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Matchdays Twenty-Four Through Twenty-Eight: Up And Down

by on 3 September 2019

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts. Part of that has been laziness on my part. Part of that has been traveling, including to Minnesota to take in a couple of games in the Midway for the first time. Lastly, it’s just the time of the year where I’m running out of interesting things to say about the Loons. We know what this team is at this point.

We’ve seen a microcosm of the season in this last stretch of games. Week twenty-four was an acrimonious mess on the road in Dallas. The Loons then squeaked by Colorado, dominated Orlando but couldn’t finish, and got rope-a-doped by Sporting. In the US Open Cup final, they played Charlie Brown to Atlanta’s Lucy. Then, this past weekend they stunned a brilliant LA team with two goals completely against the run of play to smash and grab a critical three points.

When you think this team should settle matters, they leave them open. When you think this team should be falling out, they roar back to life.

There is a explanation for this entropy. This is an version of who Minnesota have been for the past two years, just with better players. Each season, the Loons have started with an attempt to play possession soccer. Each year it seems to break down once the team realizes they’re still better playing a counter-attacking style. We’ve seen teams like Atlanta who are set-up to force transition moments all over the field and take advantage of them. Minnesota are not as sophisticated. Instead, they defend deep and generate their chances from there. It’s a strategy that gives you a chance against great teams like LA, but it also makes it difficult to overcome a team that is similarly set-up (especially if you don’t score early), like Orlando or Vancouver.

As a result, Minnesota are back up to third place in the west, in line for a home playoff game. The conference is so narrowly bunched, just six points separate Seattle in second from Portland below the red line in eighth (and because of their schedule, Portland are almost certain to make the playoffs). Had they lost on Sunday night, United would’ve been in seventh place, just two points clear of falling out of the playoffs.

The Loons have a tough remaining schedule, although defeating the inevitable Supporters Shield holders should give plenty of reason for hope. Minnesota can also take some comfort from the lack of bite shown so far by their rivals. The flip side of the West’s knife’s-edge race for the postseason is that it also makes a higher seed more attainable than it ought to be. No other team in contention is seizing the moment, and some of them (the Galaxy in particular) look especially vulnerable.

Just six games remain in the regular season. Four are against teams that are clearly in the playoff mix. Three are at home. Minnesota control their own destiny, but they lack the ability to control any given game. What will happen is anybody’s guess, but in a season that has not lacked for drama, we can at least be sure that it’ll be a wild finish.

Miscellaneous Notes

5. Adrian Heath’s job will surely come down to this. It is both fitting and frustrating that, with the Loons within touching distance of both home playoff seeding and not making the postseason at all, the fate of the manager and a final verdict on his three years in charge will come down to just a single month’s worth of games.

Fitting, because this is reflective of Heath’s tenure with the Loons. His teams as a whole have shown a remarkable resilience. With far poorer rosters they entertained some playoff hopes in earlier seasons, and rarely ever gave the appearance of a team that was checked out, even when they had a right to be. This is the kind of scrap in the standings that seems appropriate for a team like this.

Frustrating because this is reflective of Heath’s tenure with the Loons. The team has failed to build a tactical identity or lay any kind of sustainable groundwork that can be built upon into the long term. We know a lot about what an Adrian Heath team looks like in the long run, and late-season uncertainty with wild swings in results is clearly a central piece of it.

After the poor run-up to the Open Cup final and missed opportunities in it, critics of Heath held sway. After the shock result at Exposition Park, supporters of Heath and team employees were back to full voice. It’s a tiring back and forth. The poor results against teams like Vancouver and Orlando were hardly the fault of the manager, given how many high quality chances his team created and failed to capitalize on. Sometimes that kind of misfortune happens. On the flip side, one bunker-and-pray win against Los Angeles does not a genius manager make. Every manager in the league is playing the same way against that team, and it was simply Minnesota’s good fortune to avoid facing the league MVP and several key defensive players. At least when it comes to results, evaluate them in their totality.

