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EPL Staff Roundtable: Early-Season Check-In

Our thoughts on the first third of MNUFC’s initial MLS season

MLS: Sporting KC at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Time flies when you are having fun and somehow we have reached the 1/3 of the season mark for Minnesota United FC. The Loons are currently 3-6-2 and sit only two points shy of the Redline. We felt like this would be a good time to do an EPL staff check-in to discuss our thoughts on the season so far. You’ll find some general themes and some outside the box thinking. Please join in the conversation by answering the questions in the comments.

1: General thoughts on how the season has played out to this point?

Garrett Denney: Look, the early weeks were ugly. Really ugly. I don’t think many fans expected us to blow the doors off but we at least had enough intriguing talent and vague hype to look for competitive games. And then the blowouts started rolling in. 5-1. 6-1. Not fun. But we’ve turned the ship around since then and are now a respectable - if still underrated - squad. A few wins and draws, and also a 3-2 showing against the red-hot Toronto FC that could have definitely been a draw (or win!) for us should give you hope. Overall, we’re in a pretty solid place now.

KatoSportsGirl: This has been a tale of two teams at this point. The first four games we were humiliated left and right and had been outscored 18-6. Since then we've turned the corner and made a huge jump. So if we take out the first four games very much above expectations if we keep them in I'm not impressed.

Blake Hampton: I think the season has been surprisingly spectacular. Our overall progression of the speed of the game and tactical development has been quicker than I expected. To see this overall progression and development shows that we belong in the league and a team that has the foundation and framework to continue being successful going forward.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Siems: I think it has gone about as well as we could have hoped. The team didn't fold over and give up after they gave up 11 goals in the first two games. They made some smart changes and now they seem to be competitive in every match that they play in. Instead of hitting rock bottom and getting a shovel after the Atlanta game, they seem to be gelling and charting a course for the future.

Stephen Taylor: I'm actually pleasantly surprised by where we are now, relative to how the season started. After the first four games, things looked bad. I thought we were going to be in for a rough season. But now in the last two weeks we upset the Western Conference leaders and we just went toe-to-toe with and almost claimed points off the Eastern Conference leader. This squad has shown that they can hang with the best of them, and now I'm looking forward to every match.

Alex Gormley: I think the team has exceeded my expectations about where they would be this early in the season. I thought they’d have a slow start, which they did, but they were able to turn things around much faster than most people thought they would. The Loons still need to figure out how to get points on the road but their win against Sporting KC and draw against Houston are particularly impressive. They’ve shown the ability to hang tough against good opponents, which is a huge improvement over how the team played early in the season against Portland, Atlanta, and New England. The team has continued to improve with every passing game and that’s exactly what you look for in an expansion side.

Eli Hoff: Far better than I expected. I certainly wasn’t expected the early blowout losses, but the team’s performances of late have surprised me in the other direction. If this close-to-the-playoffs pace continues through the rest of the season the year will be a massive success.

dvits14: I came into the season with zero expectations, so take away the first couple games and I have been pleasantly surprised by the team’s performance so far. There are still some areas that need to be shored up but if they can continue to play like they have the past month or so for the rest of the season, I would consider this a successful initial MLS campaign.

Miran Saric: I think the season's been more or less what I thought it'd be. Rough growing pains to start with league average performances to follow. I think this team should be 3-6 points better off than it it but for now I'm mostly content.

Birsch: The club has already exceeded expectations this season, which has resulted in us changing our expectations of the club, which has resulted in us feeling that the club has failed to meet our expectations, which has resulted in us changing...

2: What have you been most disappointed with and most impressed with?

Garrett Denney: It’s hard for me to be too disappointed in anything because at the end of the day we’re still playing in Major League Soccer. Just think: in just a few days we’re welcoming the LA Galaxy to Minnesota. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs but with so many teams clamoring for an expansion team like ours, I’ve got a lot of warm and fuzzies for this team this year.

KatoSportsGirl: The most disappointed the Toronto FC match this weekend. We found every possible way to give away a point. I'm equally impressed by the Kansas City win two weeks ago and how the team has gelled and improved since Game 4.

