The Loons: Too Little, Too Late

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There are ten matches left in the 2017 MLS regular season; we’ve entered the final third of the season. While I may not be a fanboy of the league, I will say this season has been entertaining and filled with better quality football than ever before. The resurgence of the Chicago Fire has to be the story of the season but just as interesting is the success the Houston Dynamo have had. Two dreadful teams have apparently finally righted the ship and that should be celebrated.

Another narrative that deserves attention is how the two new faces in the league have fared, Atlanta United and Minnesota United. Atlanta flushed with NFL ownership money to the delight of MLS executives has been able to sign a full contingent of Designated Players each proven well worth it (Héctor Villalba, Josef Martinez, & Miguel Almirón), high priced and high quality journeymen (Greg Garza, Brad Guzan, & Leandro González Pirez), and a contender for Rookie of the Year (Julian Gressel). The majority of Atlanta’s starting eleven any given weekend are some of the league’s top quality players. Thus, Atlanta is poised to make the postseason in its first year. With six home games out of the remaining ten with most of its matches against teams in the bottom third of the league, it would be very surprising if Atlanta United didn’t make the playoffs.

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Meanwhile, Minnesota United have limped through its first season only keeping its head above water thanks to the disastrous performances from DC United, LA Galaxy, and Colorado Rapids (teams that are undergoing rebuilding and front office tensions). Although not the worst team in the league, Minnesota United is a cellar dweller. There are several factors contributing to the lack lustre debut of the Loons, no one thing being the cause but rather each creating what can only be called a matrix of failure. However, the point from which nearly all of Minnesota United’s woes spiral out of is head coach Adrian Heath.

Adrian Heath is the crux of Minnesota United’s failure in Major League Soccer. He is not an appropriate coach for this league; he hasn’t the skill, temperament, or acumen to be a successful let alone middling MLS manager.

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It is unlikely that Heath will be fired before the close of the season, but he ought to be released immediately upon the conclusion of this season. Over these last ten matches, Heath is going to continue to demonstrate stolid tactics, poor man management, and a myopic refusal to appropriately deploy what resources he has.

Minnesota are not lacking quality. Forward Christian Ramirez is arguably the most technically astute striker in the league. Fullback Jerome Thiesson has proven to be invaluable experiencing individual success in a league that roundly fails to understand how to use fullbacks (or as only the American media terms the position, ‘outside backs’). The journeymen in central midfield, Sam Cronin and Ibson, are stalwarts if not uncreative. The budding partnership of centerbacks Francisco Calvo and Brent Kallman is promising. While at times frustrating, attacking midfielder Kevin Molino has proven that he isn’t a flash in the pan. Yet each of these players have suffered under the management of Heath.

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The refusal to put together a full roster put unnecessary physical pressure on players. The effects of Heath refusing to sub out tired players or those just returned from injury has led to prolonged injury to players. This mentality has also given us utterly exhausted regulars. The grind can take just enough of the edge off a player, shaving them from top quality to middling-poor in no time. Any Minnesota player with significant minutes has been put into situations by Heath where the likelihood of success was minimal. And those are the lucky one.

Heath has made it clear in his action or, rather, inaction he doesn’t rate or value at least a third of his roster. Fullbacks Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas, central midfielders Collin Martin and Rasmus Schuller (before he was loaned out) barely saw the pitch, their minutes scattershot preventing them from developing any sort of rhythm or relationship in competition with teammates. Instead, Heath has rolled out a shocking under-skilled striker turned winger turned fullback in Ismaila Jome to start over experienced players of higher quality. Similarly, Heath has had nothing but a contentious relationship with Loons star Miguel Ibarra, a player he seems to actively be trying to force out of the club. 

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The lack of a full roster meant there were very few matches that saw a regular line-up. Minnesota has been most successful when it has fielded an approximation of a familiar starting eleven. Heath has been butchering the line-up from the very first by playing individuals out of position as he forces them into in his 4-2-3-1 system. It’s not that this tactic can’t work, it’s that Heath has no other option. He can’t think of a different, more effective tactical framework to get the most out of the players at his disposal. But what truly makes Heath a poor manager at this level is his doubling down on his failures.

Minnesota lack depth at nearly every position with the exception of wingers. While Ibson and Cronin have made a good midfield partnership they have too often left the defense exposed while failing to connect with the attack. The reason for this is that both central midfielders need another player to whom they can reliably look to outside of each other. The closest the Loons have gotten has been Kevin Molino. The options on the bench for central midfield relief only exacerbate the problem. Collen Warner is a defensive midfielder whom Heath seems to want or allows to wander far too forward exposing nearly everyone else. Collin Martin could be an answer but his youth requires a patience and regularity of playing time best gotten on loan as a starter for a NASL or USL side for a season. Rasmus Schuller was never given a chance to gel and is now gone. This means the Ibson and Cronin have to go out every week and play the full ninety because there is no one who can step in without diminishing the team.

