This Saturday Major League Soccer’s 2018 season will get underway and the team I most love, Minnesota United, will open its second season in San Jose. I will be watching the Loons open this season from the middling comfort of my Kentucky home. At least, I hope to but then again who knows what exactly will happen attempting to stream MLS content out of market and in the backwoods.
Making predictions is a futile gesture but one we love across all sport. Going into opening day, here are my thoughts on how Minnesota United will start out this season.
It would be fair to say the off-season for the Loons has not been dramatic or, even, interesting. The highest profile signing or, at least, most practical was that of veteran rightback Tyrone Mears, which was more picking up a discarded player than actually pursuing an addition. One could argue the trade for goalkeeper Matt Lampson from Chicago Fire was a major move but that bucket is made of holes. Lampson isn’t a starting quality goalkeeper and while in Chicago showed this nearly minute he was on the pitch. Lampson’s success, if you can call it that, derives from the quality of defense in front of him which will be greatly diminished now he is in Minnesota. Also, creating a goalkeeper debate was a needless thing to do. There are vastly more important areas on the field to be concerned with and throwing a position that was secure into doubt is just plain stupid.
During the off-season, Minnesota only did one thing well–it drafted and signed three young players (rightback Carter Manley, centerback Wyatt Omsberg, and striker Mason Toye) showing a good deal of promise to be solid career MLS players. However, all the other moves the team made were, at best, head scratchers.
The International Situation
Head coach Adrian Heath first brought his son, central midfielder Harrison Heath, on board. This grossly nepotistic move was rightly mocked as Heath the Younger was for all intents and purposes an USL failure. Yet, here he is on a MLS contract. Glossing over this credibility crushing maneuver we come to the Cameroonian acquisitions.
Frantz Pangop and Bertrand Owundi Eko’o are internationals who never caught on outside of the leagues in Cameroon. Both featured for Cameroon in the African Cup but that particular competition requires national teams to only feature domestic talent, which is to say the value of their international caps needs to be weighted. There is also the confusion about just what kind of players these two are.
Pangop appears to be yet another left winger, a position where Minnesota already has a too much talent, and Eko’o a defensive midfielder or, perhaps, a central defender–details are utterly lacking. With Eko’o’ like Pangop information is limited, and no one has yet seen him on US soil. However, defensive midfield is a positional hole so acquiring Eko’o does have a certain logic. It is a logic shared with the signing of Brazilian defensive mid Luis Fernando, who is also only with the team in name. Fernando is more of a known quantity although only by a sliver. He is returning from a career threatening injury and even when healthy never made enough of an impression to warrant notice outside of the second or third tier of footballing nations.
By buying out Vadim Demidov’s contract and loaning out Johan Venegas, some international slots were opened up. However, the ongoing non-use of left winger Jose Leiton, the return of central midfielder Rasmus Schuller, and the signing of Pangop, Eko’o, and Fernando put the team in the hole when it comes to international slots.
Left winger Sam Nicholson, fullback Jerome Thiesson, centerback Michael Boxall, centerback Francisco Calvo, and striker Abu Danladi round out the eleven internationals on a team that can only have nine. Danladi might be exempted being Generation Adidas and would be the only one genuinely close to acquiring a Green Card. As mentioned, the loaning out of Venegas may open a slot. One never knows because of the byzantine rules MLS invents as it goes.
Leiton looks as though he’s a loanee who will never see the pitch, and I would hope he is returned to the obscurity from which he was drawn. Still, the international situation is troubling. Minnesota has clogged its system up with gambles of quality that also hamstring further roster moves. I would be less concerned about the signings if they weren’t internationals because then they would simply be domestic talent rounding out the numbers. I refuse to believe there aren’t domestic players possessing the same talent who can be brought in for the exact same or lesser cost than Leiton, Pangop, Eko’o, and Fernando. Heath the Younger is a failed USL player, but there are a slew of quality USL players out there who would jump at the chance to prove themselves in MLS.
Moving on from the international situation, we need to examine just what Heath thinks he’s doing with the talent afforded him. To begin with, Heath seems to rate Boxall over Brian Kallman even though nearly everyone else in the sport recognizes this is erroneous. Boxall lacks quickness, evinces poor positioning, has shown repeated poor judgment, and lacks chemistry with captain Francisco Calvo. Kallman, on the other hand, has shown himself to be an excellent compliment to Calvo while demonstrating solid marking, pace, decision making, and positioning. Boxall is a bruiser who looks to foul before he thinks to act. This may be the reason Heath, a former striker, prefers Boxall.