Blake Hampton: I have been most disappointed with our tactical defensive positioning. We continue to find ourselves out of position and not working together as a defensive unit. I personally thought it would be squared away after the first couple of games but we still have problems. I'm most impressed with Christian Ramirez and his ability to adjust to the MLS game in a way that finds him amongst the top goal scorers. Remember, he didn't even start the first game of the season.

Siems: I have been most disappointed with the Scandinavian imports. I was not keen on the signing of Vadim Demidov, but I thought he would at least bring something to the table. I can honestly say I don't know what he brings anymore. But for how disappointed I am in Demi, I am even more so in Bashkim Kadrii and Rasmus Schuller. I'll give Schu the benefit of the doubt the last couple weeks as he has been injured, but I saw him as the perfect offset CM. And Kadrii... he has just looked disinterested this season.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Minnesota United FC Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Taylor: I don't really have a specific disappointment, aside from the generally abject nature of our early season backline. It also seems like recruiting could have been better, as almost all of the Scandanavian signings have had difficulty settling. I think the club thought they found a treasure trove of talent that no other teams were looking at, while in reality, other teams just knew better than to look there.

On the flip side, I have been very pleased with the attack. I'm a fan of attacking football and goals, and this United side brings that to the table. The attacking unit interchanges fluidly and they have executed some really slick moves this season that make for great entertainment. Molino looks worth every penny so far in my opinion, and Christian has proven his ability to get it done at this level.

Alex Gormley: I’ve been disappointed with the team’s foreign signings for the most part. Not exactly going out on a limb here but Demidov, Kadrii, and Schuller have really struggled to fit into the squad and have not played a role in the team’s recent success at all. The fact that these players have been leads me to believe that the team made the right call on not trying to sign designated players out of the gate. If they had whiffed this badly on designated player signings, this squad would already be underwater. I’ve been the most impressed with some of the players that made the jump from the NASL. Christian Ramirez has been a godsend for this team and his play has been good enough where he’s been talked about as a potential national team player. Miguel Ibarra has also been on fire the last few games after it took him a bit of time to settle in with the team after playing sporadically for Leon. Brent Kallman has taken everybody by surprise, and he’s been a rock at the back for the team and one of the more underrated players in the league this season.

Eli Hoff: The Scandanavian signings have greatly disappointed me. Bashkim Kadrii, Rasmus Schuller, John Alvbage, and Vadim Demidov have all fallen out of the starting lineup. The NASL crew of Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra, Ibson, and Brent Kallman have all played their way in.

dvits14: The Scandavian signings have been the theme for everyone so I will go in a different direction. I’ve been disappointed in the continued mental lapses the team has throughout the course of a game, especially defensively. However, the thing I am most impressed with is the coaching job Adrian Heath has done. I don’t think he is getting enough recognition for turning this sinking ship around. Three weeks into the season people were already calling for his head, but he made some bold decisions that have paid off and allowed the team to gain some traction.

Miran Saric: The biggest disappointment was the defense early on and this team looking like a bunch of headless chickens at times, but Christian Ramirez and the offense have been a nice surprise and I could see them getting even better with more time together on the pitch.

MLS: Sporting KC at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Birsch: I am most impressed by the response of fans (new and old) coming out to games. Ya, 17,000(ish) looks bad in a 45,000 seat stadium, but it is right in the middle of the league average attendance and will look just fine at the clubs new home. Speaking of which, the biggest disappoint thus far has been the progress of Smallianz. I know a lot of it is out of their hands at this point as they wait for some of the tenants to vacate and mnleg to pass their tax bill, but at a certain point the club has to bite the bullet and get started on something. I hope the mid-2018 move in is still viable, but not a lot is happening over at the old bus lot.

3: Most pressing need as the season progresses?

Garrett Denney: I wouldn’t be surprised to see Manny and Adrian bring in some extra muscle for either the left wing back or holding midfield positions. That said, the upgrade I am most looking for is a strong number ten. Johan Venegas and Abu Dunladi have tried to fill that role but often end up operating more as a second striker. My dream signing is someone resulting from the club’s recent scouting trip to South America that is young (under 24), healthy, and a true number ten. Signing a player like that as our first Designated Player would go a long way to giving Ramirez more consistent service, creating chances for Molino instead of always asking him to go full beast mode and create his own, and give the fanbase something to get hyped about. I’m drooling just thinking about it.

