Exit Interview: On Minnesota United’s 1st MLS Season

cst 9325 Minnesota United home opener

The 2017 MLS regular season is over. Minnesota United in its first year in the top league in the US did not make the postseason where the top half of the league’s teams play for the league title. While not a good season, Minnesota United (the Loons) avoided being the worst team in the league finishing in 19th place. While there certainly was quite a bit of poor play, there was also some rather good moments. The Loons will go into Year 2 having learned a lot. Now is the time to take stock of the team’s strengths and weaknesses to determine where and how the team can improve.  

Here are the players who I believe need to stay with Minnesota, those who aren’t worth the effort, and those who for one reason or another just don’t fit with the team and should be allowed to pursue other opportunities. At the end, I offer up a list of off-season needs and suggest some broader tactical changes.

The Core

There are seven players who absolutely must remain on the team for 2018: Ibson, Francisco Calvo, Ethan Finlay, Brent Kallman, Christian Ramirez, Bobby Shuttleworth, & Jerome Thiesson.

These players not only performed well this inaugural season but also are key pieces around which a better team can be built. Some of these players are future transfer assets (Calvo, Kallman), a potential US Men’s National Team member (Ramirez), supremely adept journeymen (Ibson, Thiesson), or superbly fit for the league (Finlay, Shuttleworth). 

Shuttleworth was often the only man keeping the Loons in a match. His amazing collection of penalty saves this year alone is impressive as is his grit and physicality. With a regular backline to command, Shuttleworth could quietly become a league elite keeper. MLS has a deep and abiding lack of proper fullbacks and competent centerbacks. Thus, keeping Calvo, Kallman, and Thiesson is vital. Kallman especially demonstrated that he is not only MLS quality but also a good partner with Calvo. In 2018, Calvo will see time in the World Cup (something that’ll certainly raise his quality and potential transfer value) and a lot of weight will be put on Kallman’s shoulders. It will be an opportunity for the Minnesota native to rise to elite status within the league. Because MLS (and the US style of play in general) fundamentally misapprehends what a fullback is and how to deploy the position, it is frequently a major hole for many and most domestic teams. With Thiesson, Minnesota have a player whose knowledge and skill set is deep at the position. For the foreseeable future, rightback is solved for the Loons. 

Staying on the right side of the pitch, Finlay acquired in a midseason trade with Columbus is a winger who works well with Thiesson trading off attacking and defending duties. Unlike the team’s chaotic left side and lazy attacking center, Finlay can dribble and cut in when necessary but is actually competent in crossing as well as delivering a vital pass (the assist as well as the second assist). Similarly, central midfielder Ibson has shown he plays up to competition and was the engine of the team for the entirety of the season. But what Ibson needs is a central mid partner who compliments rather than overlaps with his skills.

Finlay and Ibson had as a target the technically gifted striker Christian Ramirez, who’s scored double-digit goals every season of his career since 2013. Ramirez isn’t a classic poacher or big target man up front. Rather, he is quickly becoming a total forward who can make the wise pass, provide the selfless assist, and score from distance, near, or with his head. Like any striker, he requires proper service and to be around teammates who see his role as the tip of the spear. Going into 2018, Ramirez is easily one of the best strikers in MLS and, arguably, one of the best US forwards.

 

The Middling

The early season trade for leftback Marc Burch and central midfielder Sam Cronin was the move needed to right a sinking ship. However, neither Burch nor Cronin should be relied upon to carry the team or even to fix the positions they hold down. They are both good, veteran league players who ought to be in the gameday eighteen every week. They are not long-term nor short-term solutions. Burch’s age works against him and Cronin is less effective than many realize and while useful, his pairing with Ibson does not bring out the best in either. 

Similarly, although he had a successful rookie season stats-wise, Abu Danladi was massively underwhelming. Yes, he does show promise but it’s the kind of promise that would most effectively bloom with a play-nearly-every-minute loan to a 2nd tier team. A comparison would be Dom Dwyer who required his time at then-USL Orlando City in order to become the striker he was for Sporting Kansas City. Danladi needs to play and play only as a striker every week.

Acquired for all the gold in the state, Kevin Molino took on the mantle of ‘Minnesota’s playmaker’ and because he was the only player most away commentators bothered to look up was frequently called the Loons best. He is not. Not either, actually. Because Heath rates Molino so highly, he gladly ignores the winger’s inability but insistence on dribbling through defenders when he needn’t, his inability to provide any kind of cross, his frequent play-acting which then cheapens all the actual fouls committed against the Loons, and his selfishness in key situations. Molino will make up for this with the occasional incisive pass, stunning assist, or poacher’s goal but is it really enough to make up for all of his massive on the pitch character flaws? Heath thinks so.

However, Heath refuses to grant Miguel Ibarra is even mildly competent and as we saw, routinely looked for ways to keep him out of the line-up. Bringing in the boy-toy Sam Nicholson was one way, repeatedly trying to make Bashkim Kadrii, and when these didn’t work, he straight up insulted Ibarra because Heath is a bully with bad taste. In fact, Adrian Heath frequently shows the kind of judgment and acumen one would assume coveted by Mike Ashley.

Wasting Ibarra not only devalued an asset but it soured a large section of the fanbase. I would hope that Ibarra stays and is given the not just the opportunity he deserves and has earned but is deployed appropriate so he can succeed. This last point is important because when a player is proper used they can surprise you like the way Collin Martin did in the later portion of the season. Stepping in for Cronin, Martin paired very well with Ibson and, I would argue, playing in such a way to free up Ibson to play better. Martin is the kind of central midfielder who could blossom quickly into a starting eleven player if given the minutes early with the right personnel around him.

