loons have a ton of attacking options at the moment. It’s a little hard to say that they are clicking at the moment, since the team has scored just five goals in their past five competitive matches, two of which were extremely fortunate penalties. But they are still creating chances at a good clip, and against Portland they did a much better job at picking their moments to cross or to play on the ground.

Playing a congested schedule has made it easier for Adrian Heath to not leave anybody out of the attacking mix, but tough choices will still be ahead. At striker, he must choose between Rodriguez, who is a handful for opposing defenders but struggles to score, or Toye, who is still finding his feet in most aspects of the game, but puts the ball in the net when given the chance. On the wings, he has a number of options, with only Kevin Molino in undroppable form. Ethan Finlay was excellent as a substitute at midweek, but strugged on the weekend. Miguel Ibarra was blisteringly active over the weekend, but suffered from a cruel bounce of the turf and shanked a critical scoring chance. Robin Lod was mostly ineffective in the minutes we’ve seen from him, but it was also his run that set up the dangerous free kick that led to Minnesota’s opening penalty in the Open Cup.

Meanwhile, Darwin Quintero has had shifts in form. The Loons are probably the best when he is pulling the strings, but he cannot be the only one who draws the attention. It’s hard to argue that he should not be starting, but he’s very sub-able. With a playoff birth increasingly likely, giving him regular rest is going to be important.

4. Mason Toye is a (near) future star. When the Loons needed a hero, it was the young man from Northern New Jersey who stepped up. What was striking about his goal was how simple he made it look. Yes, Kevin Molino’s long ball was hit with a good weight and good timing. But plenty of long balls get hit every game and not a lot comes of them. Yet in this case, Toye turned it into a massively important goal. His run created separation from an experienced defender. His first touch to control the ball was spot on. His curled finish gave the goalkeeper no chance and came just a split second before the window to score would’ve closed. Everything was executed to precision.

Toye’s calm is unbelievable for a player of his age. His skill, especially that first touch, is what already separates him from other strikers in the league. His ceiling is absolutely at a top league in Europe, and one of the key goals for Minnesota in the next two seasons should be to get him there.

Toye’s emergence is also starting to fill the hole left by Christian Ramirez’ departure last year. This is no slight to Ángelo Rodríguez, who has given the Loons a great effort since arriving. But he came to the team as an already accomplished thirty-year-old. He is not a player who came up through the club and became a star with the club. But Toye is on that path. If he continues to grow and improve, whether that means he plays his entire career starting up top for Minnesota, or makes a big summer move in the coming years, the place where a player first breaks out and shows what they are capable of is special, both for a player and the fans that watched it happen.

3. Thomás Chacón is probably not going to be a big contributor to the Loons this year—and that’s totally fine. Minnesota made a big splash at halftime, announcing the signing of eighteen-year-old (turning nineteen in two weeks) Uruguayan attacking midfielder Thomás Chacón. The signing had been rumored and all but confirmed previously. While there were some bigger name transfer dramas around the league that sucked up a lot of the attention, the move completes the accelerated growth process that the club has undergone, passing through all three eras of MLS transfer policy. Maybe the cleanest demarcation of the phases of the “three year plan” might go something like this: Minnesota was in “MLS 1.0” in their first year, achieved “MLS 2.0” in year two by signing Darwin Quintero, an older accomplished international DP, and achieved “MLS 3.0” in year three by signing Chacón, a teenaged South American prospect, for a sizable transfer fee.

Despite the hype about the young man with the hockey-style flow, don’t expect too much. We’ve seen on a number of occasions how international players can struggle to adjust to MLS in their first half season. For a smaller teenager to immediately figure out how to go up against players of the build of Michael Boxall will be tricky. If Chacón adjusts quickly, it’ll be a huge bonus. But don’t count on it.

2. Shoutout to the defense. The Minnesota attack might be sputtering a bit of late, but the defense hasn’t missed a beat. In their eleven competitive games unbeaten, United have allowed just ten goals. They’ve allowed just three in their last six, and not conceded more than once in more than a month. Just four teams in MLS have conceded fewer goals this season.

Obviously Ike Opara is fantastic. Obviously Ozzie Alonso is fantastic. Romain Métanire, despite polarizing offensive contributions, has been shutting down the right flank. Chase Gasper has been as solid as advertised on the left. Vito Mannone made a number of strong saves this week and has had a great stretch of games without a costly error. These guys have been huge.

But speaking of huge, there are two names who deserve more credit. Ján Greguš didn’t stand out for the team earlier in the year. But by now, he looks every bit the part of a DP central midfielder. He and Alonso are on the same wavelength and working together to hunt the ball and close gaps. It’s just fantastic to see.

Then there’s Michael Boxall. If it weren’t for his slow step to keep Portland striker Brian Fernandez onside for the Timbers’ goal on Wednesday, you could make a strong case that the Kiwi was the man of the match. His physical stature has in the past belied a weakness in the air. But against Portland, the ball seemed to seek out his head time and time again. He’s had a rock-steady stretch of games, and has now nailed down a starting role more than any point in his Minnesota United tenure.

1. Miscellaneous Notes: Oh my god, please, please, please shut up about MLSSoccer dot com not giving Minnesota enough respect. Not much in sports is more pathetic than trying to manufacture a rivalry wih the media. Not much in sports is smaller than constantly whining about how you aren’t getting the attention you deserve. If you want attention, if you want accolades, you need to earn it, and then you can let it speak for itself. Just unbelievable. Please. Stop. Talking. About. Your. Media. Coverage… …On a related note, what on earth is this? There’s really no reason to confront a ref in the tunnel regardless, but uh dude, you’re wrong, Fernandez was onside and you got it wrong. Maybe an apology is necessary?… …One more thought about the refs, there are some Portland fans insisting that both handballs called against their team were bad calls. I find that baffling. On Sunday, Mabiala stuck his arms out like an idiot and Opara headed the ball straight into his forearm. It was plain as day. On Wednesday, Claude Dielna did exactly the thing that the refs warn you not to do on every single free kick. He put his arm in front of his face, blocked a ball that would’ve otherwise gone somewhere else, and that’s a handball. Just dumb. There’s no arguing it.

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