Nobody said it was going to be easy.
On Friday night, the Loons marked their MLS debut with a lopsided loss to a Portland Timbers team that was just over a year removed from winning MLS Cup. We’ve already covered some of the positive aspects and the vast amount of negative aspects, and now that were a bit removed from the result, it’s time to dive into the tactics and personnel decisions that were employed by manager Adrian Heath.
I want to preface this breakdown by saying that nobody was realistically expecting the Loons to come out of the gates firing and getting all of their personnel decisions correct right off the bat. To put things in perspective, the MLS Expansion draft was less than three months ago and six of the eleven starting players for United were added to the roster less than two months prior to the season debut. It will take time for the roster to gel and for the players to become comfortable in one another but in the meantime, Manager Adrian Heath can help jumpstart the process by correctly evaluating each player’s strengths and weaknesses and using those evaluations to pick a suitable starting lineup and formation.
Heath ended up utilizing a 4-3-3 formation which at times played more like a 4-5-1, which seemed to be a sensible choice in order to provide some defensive shape against a daunting Portland attack. The unfortunate reality of what happened is that the formation was ill-suited to the players that were deployed and that the team found itself unable to maintain any attacking pressure. There were far too many instances where one of the forwards received the ball with absolutely nobody to pass to and they were unable to get to dangerous areas on the pitch. This combination made things worse for the team’s defense as they were constantly chasing the ball and couldn’t maintain possession.
When they were able to mount attacks against the Timbers back line, it seemed as though the Loons didn’t have a concrete plan on how to work the ball into dangerous areas. There was very little combination play between the forwards and almost no hold up play up against Portland’s center backs. For much of the first 70 minutes, the attack boiled down to someone playing a ball out wide to one of the full backs and either Jermaine Taylor or Justin Davis putting in a looping cross into the box which never seemed to find a friendly player.
Things began to turn around after the 70th minute when Heath finally decided to shake things up by making a substitution and changing the formation to a 4-2-3-1. The Loons looked immediately more dangerous as Johan Venegas shifted from a lone striker back into an attacking midfielder. Venegas’ change of position allowed Christian Ramirez to play up top and the two players collaborated for United’s only goal of the night. This came just ten minutes after Heath’s tinkering, which should be noted as the team’s offense was completely stagnant prior.
I’m not going to get into what happened after the Ramirez goal as everyone watching saw the drop off in play that led to the team losing by four goals. Instead, I’ll save my breath and switch into the personnel decisions that contributed to the team’s demise on national television.
The biggest sore spot in the team’s selection came with the attacking players, as Heath opted to start Bashkim Kadrii and Rasmus Schuller over Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez. The team has an embarrassment of riches in the attacking department, which makes it all the more frustrating when the team is unable to get on the same page and mount threatening attacks. Kadrii had a couple of brief moments where he looked up to the task, including a shot that just fizzled wide in the 55th minute, but he ultimately looked lost and failed to impress.
Midfielder Rasmus Schuller struggled mightily on Friday night as he had a hard time completing most of his passes. With both of his midfield partners (Collen Warner and Mohammed Saeid) putting in good shifts, Schuller’s sub-par play was that much more noticeable. His withdrawal from the game allowed the team to deploy a true attacking midfielder, which they should look to do on a consistent basis moving forward. Johan Venegas showed his quality on Friday night and his name should be written in pen on the lineup sheet in the No. 10 role for the foreseeable future.
All-in-all, the team looked much livelier once Heath deployed the 4-2-3-1 formation, and it’s encouraging to see that something that he tried paid dividends during a tricky road game. Moving forward it would behoove the Loons to continue to utilize this formation as it seems to be a drastically improved fit for the brand of football they desire to play.