 

The Poor

There were players signed going into the season that turned into spectacular failures (I won’t be addressing Vadim Demidov as his presence on the roster is merely an afterimage of his release). These players were kept on due to a combination of thinness of roster and the stubborn stupidity of Adrian Heath, a coach who is grotesquely lost at this level of play. The players brought in mid-season demonstrated an ardent lack of judgment. If these players remain, the team will continue to flounder at best being able to achieve an exhausted mediocrity.

Centerback Jermaine Taylor was routinely played out of position revealing just how slow he is. Taylor lacks quickness or speed and has zero chemistry with any of his fellow defenders. While a stalwart for the Jamaican national team, he is well past his prime at the professional level. Similarly, central midfielder Collen Warner has shown he lacks the discipline to play the one role he can succeed at, that of defensive mid. Too often, Warner either vacates his duties or drifts disengaged from the play around him. While Warner is ignorantly disengaged, Johan Venegas has somehow managed to be actively nonchalant about his aggressively lackluster play. Never a competent winger, far too myopic to be an effective central attacking mid, and infinitely timid as a striker, Venegas has played himself out of quality or consideration.

We see certain players like Venegas given far too much time even after they’ve gone through get pains to demonstrate they are unfit to play. One of the many factors marking Adrian Heath as not just a poor manager but an ill-equipped one is his unabashed bias towards certain players. Heath glorifies the mediocre believing doing so will somehow elevate it. It is an insulting and contemptuous ethic giving us the woefully under-skilled and immature left winger Sam Nicholson and the constantly confused, panicked, and error-prone centerback Michael Boxall. These two players rather than stabilize or improve the squad are actively pulling it down in quality as is the misguided notion Ismaila Jome can be a fullback let alone successfully play at the level of MLS.

The continued existence of these players on the roster only portends failure.

 

The Others

The remaining players have had little to no impact on the team: loanee Jose Leiton, backup goalkeepers Patrick McLain and Alex Kapp, Joseph Greenspan, Thomas de Villardi, season injured Bernardo Añor, and loanee Brandon Allen. None of them is a failure, but none warrant consideration or inclusion on a MLS team.

Fullbacks Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas suffered under Heath’s wretched man-management and stolid tactics. Although both can and should remain in MLS and with the Loons, it’s difficult to see it happening as long as Heath exists as coach. It pains me because both Davis and Viva are players who I like. Davis may not be a starting leftback in MLS but given the lack at the position he is an infinitely better option than anything currently had. Viva succeeds in attack and would probably be better suited to becoming a proper right winger than staying a rightback. However, I doubt Heath is astute enough of a coach to train anyone at a new or better position. Similarly, central midfielder Rasmus Schuller was never given enough of a chance to develop and could be a good asset. Yet we will likely never know. 

 

Conclusions

1: #HeathOut

Adrian Heath is responsible for the poor play of Minnesota United in 2017. He lack the ability to manage a team at this level. He should not be allowed any more time in the organization than is absolutely necessary.

Who then should replace him? Any one of the following assuming that individual is given true managerial responsibility and not just a ‘head coach’: Mike Phelan, Aitor Karanka, and Gio Savarese. If we wanted to stay with domestic ‘head coaches then I would say John Harkes, Jay Heaps, or CJ Brown. 

It would not be cheap, but it would be better for the team (fans, players, and organization) to have any of these names over what they have now. Minnesota needs a younger, smarter coach understanding contemporary football both domestically and internationally.

2: Get Over the Idea of a ‘Number 10’

The system most used this season pushed players into roles that did not suit them. Players were set up to fail. Tactically stolid, the Loons’ 4-2-3-1 was a mess up front, too thin in the middle, and panicked in defense. It did not improve with the acquisition of different players because the same issues persisted only now in a less hemorrhaging form. This system only becomes truly effective with a trequartista, and there aren’t nearly enough out there. What there are is a slew of middling-to-poor wingers who think they can dribble inside or shoot from distance taking on all comers alone. This is not the kind of player you want on your team. We need to let this fetish go. 

3: What are the needs?

Wingers are all over the Loons’ roster. Few of them can cross or provide service adequately, but there’s no need for more wingers. I’m not wild about keeping Ibarra out wide but he is superior to Nicholson, and if we must keep Molino, he can be just as effective out left as he is centrally. However, there is a serious need for a starting leftback–one who is first and foremost a fullback and not some ineffectual winger being pushed back. Right now, the left side of Minnesota’s team is profoundly weak.

Whereas picking up a playmaker at center attacking mid wouldn’t be a bad notion, it seems as though another central midfielder would be a better get. A three man central midfield would be more interesting and effective for the Loons than its current formation. Minnesota needs two quality central midfielders preferably a box-to-box mid and defensive-minded bruiser who can nearly always win the ball.

I would also say a third true striker is necessary. Someone to partner with and push Ramirez as Danladi matures. I’d prefer a poacher–a player with a good first touch, positioning, and finishing. What Minnesota doesn’t need is another project at forward or some nebulous player who’s equal parts not a winger, CAM, or striker.

Finally, there is depth. Minnesota lacked depth all season. Players almost always being played out of position and being trotted out without proper rest, which led to further injury and/or ineffectiveness. Also, the players on the bench were often not of a quality good enough to turn the tide or even see out a match. Couple this with Heath’s in game inability to make good decisions and the whole team suffered, often unfairly. Depth can be found within MLS and all over the domestic terrain. There should never be an international serving as a depth signing. Instead of going without, Minnesota needs to embrace journeymen (not necessarily veterans) players who will always be pushing for a spot but know their place. This, of course, requires nuanced man-management and a keen eye for talent and fit; stubbornness, unfounded pride, sideline histrionics over tactical direction, and bullying will not do.

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