Minnesota United’s second largest crowd of the season braved a searing 90-degree heat on Saturday afternoon, but fans left TCF Bank Stadium with wilted expectations as the Loons dropped a 3-0 decision the New York Red Bulls. On the heels of a perhaps even less inspiring nil-nil draw to Houston the Wednesday prior, Minnesota finds itself losing the handle on an important home stand and plummeting like a stone to the bottom of the MLS standings.
Welcome to the dying embers of Loons 2.0.
Built on an astute trade with Colorado Rapids and a Christian Ramirez hot streak, Loons 2.0 was a serious upgrade from the original – which gave up goals at an alarming rate throughout March. The promise they showed in April and May, however, has begun to lose its shine. Marc Burch is on the shelf with hernia surgery, Abu Danladi’s development has stalled out, Ramirez has become more and more isolated, and the cold fact is that Minnesota has now failed to score in three consecutive league matches. A quick stroll through the MNUFC Reddit page the day after the Red Bulls loss revealed shades of the gloom and doom not seen since before Minnesota won their first game against Real Salt Lake in early April.
Actually, how much you should worry is up for debate, because while Loons 3.0 is sure to be an upgrade from 2.0, the extent to which it elevates the team enough to score goals and compete with MLS foes is unclear. Here are three big questions that will be important in determining whether Loons 3.0 will be up to the task.
Question one: How will MNUFC fare in the summer transfer window competition?
Winger Sam Nicholson and center back Michael Boxall have already signed and played in a game. Both showed flashes of potential, but it’s too early to say how big their impact will be and whether or not they become consistent starters. Even after these signings, and the expected acquisition of third string keeper Joe Kapp, Adrian Heath has dropped hints that the club isn’t done signing new players. Smart money is on Nicholson and Boxall as the primary yield of the transfer window, but there are still rumors about something more.
Of course what we do during the transfer window is only part of the equation. It would be optimal if the window were only for, say, expansion teams without winning records, or teams with bird logos, but I’m afraid that all teams have the option of acquiring new talent. In a previous column, I cited the case of the 2016 Seattle Sounders, who were not in a playoff position last summer, then acquired Nicolas Lodeiro and then went on to . . . you know the rest of the story. Well, Seattle is up to no good again it seems.
Derlis Gonzalez off to MLS. Will join Seattle Sounders right after he plays his final game for Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday. https://t.co/0628ULVzNw— Roberto Rojas (@RobertoRojas97) July 24, 2017
Not many teams will land a player with Gonzalez’s pedigree – the website Transfermarkt lists his value at €7,000,000 (for the sake of reference, Transfermarkt lists Minnesota United’s most expensive player, Kevin Molino, at €950,000) – but every team is looking carefully at their needs and spending some cash. The bottom line is that whether or not Minnesota can become competitive again depends not just on how much our new acquisitions move the needle, but also how that stacks up against what our opponents manage to do during this important transfer window.
Question two: Who will fill in the final piece of the D puzzle?
Looking at our defense, three things are eminently clear. Bobby Shuttleworth is our starting goalkeeper, and Francisco Calvo and Jerome Thiesson are absolute locks to start in the back four. Brent Kallman may not be at the same level as Thiesson and Calvo, but he seems to have nailed down the right center back spot. There could be some competition for this spot, but for now let’s say it belongs to Kallman.
The question is, then, who is the right player to solidify the back four? At the inception of Loons 2.0, this spot belonged to Burch, but his injury has led to a series of experiments, none of which could be called completely successful. Kevin Venegas has started on the right – the versatile Thiesson can play either side and center back in a pinch – and while Venegas has looked good going forward, he tends to get caught out of position. Justin Davis has been used on the left but never nailed down the spot, and more recently Adrian Heath has favored Ismaila Jome as the left back of choice. Jome is a bit raw, and his recent starts have puzzled some pundits, but Jome has been fairly steady in this new role. My seats provide a good opportunity to watch the left back closely for at least one half, and I have yet to see Jome get beat cleanly. Occasionally he will lose a step or two, but his ability to recover and get back into a defensive position is impressive. His reach and strength, furthermore, often allow him to disrupt the play before his man gets a chance to settle the ball. His passes in the final third, like most of the Loons, leave something to be desired, but his distribution has been decent out of the back.