Johan Venegas was suppose to be the connection in Heath’s system between the central midfield and the wings (Molino out right, Ibarra out left) who would then find the striker or finish themselves. However, Venegas is not that kind of player. He is more of a second striker, so in a 4-2-3-1 formation, his talents become ineffectual. Also, when your three attacking midfielders (left winger, central attacking mid, and right winger) lack the ability to put in quality crosses it means that the tactic must rely on dribbling through defenses and shots from distance. While each of these players can do this on occasion, they cannot do it consistently and each lacks the skill set to win back a ball they’ve lost in a dribble. The issue is that all three attackers are less effective as wingers than they are as central attacking midfielders (CAM), but packing three attacking mids behind a single striker will only create confusion. Both Molino and Venegas are more striker than they are winger or attacking mid, and Ibarra, while a perfect central attacking mid, has been clipped by Heath at every turn leaving him impotent on the field.

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In an effort to force his tactics to work, Heath brought in during the transfer window right winger Ethan Finlay and left winger Jose Leiton to join fellow new signing left winger Sam Nicholson and forgotten left winger Bashkim Kadrii. Minnesota United now have seven wingers (nine if we include Jome and true striker Abu Danladi). If Heath believes that Molino is most effective in the central attacking mid slot, these acquisitions mean that Finlay will now be the new starting right winger and Nicholson and Leiton will spar for the left. Neither Nicholson nor Leiton ought to be starting over Ibarra, yet they most likely will.

Finlay is a good acquistion. He can cut inside and be dangerous but his real value is how he vastly improves the service to be had. Also, Finlay is a much better fit ahead of Thiesson. Unlike with Molino out wide, Thiesson will not be alone going forward, having to deliver the ball in on a cross, and then sprint back to defend. Instead, Finlay and Thiesson ought to be able to overlap and effectively cover each other making the right side of the pitch a legit threat while being competent enough to relieve pressure on the rest of the field.

Nicholson is mediocre but can put in better crosses than any other option out left. Unfortunately, without a competent leftback Nicholson will continue to be exposed and be encouraged by Heath’s tactic to dribble inside and shoot when that is most certainly not this player’s strong suit. To continually roll out the ill prepared Jome at leftback is maddening. Over the last six matches, Jome has started five and surrendered twelve goals. Jome like Martin ought to be playing every week at the NASL or USL level in order to develop; Jome does not have the skills to bloom at the MLS level. Justin Davis ought to be starting at leftback if Marc Burch is not returning this season. If Davis is behind Ibarra, then the two already have a relationship and understanding shoring up the left side (especially now with the new right). If Heath insists on Nicholson, then Davis provides the defensive posture Nicholson and Kadrii lack as neither winger tracks back.

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Honestly, I suspect that Heath may deploy Leiton at leftback. This would be interesting as he already has a relationship with Francisco Calvo from their national team play. But fullbacks have to balance each other, when one goes forward the other must stay back. Think of it as a seesaw or, better yet, the mittens you use to have a small child with the string that connected them. Thiesson knows this which is why he’s been effective. During their time prior to MLS with Minnesota, Davis and Kevin Venegas were successful because they had this kind of understanding as did Marc Burch and Thiesson briefly this season before injury derailed it.

While Nicholson and Leiton may be proper left wingers, they are not better players than Ibarra. Having them instead of Ibarra is, at best, a lateral move. But to place Ibarra at this most effective position of CAM means he’s set against Molino for playing time. This is a dumb move because it creates needless competition while again wasting resources. Yet this is exactly the kind of corner Heath has painted himself into. Without flexibility in central midfield and without a regular back four, Heath has cannibalized Minnesota’s primary strength–its attack.

Width is what Minnesota United need with wingers (buttressed by overlapping fullbacks) able to deliver precise crosses into the box occupied by a two man strike team. It may sound too old fashion, but Heath’s 4-2-3-1 needs to give way to a wide 4-4-2:

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Of course, the discussion is rather moot at this point. With ten games left to play, there is no way that Minnesota United will make the postseason. What the team must focus on now is finding a formula that exploits and heightens its strengths giving add value to players who may move on during the off season. What the Loons need to avoid is the soccer equivalent of the late season call-ups in MLB where prospects take up most of the playing time.

Given his disdain for his players, if Heath wants to win back any goodwill, keep his job, and stop embarrassing the Minnesota faithful, then he must change is tactics and attitude.

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