KatoSportsGirl: Defense, not just the back line but an improvement from front to back. While Shuttleworth has been fantastic as keeper he can only do so much. If we keep letting teams push through us like a hot knife through butter the last 2/3 of a season will be long and painful.

Blake Hampton: Our most pressing need is to either enhance our defense whether that be excessive coaching or adding players, or to find an identity. I feel as though we currently do not have a strategy or identity as a unit. We score a lot of goals but tactically how do we do it? If we are to continue to be a counter-attacking team we must be able to have a solid defensive unit.

Siems: Defensive depth. The thought that any one of Thiesson, Burch, Calvo, or Kallman could be unavailable keeps me awake at night. Do I think the team needs to run out and spend all of their available cash this summer? No. But they need to start looking towards the future. Hopefully, this loan for Greenspan works well (it appears to be, so far) and rookie Thomas de Villardi can come back healthy next year.

Stephen Taylor: We definitely need depth at defense. Heath seems not to trust Kevin Venegas, and Jermaine Taylor is definitely not a fullback. We will also likely be without Calvo for most of June while he plays for Costa Rica in the Gold Cup, so we will also need a center back to step in and fill the gaping hole the captain will leave.

Alex Gormley: Depth. Minnesota United really have not gotten much help from the substitutes that they bring on during the games. Case in point is Johan Venegas, who came on against Toronto and brought nothing of value. Having a few creative-minded players that can come off the bench or push the current starters for playing time can only help the team in the long run. Ish Jome, Collin Martin, and Bashkim Kadrii aren’t going to cut it as impact subs for the rest of the season.

Eli Hoff: Depth is the most pressing need by far, especially at centerback. When Francisco Calvo leaves for an international match with Costa Rica, or, heaven forbid, someone were to get injured, there is no reliable backup.

dvits14: I’m going to go with everyone else here. They need to add some depth defensively. They have found the right recipe for the backline but I am really nervous thinking about the thought of any of the back four having to miss time.

Miran Saric: Defense, defense, defense. Got to get some higher quality defenders, whether it's starters or depth.

Birsch: Depth. It's about to be a long summer and it doesn't look like MNUFC will fare too well as players leave for international duty. Francisco Calvo, Johan Venegas, and Kevin Molino are all expected to play for their respective international sides this summer, and a lot of folks hope that Christian Ramirez gets a shot with the US Men's National Team. Heck, while they are at it, why not give Miguel Ibarra a second look with USMNT. With these key parts of the roster expected to leave, and with unforeseen injuries, bouts of bad form, disciplinary suspensions and any other roster surprises that come with the long stretch of summer, it will be crucial for MNUFC to find a few more pieces to fit in. I have faith in the current roster, but taking out even just one crucial performer could lead to some disastrous results for the club.

4: Whether good or bad, which player has surprised you the most?

Garrett Denney: The relatively low impact of a bunch of our imported players was definitely not what I expected. Schuller, Demidov, and Venegas all stand out as players that came into the season with quite high expectations. Aside from some occasional sparks from Venegas, there isn’t much of a highlight reel between these three. Sure, someone like Kevin Molino has 110% been worth his weight but there are others that were guaranteed a starting slot that have since fallen by the wayside while our domestic talent has taken up the slack.

KatoSportsGirl: Molino by far is the star of this team but no it's not him and it's not Shuttleworth. It's a combination of CR21 and Ibarra. Both of these players have a lot to prove, Ramirez was a great striker in NASL but wasn't expected to translate to MLS well. Ibarra who was also fantastic in NASL had spent the last few years as a mostly bench play for Club Leon in Liga MX and as well had a ton to prove. Both players have come out and played not only showing they deserve the spot in MLS but also showing they deserve to start. Silver medal would go to Kallman as he has come in and started to lead the back line. I see these three being Stars in MLS in the future.

Blake Hampton: Ramirez. As I said earlier, I never expected him to adapt this quickly to the MLS game. He has been outstanding and I don't see that type of progress slowing down.

