Second Draft: Minnesota United’s Initial Prospects for 2018

Minnesota United’s first season in MLS was difficult. Was it as horrible as some pundits thought it would be? No. 

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@GrantWahl

Was it middling-poor? If you’re being generous…maybe. The Loons had a bad season. While there were glimpses of quality, throughout the season the team hobbled along suffering from self-inflicted wounds and a strange insistence on self-flagellation.

I will make no secret of it; I do not think Adrian Heath has the tactical acumen, man management, or judgment to manage successfully at the MLS level if he ever did. However, it’s a new season, and as such it is incumbent upon supporters and pundits to grant the benefit of the doubt to the team. I agree with Eli Hoff over at E Pluribus Loonum “It’s unlikely that anything less than 45 will earn the club a playoff spot, and anything less than 40 would be much the same as last season.” So then, what does Minnesota have to do to achieve a respectable sophomore season? Especially, when nearly every other team in the league as well as this season’s expansion side LAFC are making major moves for players and allocation funds.

To begin with, there is news suggesting the Loons are really pushing to sign Colombian attacking midfielder Nicolas Benedetti. This is by far the most significant move the team has made this off-season. Calling the front office stingy in its team building would be overly generous. It’s gotten to the point for supporters, and I would contend commentators, that because of the utter lack of signings any player acquisition or even the hint of one gets undue scrutiny, both positive and negative.

To this end, many supporters have become obsessed with the team getting ‘a true No. 10.’ So much so it has become rather ridiculous. Because Heath refuses to deploy any tactical system outside of a wide 4-2-3-1, the 10 role is necessary for its success. In 2017, the role was unsuccessfully filled by Johan Venegas and then limply by Kevin Molino while Miguel Ibarra was entirely overlooked as a mobile, creative, and energetic central attacking midfielder. If Benedetti comes to Minnesota, then he will be the 10. As to his quality, it will come down to how easily he adapts to the US game and how well Heath harnesses his talents. As of this writing, it sounds like if this signing happens, then it will be over the summer (MLS midseason).

Minnesota can succeed without a 10. It will require thinking outside the current system Heath is force-feeding. The pre-season tournament in Charleston will give many of us our first glimpse at what will be the 2018 team.

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One hopes more players will be added before this gets underway, but don’t hold your breath. It looks like the roster Minnesota has right now is 90% what it will have on opening day. So let’s take a minute and briefly examine these players and where they could slot in.

First, we should consider the draft day cohort. The Loons had arguably the best draft day in the league this year. Mason Toye, Carter Manly, Wyatt Omsberg, and Xavier Gomez make up a sizeable youth contingent for Minnesota and even though they haven’t officially been signed by the team, it wouldn’t make sense to let any of them go given how thin (once again) the roster is. Manley and Omsberg fill back-up roles the team needs at fullback and centerback. Toye and Gomez provide striker depth, which will be especially necessary should Heath finally breakout of his stolid formation and explore a two striker set-up. Also picked up by the Loons on draft day was goalkeeper Matt Lampson in a trade with the Chicago Fire. Lampson is not the reason Chicago’s defense was the high quality it was in 2017, so the notion he ought to start over Shuttleworth evinces a lack of familiarity with Lampson’s time on the pitch. But, again, he is a solid back-up which will be vital given Shuttleworth has no qualms with sacrificing his body.

 

Conclusion 1:

These five players ought to only see time on the pitch off the bench, in US Open Cup play, or due to injury ahead of them. Each are talented and promising but with the exception of Lampson not ought not to be in the gameday eighteen.

Christian Ramirez is the most technically astute striker in Major League Soccer. He is also the only US striker of any merit over the last few seasons:

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Remaining healthy will be the trick for Ramirez. Heath tends to grind his players down. Although Abu Danladi has a good rookie season, there were more than a few weeks where it was clear that Heath’s deployment of Danladi was detrimental to the young striker’s health and success. There is the worry this may also take its toll on Ramirez, especially since the Loons lack a true third striker who could step in should either Ramirez or Danladi be injured. Neither Toyes nor Gomez is ready. With this in mind, it perhaps makes sense to only send out one striker. But Danladi has shown his quality and deserves to start in his proper position and Ramirez needs to learn how to partner with a fellow talented striker if he hopes to succeed outside of Minnesota.

Conclusion 2:
A two striker system needs to be brought out to supplant or at least compliment Heath’s stolid Wide 4-2-3-1, and for this to happen a competent journeyman striker needs to be acquired. 

 

There are still gaping holes in the Loons starting eleven. Going off of last season, the most sensible if healthy Heath 4-2-3-1 would be this:

 

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However, this isn’t a line-up Heath would likely want to play and there are problems with it. To begin with, Miguel Ibarra isn’t consider consistent starting quality by Heath who prefers Sam Nicholson out left. Nicholson isn’t a better left winger than Ibarra, rather he is a different kind of winger than Ibarra. The Scotsman crosses poorly, rarely picks his head up to see what’s before him, and prefers to cut inside believing blind long-range shots to be something dangerous. Ibarra, on the other hand, when forced out on the left will track back more readily and look to move across the field looking to draw defenders away from other attackers so he can find an opening to pass to them. Honestly, Ibarra would be better suited in the central attacking midfield role where Kevin Molino is shoehorned.

