When Minnesota United officially joined the MLS last spring, I said sign me up. When they brought back Christian Ramirez from the NASL squad, lured Miguel Ibarra from Liga MX, and hired an attack-minded coach in Adrian Heath, well, let’s just say it was love at first sight.
After Saturday’s 5-2 road loss to previously winless New England, to paraphrase a line uttered by the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride: “[Love] is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
While the painful result represents a common theme this season, the personnel on the field represented something of a novelty. Between international duty, injuries, and red card suspensions, six starters were unavailable.
This helped answer a question we have all been wondering about for a while now: how much depth do we have? Well, now we know the answer: not enough.
So what do we take away from this? Let’s take some time to shield our eyes from the horror that is the big picture and focus on some smaller pieces that might not give us indigestion. Heath put some new faces on the pitch after all; let’s take a look at how they did. I’ll break the field into chunks, and offer some observations. Maybe it will make us all feel better.
Neither Ibarra nor Bashkim Kadril have nailed down a starting spot at this point, so Saturday represented something of an opportunity for each. So where were they? Neither managed to stamp much authority down the flanks. While a lot of blame will be heaped on the back four, there are other intangibles – such as a more established presence on the wings – that could help alleviate defensive pressure. The fact that both of these guys were subbed out at half time makes alarm bells go off in my head. I don’t see this team doing well down the road without at least one of these guys coming through as an established long-term presence. On a positive note, opposing keepers still don’t know how to handle Kadril’s knucklers, even when they come in from less dangerous angles.
The person I have the most to say about is Ibson, who helped offset the absence of central players like Rasmus Schuller and Johan Venegas. He’s just some guy we brought on from the old NASL roster right before preseason began – an afterthought it seemed at the time – but he was one of the most important guys on the field in terms of our ability to possess the ball Saturday. He does what possession midfielders do – he carries the ball tight to his foot, with authority, into seams of space with his head up. This forces the defense to shift, and account for an attacking presence, opening up other options downfield. When we are at our worst, we spend too much time relatively stagnant making well meaning but harmless passes in our own end. This allows the opponent to set up and wait patiently for us to stumble, then pounce and counter. Ibson’s more dynamic ball movement was an exception to that stagnation.
Man, I want Vladimir Demidov to work out so badly, and I am still holding on the faint hope that we somehow find a place for him on the field that helps us, but Saturday he struggled – again. The first PK might have been a partially orchestrated dive, but I fear that speedy forwards who watch game film have already discovered how to prey on Demidov’s shortcomings. Brent Kallman, however, was great again and looks like he just might be the long-term solution alongside Francisco Calvo. He looked as formidable as he did last week, and notched a goal to boot. What more can you ask for?
Saturday also saw the MLS debut of fan favorite Kevin Vengegas. I think there was a collective sigh of relief when the line up card posted on twitter. Viva is not forgotten! His outing, however, was a mixed bag. He was caught badly out of position on one or two occasions during the first half, but seemed to grow more comfortable as the game progressed. Most notably, he got forward and delivered several dangerous looking balls into the area during the second half.
As far as goalkeeper Bobby Shuttllesworth is concerned, well, I don’t recall any goals that he should have saved, but neither he nor regular starter John Alvbage have made any of the game-breaking kinds of saves that one hopes to see – at least occasionally – out of a solid MLS keeper.
Abu Danladi saw extended time, and used his speed to put the opponents on their heals twice, including one that led to the foul which set up Kallman’s goal off a direct kick. He is still adjusting, but I feel like I saw flashes of what made him the top pick in the SuperDraft. Collin Martin, meanwhile, came on late in the game, and New England was not pressing as hard as they had been in the first half. In preseason, Martin demonstrated flashes of the ability to make incisive passes from a deep central position, like a poor man’s Michael Bradley. Saturday, he looked able in possession, but did not sparkle.
Those of us learning to cope with the pain that is this inaugural season can perhaps take consolation from flashes of potential we saw from some of these new faces. Does that make it all better? Goodness gracious no! Should we go ahead and transition into full on #PANIC mode? I don’t think so. It’s still early, after all, and things could very well get better. If they don’t, well, there is still plenty of time to jump on that dilapidated bandwagon down the road.