The MLS season is built around the playoffs. The goal of every team, as they slog their way through a summer season full of long plane rides and physically demanding games, is to end up on the right side of that thin red line that demarcates the sixth place from the seventh place team in each conference. Teams above the line battle it out for the title; teams below go home.
Minnesota United is currently on the wrong side of that line, and likely to remain there, bouncing around with the other also-rans through the end of the season. While the 2016 Seattle Sounders spent a good chunk of the season below that line before they rode a run of good form all the way to the MLS Cup, the Loons are unlikely to ring up the type of winning streak that will lead them out of purgatory. The Sounders were an experienced and under-performing squad that added designated player Nicolas Lodeiro in late July; the Loons are an expansion team still trying to find their identity.
Just because we are unlikely to nudge our way into the playoffs, however, doesn’t mean that the season is hopeless.Here are five intriguing storylines that fans should consider as an anodyne to a season that is likely to end without a playoff run.
1) When will the Loons break the Grant Wahl mark?
While that thin red line is likely to remain out of reach, we are moving slowly but steadily towards an imaginary green line that I call the Grant Wahl mark. Wahl, a writer for Sports Illustrated, famously predicted that the Loons could be the worst team in MLS history, and that five was the over/under for the number of wins in the inaugural season. Considering the club has four wins in 14 games, and that – since that dreadful opening month – we haven’t even looked like the worst team in the league, much less the worst team in history, many a Loons fan is anticipating the day we break the Wahl mark. Will we smash it, or eke by it? Can we double it? Will Wahl eat crow, lose his job, and end up destitute in the gutter when we get our sixth victory? Probably not, but it will give everyone in Loon Town a sense of satisfaction to nudge past this barrier.
2) How wrong is Bruce Arena?
The Christian Ramirez Gold Cup snub is disappointing to the CR21 faithful, but it doesn’t have to slow down the Loons leading scorer. With eight goals in 14 games, Ramirez has clearly established that he belongs at this level. There are more goals to come from Ramirez, and goals are like snowflakes; each one is slightly different. Ramirez has already shown the ability to score in a variety of ways – diving headers, side volleys, breakaways – and we are likely to see several more. I’d personally still like to see a long range strike that catches a keeper napping. Arena might have snubbed one of our country’s most prolific goal scorers, but now Ramirez has several months to fill the man chock full of regret. With yet another chip on his shoulder, Ramirez could do some damage.
3) Who will emerge as the third goal scorer?
Right now Ramirez and Kevin Molino – who are one and two on our score sheet, respectively – have established themselves as our most consistent offensive players. Rare is the game that at least one of these two players doesn’t threaten. But who else might emerge as dangerous? At the end of the season, who will be number three on the score sheet? Early on it looked like Johan Venegas was a safe bet. Venegas has shown glimpses of a knack for finishing and delivering key passes in the offensive third, but he has also struggled with personal issues, been sent home from practice, complained to the media about his contract, and recently lost his starting position to rookie Abu Danladi. Venegas is not out of the running, but he will need to overcome some adversity and poor decision making to get back on track.
Will Danladi capitalize and find a run of form that makes good on our decision to pick him first overall in the draft, or will he remain a plucky spot starter who struggles on and off with injury? Beyond these two candidates, the fan base would love nothing more than to see Miguel Ibarra go on a tear. Of course there is always the possibility that a player to be named later rises to the occasion, or that someone else right under our nose is about to find a scoring touch. Let’s watch and find out!
4) How many more roster moves will we see this year?
The news that Scottish winger Sam Nicholson flew to the Twin Cities, chatted with the front office, trained with the fellas, and was subsequently offered a contract brings me back to the winter months, when Minnesota United courted foreign strangers on a weekly basis. I fondly recall the dopamine hit I got from each winter rumor, which I would ride for all it was worth by examining Youtube highlight clips.
We may or may not land Nicholson – he currently has at least three other suitors – and if we do land him, he may not succeed here. Vadim Demidov and to a lesser extent Bashkim Kadrii should serve as stark reminders that in the European market, not all that glitters is gold. Regardless, these rumors, negotiations, and potential transactions certainly make for good copy. The Nicholson situation, furthermore, demonstrates that the front office still has some money in the bank, and is itching to spend it.
5) Which fringe player will emerge between now and October?
If you think back to the opening weeks of the season, Brent Kallman and Ibson were fringe players – sitting on the bench, waiting for the right opportunity. Now both are established starters who have demonstrated that they belong. Granted, there will not be nearly as much movement in the starting rotation over the next few months as there was at the beginning of the season, but it remains likely that someone who is on the fringe right now could move to the fore – either as a starter or as a key player off the bench.
Do you long to see Rasmus Schuller employ his midfield vision, are you still waiting for the return of club veteran Kevin Venegas, or are have you been hoping for a peek at the big man Joseph Greenspan? Most fans have a fringe favorite, and there is still a lot of season left for these players and others on the fringe to work their way into a larger role. The next few weeks, furthermore, are particularly promising for those on the outside looking in. This week’s US Open Cup match against Kansas City provides Adrian Heath with the perfect opportunity to try out some new faces in a game situation, and the following week the Loons will for the first time be forced to play two games in a week: on Wednesday against Portland, then Saturday against Vancouver.
Maybe Minnesota United will find a way to scrape and scratch their way above that red line – I’d love to be wrong about my end-of-the-season projection. Regardless, story lines like these should be enough to keep a loyal fan base interested through October.