Molino performs better out wide on the wing. However, Ethan Finlay is a better option out right, and while Molino could play on the left wing, it would seriously mute his ability. Thus, we see Molino, a player who needs to be on the field, lodged in as a would-be 10 even though he is most assuredly not that kind of player. Assuming Molino’s effort and attitude have undergone an overhaul, he may fill this role better than in 2017 and develop a partnership with Ramirez which would be to the benefit of all.

Conclusion 3:

We all need to move beyond the fetish for a ‘No. 10’ and embrace a two striker system with wingers more focused on crossing and passing.

In the central midfield, even at age 34 Ibson is one of the best midfielders in MLS. Playing confidently alongside a partner he can trust is the most vital element to his game. Is ball winning midfielder Sam Cronin that partner? There are doubts. The two can work together well enough but they don’t seem to really fit. Ibson needs to have the freedom to move forward. Too often alongside Cronin, Ibson would either second-guess his partner properly buttressing the run forward or discover that Cronin had indeed drifted too far back or proceeded just behind him leaving a gaping hole in the center of the pitch. Perhaps this will be overcome through familiarity but, again, doubts.

Ibson needs a partner whose quality he can trust. This is not to say Cronin is untrustworthy or a poor player, he’s simply not the partner Ibson needs. Figuring out who that partner is ought to be a top priority. A new signing would be wonderful but is unlikely to happen leaving us looking over what we already have. Although I loathe Nicholson as a player, he has shown glimpses of someone who could be re-trained to play centrally. Next to Collin Martin, Ibson seemed more at ease and both played better when together. If there is any player on the roster with something to prove it is Rasmus Schuller, who needs to prove he isn’t a flop of a signing like the a-cursed Demidov. Colleen Warner isn’t of a quality to move beyond being a sub for Cronin and Heath’s son is joke.

Conclusion 4:

Either Martin or Schuller must step up or a signing who can immediately start needs to be found. Otherwise, the central midfield will always threaten to stall out.

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Defense was and will continue to be a nightmare for Minnesota. While Francisco Calvo has ascended to take the captaincy, the centerback will miss matches this summer while on World Cup duty. This will most likely leave a pairing of Brian Kallman and Michael Boxall. Centerback pairings derive their strength from the relationship built between the two players and less from the quality of the players themselves. Two mediocre centerbacks can create an exceptional defensive partnership while two superb players can turn into an ineffectual duo. Of the three most likely options–Calvo/Kallman, Kallman/Boxall, Calvo/Boxall–only one has shown to be an actual partnership raising the quality of both and it excludes the Kiwi.

 

There has been talk of Calvo playing at leftback as he often does for his national team, but were we to use that logic we would see Boxall at rightback and be left with a chasm in central defense. The fullback situation in Minnesota is maddening. Jerome Thiesson is most naturally a rightback and a perfect compliment to Finlay ahead of him. The two turn the right side of the pitch into a danger zone in attack and a more than competent defense. However, the left side is a problem.

 

Taking a winger and pushing him back does not create a leftback. It creates a winger playing poorly in defense. Marc Burch was a solid counterpart for Thiesson, being the defensive minded fullback who stayed put while his fullback partner moved up to attack. There needs to be an understanding between fullbacks. Think of it like the string keeps a child’s mittens from getting lost. If you pull one side forward, the other side recedes and vice versa. When fullbacks fail to operate this way–both running forward, one getting forward while the other drifts centrally, or neither willingly leaving the defensive third–problems arise because unnecessary pressure is put on other players and positions. If Burch returns at full health, then there’s less of a worry here. Yet if he doesn’t or if Thiesson is injured at point during the rather long season, then Minnesota will have difficulty. With the signing of Tyrone Mears, Minnesota has a venerable veteran at rightback who could allow for Thiesson to move to the left side. However, such a maneuver only shifts perspective while leaving the underlying issues untouched.

Conclusion 5: 

The Loons need a top quality, true leftback as well as an upgrade from Boxall at centerback.

A Wide 4-4-2 would best serve Minnesota United. But to get there, the team needs at least two very specific positional signings to upgrade its quality as well as several supplemental signings to provide cover. 

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With only 26 players on the roster (Venegas, Demidov, and Leiton are non-entities), the Loons are not in a strong position to start 2018. Yet, it feels as though they are poised to have a better campaign than in 2017. Familiarity and fire seem to be radiating from the team according to those who have seen the preseason training. This is a good sign. Again, many and most of us will get our first glimpse of the team during the Carolina Cup Challenge. Hopefully by then, there will be some new faces and some dynamism in the tactics.

We’ll have to wait and see, but overall my fellow supporters of the Loons should feel positive.

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