MLS: Sporting KC at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Siems: Easily Miguel Ibarra. I thought he could be successful at the highest level and that he was just put in a bad situation in Leon, but after his first couple appearances, I was skeptical. He was given a chance to start against the Rapids, and honestly, been one of the top 5 players for this team in my mind. I would even argue that he has been the best player for the Loons since the start of April.

Stephen Taylor: Brent Kallman. I have to admit, I was a tad skeptical about whether he could cut it in MLS. But he has absolutely and categorically proven me wrong. Kallman has become a stalwart of an ever-improving defensive unit and is a hometown hero us Minnesotans can be proud of.

Alex Gormley: I have a feeling that most people will say Christian Ramirez, so I’ll go a little bit off the reservation and say Jerome Thiesson. The right back position was a revolving door of players in the pre-season and first couple games, and the Swiss defender has been excellent since being inserted into the starting squad. His ability to overlap and contribute to the attack is severely underrated, and he always seems to be in the correct defensive position to frustrate the opposing team and cause their attacks to stall out.

Eli Hoff: Bobby Shuttleworth has surprised me. I never thought for an instant he would play as well as he has in the starting role. He has, in my opinion, been one of the best keepers in MLS this year.

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

dvits14: I’ve been extremely disappointed in Johan Venegas. He came in with a lot of hype and he has done absolutely nothing, to the point he was told to stay home for a day to clear his head. Speaking of his head, the header he had in the 85th minute against Toronto was inexcusable and is worthy of a benching in my opinion.

Miran Saric: As mentioned, I thought Ramirez would do pretty well but not to this extent. He's not perfect but he's been reliable and I feel that's more than what people thought he'd be.

Birsch: Bobby Shuttleworth. There was little to no fanfare with the trade that brought Bobby to us, and based on the vibe around Alvbage at the time, it appeared that he was simply brought in to provide depth at GK. Alvbage went down and Bobby has stepped up. He has shown leadership on the field (if you hear a guy constantly yelling in the background of the telecast, it is probably Bobby), passion (if you hear a guy dropping f-bombs during the telecast, it is definitely Bobby) and toughness (you don't need to see another picture of his broken nose, do you?). He has kept a few clean sheets, something no one would have ever expected from the club after the first two games.

5: Will they make the playoffs?

Garrett Denney: Nope. This could change if we end up signing a really impactful DP during the summer transfer window (look at Seattle’s 2016 campaign) but all current signs point to a low-to-mid table performance this season. Have there been bright spots and will there be more? Most definitely. But I don’t see us notching enough Ws on a consistent basis to work our way into the post-season. Maybe next year.

KatoSportsGirl: I would love to give a straight forward answer but I can't. The Loons are a playoff capable team no doubt about it and if they continue to play like they did against Kansas City and at Colorado they will make the playoffs. On the other hand they also know how to give away points and look just plain sloppy at points. So let's wait and see.

Blake Hampton: Not this year, but look for us to make a splash next year.

Siems: Nope. But, they won't be the worst team ever.

Stephen Taylor: I'm feeling ambitious, so I'm gonna say yes. This team is on a strong upward trend, and we've shown that we can get results against even the top clubs. I think we can string together enough results to make it above the red line.

Alex Gormley: I said in the initial roundtable that I believed that the team would make the playoffs, and I’m still sticking to that prediction. Despite the team’s less-than-stellar start, they have 11 points in 11 games, and find themselves just two point back of Vancouver for the sixth spot in the West. The team will certainly have to start winning on the road but the team has improved enough for me to double down on my prediction.

Eli Hoff: It’ll be close enough to make it a disappointment. Depth will be an issue down the stretch, but the team is good enough to stay in the pack.

dvits14: As I said in my first response, I came into the season with zero expectations. That said, even with the improved play I don’t think they have enough horses in the stable to make the playoffs. There is a lot of season left and they simply don’t have enough depth to sustain a long-term injury or two that will undoubtedly pop up as the season progresses.

Miran Saric: Not this season, no. But, with some better purchases and more cohesion as time passes I think next season could definitely see a playoff push from this squad.

Birsch: No, and it's gonna break our hearts how close they get to securing a spot.

What say you? How do you feel the first third of the season and transpired? Let us know in the comments below.