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Three Burning Questions Before MNUFC Changes

The team has been playing pretty well, but after a loss, we reflect with some big questions

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota United came back down to Earth on Saturday with a 1-0 defeat to San Jose at TCF Bank Stadium. Now what?

We can stop looking away when our team takes the field, but should probably avoid setting our hearts on a playoff berth, leaving us in something of a fan’s purgatory – a purgatory that is far preferable to the H E double toothpicks that was March, but a purgatory nevertheless.

Teams mired in purgatory inevitably contemplate roster moves, and, yes, a recent skim through the pages of the local paper revealed some hints of activity on that front.

A Pioneer Press article from last week announced that Amos Magee is planning a scouting trip to Chile. Here is a collection of phrases that came from Andy Gerder’s conversation with sporting director Manny Lagos about the trip: “additions will be part of that dialogue,” “look at key players,” and “specific guys we’ve been looking at in South America.”

These are strings of words that make the collective fan base wag its tail. New players! South America! Pant pant!

When it comes to new acquisitions, those of us who followed the preseason roster building process know two things about the way this team does business:

1. They will tell us as little as possible for as long as possible. A friend of mine once said, “they (Lagos and Magee) never met a ‘no comment’ they didn’t like”.

2. Vadim Demidov’s fat contract not withstanding, this team likes to spend its money carefully. The front office has articulated the need to fully assess their assets before making any big roster moves, like the signing of designated players.

Given that we won’t know anything until it happens, and that they won’t spend big until they have fully assessed their needs, I want to consider three important questions the front office will probably want to address before breaking out the checkbook.

Question #1: Are we happy with our number 10?

Johan Venegas has filled this spot reasonably well. He likes to drift around the offensive zone, has soft feet, has scored a couple of goals, and has been involved in a lot of decisive offensive sequences.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The problem for Venegas, however, is that while playing the number 10 is a lot of fun, it also comes with a lot of pressure. Part of playing the 10-spot in MLS is moving the ball up field while simultaneously looking over your shoulder at South America, where everyone expects the next great number 10 to come from. Teams might be looking for merely “serviceable” left backs, but the playmaker is expected to dazzle. Venegas is getting dispossessed a bit more than I would like, with a common scene being our playmaker laying on the ground pleading for a call that never materializes while the opposition moves the ball up field. The guy has mad skills, but if you play the number 10 spot, and your name isn’t Miguel Almiron or Nicolas Lodeiro, your starting spot probably is not completely secure.

When it comes to roster moves in the near and distant future, I don’t think the front office is desperate for a new playmaker, but I suspect their eyes are open for a guy who might be able to push Venegas for minutes.

Question #2: Who will pair with Cronin?

MLS: Minnesota United FC at FC Dallas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Before San Jose scored in the second half, United had logged four consecutive halves without conceding. Sam Cronin’s presence at the number 6 slot is a key factor in this newfound stinginess, but it is not yet clear who will play alongside him. Yeah, I know Ibson has started two consecutive games, but that doesn’t necessarily cement this pairing. For one thing, Ibson is 34, which means that if he does turn out to be the solution, it’s not a long-term one. There is also the issue of Collen Warner, who has not made it off the bench during this home stand, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back alongside Cronin when the team enters the very unforgiving confines of BMO field in Toronto on May 13th. Ibson is a gifted playmaker who gravitates to the middle, settles the ball with confidence, and gets the attack rolling, but the Brazilian doesn’t have Warner’s chops when it comes to plugging the holes in central midfield.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Then there is the looming issue of Rasmus Schuller. The team used TAM money to acquire the Finn, and a couple of weeks ago coach Adrian Heath was talking him up, but he pulled up with an injury against Houston, and has not even been on the bench for the last two games.

The Houston game made it clear that Heath is experiencing some ambivalence about how and where to deploy Schuller. The scouting report on the Finn says that he thrives when distributing the ball from deep in his own end as a box-to-box central midfielder. Heath seemed eager to put Schuller on the field, but went with Warner alongside Cronin down the middle – presumably to help stifle Houston’s counter attack – and put Schuller out on the left. My personal scouting report on what happens when you put Schuller out wide is that he looks very uncomfortable. He was dispossessed a few times, misfired on some passes, let an attacker fly by him along the flank, then hurt himself chasing down a ball in the opposing penalty area.

As of the time of writing, it remains unclear as to whether Schuller is in the doghouse, or still suffering the after effects of his hip flexor injury. I lean towards the latter, but when the injury does resolve itself, Heath needs to figure out whether or not he plans to use Schuller and how to do so. The Finn is not as defensive-minded as Warner, and not as confident on the ball in tight spaces as Ibson, but he does seem to have the right skill set for a guy that could help establish the bridge between Cronin and the offense. He has good speed, reliable touch, and has shown signs of genuine vision. He is also young enough at 25 that it would seem to be worth United’s time to groom him along slowly and carefully.

For the time being it looks like Warner is the road guy and Ibson is the home guy, but moving forward the Schuller question needs to be answered before this team knows what it needs in front of the defense. If Schuller is not part of our future, then a Schuller-like player is probably one of the most likely targets when it comes to potential acquisitions.

Question #3: How high is Ibarra’s ceiling?

Miguel Ibarra seems to have finally arm wrestled the left wing spot from Bashkim Kadrii. He has notched a game-winning goal, helped spark some lively combinations, and generally gotten himself more involved in the offensive side of the game, but he hasn’t yet become the dominating presence many think he can be. Heath, for his part, seems to feel that Ibarra still has a lot of room to grow. After the Colorado game, he pointed to the relative lack of minutes Ibarra received at Leon, and stressed the importance of his growing confidence. “It’s going to take a while for him to get in a groove and play the way people have seen him,” Heath said.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Loons are still searching for a winger that can dominate the game a la Kevin Molino. They may have found that in Ibarra, but it appears to be a long-term project. If that project starts to sputter, the left wing becomes another spot where the front office could look to bolster.

General managers will tell you that they are always on the lookout to upgrade at any position. This is true enough, but at the same time teams need be mindful of where money might best be spent. It would seem unlikely for Minnesota United to spend a bunch of cash on, say, a center forward that would put Christian Ramirez on the bench and bury Abu Danladi further down the depth chart. It seems more likely that the team is in the process of mulling over quandaries like the yin to Cronin’s yang, a wing to balance Molino, and a number 10 who can consistently drive the offense’s engine.

These are not the only questions the team faces in its attempt to climb out of purgatory, but they are the most pressing ones.

How about you? What big questions do you have about the makeup of the roster?