4. Okay, but when it comes to individual decisions by the manager though, my goodness are there opportunities for criticism. Not starting Darwin Quintero in Atlanta, especially if you’ve promised him a big role was a move that looked terrible at the time and looks terrible in hindsight. Throwing Robin Lod into big games when he doesn’t seem fit and hasn’t been effective has been a baffling theme. Starting an exhausted Michael Boxall against FC Dallas when Wyatt Omsberg needs playing time and has been excellent for Madison is another confounding tick in the ledger of not taking youth development seriously.

Then there’s the match against Kansas City, in which the team played a line-up that, to put it bluntly, was not credible. Wilfried Moimbé-Tahrat made his debut out of position on the left wing. Robin Lod played centrally, which gave him a bit more action, but ultimately didn’t really help the Loons. Finally, the team subbed on Thomás Chacón, who likely didn’t even yet know the name of his teammates and has just twenty games of experience in the Uruguayan league. The kid played with some confidence and the Loons absolutely need to get young players time to develop, but that’s not a move you make if you are trying to win the game. As has been the case with some of Heath’s biggest mistakes, the result felt diminished in importance in favor of prosecuting grudges against certain players.

These are arguments we’ll bookmark for now and have when the offseason starts. I’m tired of the histrionics and the insecurities, but ultimately it comes down to results.

3. It’s a huge deal that Hassani Dotson and Mason Toye were called up to the US U-23 National TeamMinnesota did virtually nothing to develop younger players in their first two years in MLS. But this year, the emergence of Dotson and the stunning breakout of Toye have given the team two cornerstone pieces to build upon—or potentially cash out on.

Dotson is getting a fantastic midfield tutorial from Ozzie Alonso and Ján Greguš this season, but his versatility has helped him get minutes everywhere on the field, and his toolkit as a player is really robust. It’s remarkable that he slipped so far in the draft and a huge coup for Minnesota’s scouting at the combine that they saw what other teams missed. To go from an afterthought draft selection to the U-23’s is remarkable. Of the last five #31 overall picks in the SuperDraft, three are out of soccer entirely and the other two are in the USL Championship.

Then there’s Toye, whose meteoric rise would’ve been hard to predict after seven scoreless appearances to start the year with Forward Madison. But suddenly the man from South Orange is lighting up the North. His first touch is outstanding and his awareness around the box is at “can’t be taught” level. Against LA, he flashed his quickness and a deft left foot. As I wrote last time, Toye is filling the void left a year ago by Christian Ramirez.

Should they impress with the U-23s, both Dotson and Toye would likely make the USMNT January camp, where they’d have the chance to break out into the full national team set-up and attract attention from abroad. Fingers crossed for both.

2. The entire Minnesota matchday experience is among the best in MLS. For the Wednesday match against Colorado, I was able to visit Allianz Field for the first time. It’s a beautiful stadium and the atmosphere is electric. But I was most taken with the entire experience of the matchday, leading up to kickoff and afterwards.

I took the A Line to the park, and was thrilled as people wearing Loons gear got on at seemingly every stop. It had a similar feeling to a baseball game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where fans seemingly materialize out of the neighborhood and come from all directions to the game. The streets from Selby to Minnehaha, Fairview to Lexington, were full of happy soccer fans. In this way, the match felt like a part of the life of the city, and not just a special event apart from it.

Then, after the match, I loved how many fans stayed after the final whistle. There was a Unified game to support, but this was also a place where many people seemed content to linger. I saw many people chatting with friends about the game and enjoying the atmosphere of the summer evening. One nice thing about building a stadium where fans aren’t worried about beating traffic is that people feel more permission to stay.

I’ve been to a match in Portland, I think that probably ranks as the best atmosphere in MLS. I get the sense that LA is in that upper tier as well. But I imagine that Minnesota is the third team in that grouping. It’s just a phenomenal experience, from start to finish.

1. Miscellaneous Notes: Did you catch the little feint that Ján Greguš makes with his body towards Darwin Quintero, before slipping an inch-perfect pass to Toye on the first goal against LA? The Goose is good, you guys… …Also good: Vito Mannone. He’s been mostly mistake free since at least June, and probably has a shot at the Goalkeeper of the Year award at this rate… …Brent Kallman (remember him?) was more than good against Los Angeles… …The Twins are looking good, and they just called up Brusdar Graterol, who throws 100 mph heat on the corners of the strike zone. Baseball is also good… …Final thing that’s good: the new Hold Steady album.

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