The acquisition of Mears gives Minnesota an aged player in a position requiring pace. Also, rightback wasn’t an issue for the team given Thiesson presence. Switching Thiesson to leftback could work but it creates two weak positions rather than one weak and one strong. Marc Burch could very well return to playing leftback allowing Thiesson to stay at rightback and placing Mears as the number one substitute at fullback. This depth is a net zero move due to the release of leftback Justin Davis and rightback Kevin Venegas (both earning less than Mears, of the same talent, and covering two positions) who would have served adequately as back-ups. There is still a void at leftback.
In central midfield, Ibson will be the anchor and engine of the team. The question becomes who will be his partner. Sam Cronin is solid defensive midfielder, the kind who can win balls back and provide cover for the backline, but his skill set is fading fast much like Burch’s. I hope to see Schuller step up to fill the void next to Ibson. In fact, I think a three man central midfield would be a positive step in the right direction, but this would require more tactical nuance from Heath than what he has thus far shown. Collen Warner is a liability, Collin Martin has shown flashes but has yet to settle on a role, and Heath the Younger is nothing. There hasn’t been any real progress made in central midfield. If Schuller tanks as he did last year and Cronin doesn’t recover his form or injuries persist, then central midfield will be a black hole for the Loons.
Alongside Kallman, Heath deems Miguel Ibarra lacking starting quality preferring Nicholson. I am mystified by this given Nicholson’s inability to cross, refusal to pick his head up to see where teammates are and are going to be, his own overrating of his dribbling ability, refusal to track back, and lack of physicality. Ibarra is not a physical player but he is most certainly a team player, the kind of player whose engine is always on and looking to contribute. Nicholson looks to make grand, sweeping gestures, lacks the skill or technique to pull them off, and too often pouts. It also doesn’t help that Ibarra is best when he is playing as a central attacking midfielder and not as a left winger.
Loons supporters have been clamoring for a ‘Number 10’–the creative presence and danger man. For Heath’s system to work (not work effectively, just work period), a true 10 is required. Minnesota lacks a 10. It has Kevin Molino, a right winger who can play centrally. Molino as a 10 is, at best, middling-to-poor. However, out on the right wing Ethan Finlay is the superior player. Getting the two on the pitch together means pushing Molino in and this hasn’t worked. Molino can generate a brilliant pass from time to time–genuinely brilliant–but his default is to dribble through defenders and out of trouble (he isn’t strong in this category) and ignore teammates in better positions to score than he. Molino lacks chemistry with nearly every other player in attack. He gets by on raw talent, which when it flares up is amazing, and the knowledge he is one of Heath’s favored players.
We are going to see Nicholson on the left, Molino at CAM, and Finlay out right exactly how last season ended. These three will be tasked with providing service to either Christian Ramirez, the most successful American striker of the passed three years, or Abu Danladi. Somehow, Heath is unable or unwilling to do the math to get both of these strikers on the pitch at the same time, “A two-striker formation–which would be a deviation from Heath’s favored 4-2-3-1–would best feature those two, but would exclude the plethora of wingers that Minnesota United holds on its roster.” Neither has played well with a partner, which I would contend is due to the utter lack of any time to develop the rapport necessary to do well. This preseason it seemed as though Heath favored Danladi over Ramirez. I would suspect Danladi to start the season even though Ramirez is the superior striker. Yet this is a distraction from the fact that no matter who is the tip of the spear there will be little to no chances generated for him.
This Is How It Begins
Minnesota United is not a better team than last season. All the other teams in the Western Conference have made major improvements leaving the Loons poised to be less successful this year than last. However, last season after seeing just how poor the team was an early trade helped right the ship (acquiring Burch and Cronin). I think the Loons will have to rely on a similar move this year in order to shake them out of the malaise they’ve been in since the end of last season. Nothing has changed enough in Minnesota to warrant optimism.
With that said, Minnesota isn’t and won’t be the worst team in MLS. The Loons could very well over-perform given just how low expectations are and how much doubt is being slung at the team. This roster is still missing at least three critical pieces, the manager of the team is out of his depth tactically and is exceptionally poor at man management, and the Front Office is acquiring pieces that don’t fight the puzzle. This team won’t make the playoffs and will end up roughly at roughly the same level as last season unless major changes come during the summer.
Having said all this, Minnesota United players look to understand each other better than last season and that can go a long way. I’ll be cheering the Loons. I’ll be wearing my old Minnesota jerseys and tees from seven years ago as I find ways to watch this team and drag new people with me to see them both live and streaming. I love the Loons.
This season is going to be fun no matter what.