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Matchdays Twenty-Nine Through Thirty-Four: Playoff Spotlight

by on 18 October 2019

The Loons are on the threshold of their first playoff match in MLS, their first playoff appearance in any league since November 8th, 2015, and their first home playoff match since the infamous Fort Lauderdale game exactly a year before that.

In other words, it’s been a long time coming.

Minnesota got here by the skin of its teeth, and in very typical fashion. With everything to play for in their final six games of the year, United alternated between success and failure as if to create the most dramatic finish possible. A crushing loss in Houston. A key win over Salt Lake. A gutsy draw in Portland. A cathartic postseason clincher against Sporting. A missed opportunity against Los Angeles. A decision day flop against Seattle followed by a bailout by #OnceALoonAlwaysALoon Christian Ramirez to clinch the home match.

It was only fitting that a roller coaster season had a few final turns, climbs, and falls. But the playoffs are now here, and the complexion of the competition has completely changed. Thanks to the change in format to single-elimination games, there is now no margin of error for the Loons.

When you think of it that way, it’s hard to see Minnesota advancing far in these playoffs. But it’s important to remember that consistency is anathema to most MLS teams, and it’s hard to remember a year where that was more the case than this one. For all of the Loons’ struggles this season, they have been matched by the rest of the league field. Apart from Supporters Shield winner Los Angeles there is no team in the league that will deliver a predictable performance night in and night out. Okay, sure, if United beat the Galaxy in round one, they will face that LA team in the second round. But then we have to remember that they played well against the black and gold this season…

With just the right amount of “why not us?” motivated reasoning, you can construct a surprisingly compelling case for Minnesota as a playoff dark horse. The Loons have mostly leaned into an identity as a defend-and-counter team, and it’s paid dividends. That’s not the style of soccer that the coaching staff and team probably expected to be playing, but in the playoffs you roll with what works. You can go far with a strong spine and a couple of gifted attackers (as Seattle and Portland especially have shown in the past handful of seasons). Should you bet on this Minnesota team? No, you probably shouldn’t. But you should also keep in mind that none of the other postseason teams want to play them. The Loons are smack in the middle of the spread of playoff expectations; neither “Happy to be here” nor “Championship or bust.”

But the one thing they have to do to make this playoff season a success is to one-up the Twins and actually win a game. That chance will come Sunday evening against the highest profile opponent possible: the LA Galaxy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is always good for a media circus, but it’s star midseason addition Cristian Pavón who is the reason the Galacticos are in the postseason at all this year. The Galaxy have multiple weapons in the attack. Denying the big Swede service will be task one for the Minnesota defense, but they cannot sell-out and risk giving his young Argentine sidekick space.

On the flip side, LA’s defense is the reason they are not hosting this game. Shredded on Decision Day by Ramirez and Houston, this is almost surely the worst defensive corps remaining in contention. The Galaxy were outscored 22-34 on the road this year, conceding two goals a game. It’s only been getting worse; they conceded fourteen in their last five on the road.

Can Minnesota capitalize? While the Galaxy’s defenses were opening up, the Loons’ attack spent the end of the year drying up. This is a match of strength against strength and weakness against weakness. Most of the intriguing questions in this game lie along that latter axis.

Key Questions

5. What’s the tactical approach? The Loons must walk a fine balance this game. Against most teams, they could rely on sitting deep and letting the opponent smash themselves against a stout defensive wall. Should they advance, that will surely be the strategy against Los Angeles FC. But the Galaxy are the one team who have a player capable of breaking through a parked bus. You cannot simply sit back and let the Galaxy pump crosses into the head of Zlatan, because he will punish you.

At the same time, defending and attacking in transition is what Minnesota are best at, and it’s what their opponents are especially vulnerable against. Finding the balance between inviting the Galaxy forward and not getting pinned too deep will be the tactical story of the night for the Loons.

Achieving that balance will require conservative fullback play. Minnesota do not necessarily need numbers in the attack, they need speed. If Chase Gasper and Romain Métanire stay back and concentrate on denying crossing opportunities and then quickly distributing upfield, they will have done their job. That will allow Ike Opara and Michael Boxall to focus on denying Zlatan free opportunities, and will allow Ozzie Alonso and Ján Greguš the freedom to chase after loose balls and commit to transition opportunities.

4. Who starts at left wing? Just as the fullbacks will be key to Minnesota defensively, the wings will be essential in the attack. No position has a bigger microscope than left wing. In the stretch run of the season, the Loons turned to high-priced Finnish attacker Robin Lod in this position, and the result was mostly a disaster. Billed as a skilled dribbler and playmaker, Lod’s performances have been so anonymous, it begs the question as to whether this is the right guy. Despite Adrian Heath’s fairly strong commitment to the nearly million-dollar-man, it’s a huge risk to start him in a one-and-done playoff match.

