Last season, Minnesota United’s home opener was a fiasco of goals surrendered and a delight of white, fluffy snow. The ‘Snowopener’ wasn’t the result Loons supporters wanted but it was a wild and fun match. The first of many.
Come 2018, Minnesota has largely the same roster, give or take a few pieces let loose into the wild, but is more familiar with each other, understand their expectations better, and have found a way to win. It’s early in the season, damn early, so any talk of the Loons turning their fortunes around or being a quality team are all still premature. However, the team has shown more than just promise; it is showing quality.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
What better way to show that promise than with the largest tifo display in Minnesota soccer history?
All of the major Minnesota United supporter groups helped create this Daft Punk inspired tifo, over a hundred folks, under the direction of David Martin, one half of the podcast The Daves I Know (@Offensive_Loons & @TDIKMN ). Here, enjoy it again:
Last week, the Loons were able to secure an unexpected three points on the road facing an injury ravaged Orlando City. It’s fair to say the Loons probably wouldn’t have won if Orlando had been at full strength. It’s also fair to say in the second half of that match, Minnesota turn it on and soundly beat Orlando. There was a glimpse of what this team could be, and it left supporters eager for more.
However, we were all brought down to earth when it was officially announced Kevin Molino had suffered a season ending injury. While supporters and pundits have clamored for a ‘number 10’ and decried how Molino isn’t that guy, losing a key offensive cog so early in the season when it just began to look like things were lining up for him and the squad was crushing.
Yet Loons supporters had grounds for hope. While Sam Nicholson has apparently locked down the left wing relegating Miguel Ibarra to the bench as a ‘super-sub’ with Molino out the team actually has depth enough to compensate. Ibarra has always been more dangerous and more effective as a central attacking midfielder (CAM) than as a left winger. In fact, it has always astounded me that he’s been pushed out wide with the assumption it’s where he belongs. Moving horizontally across the pitch in the attacking third keeping defenders on their toes, creating chances, and then drifting back to cover the wings or defend centrally is the Ibarra we came to love at NSC Stadium. In fact, when I dragged my father-in-law to see Minnesota for the first time (when they were the Minnesota Stars) he had two takeaways–one, PRO officiating was grotesquely incompetent, and two, “that little guy has got a fucking motor and I love it.” Alex Schieferdecker over at FiftyFive.One explains it better in his match review.
Ahead of this match, the idea of the attacking trio of Nicholson, Ibarra, and Ethan Finlay behind Christian Ramirez sounded not just promising but better than previous options. This is because Nicholson-Ibarra-Finlay can move and harry defenders through their horizontal movement. In the case of the Chicago Fire, this leaves defenders often flat-footed and slow to react or compensate. This was exactly what we saw throughout the match and why the Loons were able to get the better of Chicago.
There was also the fact that Chicago lack midfield general and world footballing icon Bastian Schweinsteiger leaving only one player, Aleksandar Katai, to generate service for Nemanja Nikolić. Closing down Katai wasn’t easy, but once done, it left the Fire toothless. Only a flub by ex-Chicago goalkeeper Matt Lampson gave them any hope and this was quickly erased; also, I would argue Lampson’s error removes him from the starting spot.
No we come to something I have to admit. I’ve hated Nicholson since he signed with Minnesota. I think he’s technique and quality is poor, and even when successful, he is a one-trick pony. I still believe much of this, but over these last two matches Nicholson has really shone. Against Orlando he never stopped pushing the opposing fullback forcing the opposition into making rash decisions as well as allowing him to do his move–cut inside and shoot–with success. Saturday out left, Nicholson had to match his pace to Ibarra’s and doing so exhausted Chicago leaving them with only one real option–unnecessary and unwise physicality. If Nicholson continues to play at this level and picks up one more skill set (quality crossing would be nice as would the option to cut inside and pass), then I’ll have to eat my words and admit his worth.
It’s a great position to be in, seeing players hungry to win, to improve, to play better and it makes being a supporter fun.
Next week, Minnesota United will be without their starting centerback duo Michael Boxall and captain Francisco Calvo as well as holding central midfielder Rasmus Schuller. Not having the mildly competent bull-in-a-china-shop Boxall will be no loss but being without Calvo and Schuller will make things against New York Red Bulls a bit dodgy. Brent Kallman and rookie Wyatt Omsberg could do just fine as could Kallman and perhaps new international signing Bertrand Owundi Eko’o. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the center of the midfield, we will most likely see Heath go with Collen Warner (if Sam Cronin is still out with injury) pair with Ibson, and I think this would be a mistake. Warner is slow to react and almost always looking to foul; he collects cards like Gambit. A better option may be Luiz Fernando but he may not be match fit. It’s an unpopular choice, but Collin Martin has shown the best chemistry with Ibson and it will be that aspect which will work best for the Loons as New York is going to be a major challenge. Again, we’ll have to wait and see.
If Minnesota United can walk away from Red Bull Arena with points, then the Loons will have proven its mettle.