Whether the Jome experiment was just something Heath was fiddling with during a time of duress, or a serious long term project remains to be seen. The list of candidates who could fill this spot is long, including the players mentioned plus newcomer Michael Boxall, who can play center back or out wide, but the fact is that someone needs to step in and nail it down to give our defense some stability and chemistry.
Question three: How will the offense evolve?
Sam Cronin and Ibson have solidified their spots as deep lying midfielders with their complimentary styles. It is also clear that we need Kevin Molino on the field, and that Christian Ramirez still represents our best chance to score. Beyond that, the previously productive offense has gone dry and needs to retool.
The idea that Johan Venegas can be our number 10 seems to have withered, but the long term solution remains unclear. Against the Red Bulls Heath went with the straightforward approach of putting what appear to be his most talented players onto the pitch, which meant that Nicholson and Miguel Ibarra played on the wings, and Molino played the 10 spot. The sticking point with this line up, however, is that although Molino plays centrally for Trinidad and Tobago, his most productive games at Minnesota have come when he finds room on the flanks. This is problematic of course, because if Molino moves back out to the wing, there is no obvious player to slot into the middle, and either Nicholson or Ibarra would have to sit. Of course this comes back the fact that Minnesota has never invested in a true number 10, but that problem is not likely to be addressed until next year.
Meanwhile, there is the curious case of Abu Danladi. Danladi was a key component in Minnesota’s renaissance back in April and May. In addition to his blinding speed and finishing touch, he has shown the ability to deliver key passes in the offensive third. Danladi, however, is having trouble delivering on the promise he showed earlier in the season. The knock on Danladi before the draft, incidentally, was that he was injury-prone. After productive outings against Sporting Kansas City and Toronto in early May, he left the game against the LA Galaxy with a groin strain, and has been in and out of the training room ever since. Although he assured the coaching staff in his pre-draft interview that his injuries were the result of the specific rigors of the concentrated college soccer schedule, it turns out he is injury-prone at the pro level, too. Go figure!
As for Johan Venegas, it remains to be seen if Heath can find a way to use this talented but troubled player. He doesn’t seem to respond well to the role of super sub, but his inconsistency and temperament have left many skeptical about his role as the team’s playmaker. Is a trade in store? Hard to tell.
The transfer window has given Heath some new options that could help him rejuvenate a moribund offense, but how the greater puzzle fits together is not yet clear. What is clear is that some experimentation will be necessary, and that the team’s inability to score is the latest problem keeping Heath up at night.
How much will our new depth help us?
In the game against Columbus on July 4, the Loons had so few center backs that Thiesson had to play in the middle. With Francisco Calvo and Jermaine Taylor returning from Gold Cup duty and Boxall in the mix, we suddenly seem flush with potential starters at that position. Kallman is suspended for yellow card accumulation, but Heath has the luxury of deciding between Boxall and Taylor in his stead.
One thing that is certain about the Loons 3.0 is the team’s depth will be much improved. How much this depth will help Minnesota gain ground against the league remains uncertain. Coaches like to talk about how competition for starting spots elevates the overall quality of a side, but if our second string center back is better than our opponents, but both remain on the bench for the whole game, it can be difficult to determine the true value of said depth.
When I ponder Minnesota United’s roster I find myself wanting to make imaginary deals, like how about we bundle Taylor and Boxall – two highly capable center backs – and trade them for a guy closer to Calvo’s level? If you think that scenario is far-fetched, just wait. Couldn’t we graft the speed and work rate of Abu Danladi with the panache and sturdier constitution of Johan Venegas? That way instead of having two talented players with flaws that are keeping them out of the lineup, we could have one guy who could definitely help us win games. My point being that although depth comes to the fore when teams are plagued by injuries and international call ups, right now I am most concerned about fielding a strong starting 11. It is important for a successful team to develop the ability to win games at less than full strength, but at this point I’d just settle for winning a game, which is something we haven’t done in a while.
New additions like Nicholson and Boxall, along with the return of Calvo, will certainly make this team better in the long run; whether or not Loons 3.0 will provide fans with some short term relief — in goals and wins — remains to be seen. What’s your prediction?