The better choice is Ethan Finlay, who started the final game of the year against Seattle. Naturally a right-winger, Finlay’s pace and ability on the counter are valuable on either side of the pitch. Sure, he missed a brilliant chance in that Seattle game, but that opportunity was still more than Lod was able to fashion in his previous starts. We’ve seen Finlay in enough scoring chances to know that he at least knows how to deliver his lines.

3. Who starts up top? The other major uncertainty for Minnesota is up top. After starting the young Mason Toye for weeks until he cooled off, Heath opted for Angelo Rodriguez against Seattle. The Colombian can be a handful for any defender, and although he is really not a prolific scorer, he can wear opposing defenses down and make things easier for his teammates.

What the Loons must decide is whether or not that is the kind of player they need against the Galaxy. I don’t believe it is. Between Rodriguez and Toye, there can be little doubt that the sophomore American is the better finisher. In a game where the Loons are certain to get chances, especially in transition, they need the guy who both has the pace to catch-up to the opportunities and the ability to convert the most of them. This is not a game that Minnesota will be hoping to grind out (again, the answer would be different should the Loons have the fortune to face Los Angeles FC the following week). This is a game where Minnesota should be looking to capitalize on the first two mistakes their opponent makes. Toye is the best bet to make good on that promise, and Abu Danladi might be the best substitute option of the team must chase the lead.

2. #SayShh While the players prepare for the match, a lot of the discussion online has been about… the team’s playoff marketing campaign. I understand why it rankles a bit. Since the start of the year, the team has acted as if nobody, not even their own fans, expected success. As readers of this blog and listeners to our podcast will know, that’s far from the case: the consensus position was that Minnesota were a playoff team, and I was far from the only one who set the bar at a home playoff match. Statements about how the team had been disrespected by random writers on the league website were often followed-up by poor performances. The Loons projected an embarrassing aura of insecurity all year, seeking praise they hadn’t earned and then clumsily using that lack of respect as a motivating tool.

But here’s the thing: there are maybe fifty people on earth who care about how the comments from the team’s coaching staff about media coverage comport with reality. The #SayShh campaign… is not aimed at us, and that’s a good thing.

For everyone else, my sense from afar is that it’s been a pretty successful campaign! It’s a unique and local angle. Many people know the Atmosphere song. Most people can relate to the message of letting your actions do the talking. You never need a backstory to sell Minnesotans on the idea that their team isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

There’s also a really natural way for fans to participate in the campaign. Put on your gear. Put your finger to your lips. Take a selfie. Share. The club is RT’ing everyone who does this on Twitter, they’ve gotten some local celebrities to get in on the act, and Nicollet Mall is plastered with banners of the players sharing the same message. For an ad campaign about staying quiet, it’s making a lot of noise.

Compare and contrast this to the Galaxy (who have a good social media team) who are using the playoff tagline “#ChasingMore,” which conveys… nothing.

Here are some other playoff marketing campaigns:

#RaiseYourColors
#TheyWillSeeRed
#RedRunsDeep
#STAYINTHEFIGHT
#MakeItHere
#FightForAll
#TakeItBack

Yada yada yada. Two of those slogans are for MLB playoff teams, and it’s not like there’s any possible way you could’ve noticed. But #SayShh you remember. It’s participatory. It’s Minnesotan.

Lay off the team on this one!

1. Miscellaneous Notes: Congrats to Ike Opara on winning the 2019 Defender of the Year. A richly deserved award. Not only did Minnesota get far better on defense, but his former team, Sporting Kansas City, got dramatically worse… …Hassani Dotson was robbed for Rookie of the Year. He finished behind two attacking players who played more minutes than he did, yet had lower goalscoring rates. In fact, he finished behind Brandon Aaronson, who actually scored fewer goals despite playing the entire season as an attacking mid. None of those guys had Dotson’s defensive responsibilities, and their performances on offense (which, again, Dotson basically did in his spare time) were comparable or worse. Awful voting… …I wouldn’t have picked Vito Mannone in my top three for goalkeeper of the year, but it’s certainly a nice reward for him, after a brilliant second half of the season… …Andy Greder at the Pioneer Press has a great piece about how Francisco Calvo’s departure was an early turning point for the team. Turns out all the things that grated on fans about the Costa Rican were also grating on the players!… …From qualitative data to quantitative data, see how Bruce “Du Nord” McGuire rated the players from game to game throughout the season, as charted by Collin Solberg… …The best opening round match on paper is probably Red Bulls at Philadelphia, but mark me down as excited for Atlanta vs New England. Maybe the Five Stripes blow an inferior Revs team away, but I’ve learned not to count out Bruce Arena in these situations. He can make this game a horrible slog for the defending champs if he wants, and I’m not sure Frank de Boer will be able to get his team out of it… …I’m worried about the turf after the football match the day before, but I’m not mad about how it happened. Allianz Field should always be more than just a single-use space for Minnesota United. To the greatest extent possible, it should be able to host other events for the community, and that includes other sports and games. Obviously the quality of the turf has to be preserved, and it sucks that the slow-moving trainwreck of a schedule conflict unfolded in this way, but I don’t expect it to occur again.

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