Apparently we are at the halfway point of the MLS season. Time for those of us who invest an inordinate – read: unhealthy – amount of time following Minnesota United to hand out mid-term grades. I’m going to declare the glass half full; here’s three reasons why.
Reason number one: The Loons play an appealing brand of soccer
The Loons came into this season advertising an up-tempo, attacking style of play. While the product has hardly been perfect – Minnesota looked harried and disorganized in the second half of a 3-1 road loss to NYCFC Thursday, and managed to just one shot on goal in their previous road game at Salt Lake – the team generally gives the opposing defense something to worry about.
The focal point of the offense has, of course, been Christian Ramirez, who has silenced the doubters by continually finding seams and inventing new ways to score. He’s not particularly fast, and doesn’t beat people on the dribble, he just hangs in space, bides his time, and pounces when the opportunity arises. His production – ten goals on the year – speaks for itself.
Behind Ramirez, The Loons have been fairly reliable in keeping the ball. The most important player in terms of our ability to possess is Ibson. What makes Ibson so important is that he is that guy who you can pass to anywhere on the field – with his back to our goal and facing immediate pressure, in the corner, along the flank – and he will find a way to maintain possession and distribute. He scurries about with simultaneous urgency and utter calm, and has become that crucial bridge between the back line and the attacking corps.
Further up the pitch, Kevin Molino has been essential to the team’s attack. Molino can carry the ball with pace into the tightest of spaces, is willing and able to take defenders on, and he is not afraid to clatter into a body or two in the name of winning the ball. Minnesota is at its most dangerous when Molino finds space and occasionally keeps the ball himself for deep forays along the flanks. He is also an underrated passer, and the chemistry between him and Ramirez can be lethal.
Beyond these key pieces, Heath has managed to cultivate a crop of attackers who may not be as consistent as our big three, but there is enough talent and ingenuity there to hold it all together most days. Miguel Ibarra continues to develop in this league, and his capacity to move the ball with serious pace often makes things happen, Abu Danladi is emerging as more than just a speed monger, and Johan Venegas – for all his frustrating moments on and off the field – has demonstrated the capacity to uncork moments of brilliance as a play maker and a finisher.
When the Loons offensive game plan works, which is fairly often, we see a group of players continually in motion. The wings cut in, sometimes interchange, and attack with pace. The wingbacks, meanwhile, are becoming more comfortable at filling into the wide spaces and moving forward. Jerome Thiesson – playing either left or right back – is a reliable source of offense, and Francisco Calvo – who scored his first goal against Vancouver Whitecaps – had been knocking on the door for quite some time before he broke through.
The opening month was disastrous, and the team continues to struggle on the road, but The Loons have been fun to watch.
Reason number two: the front office might not be opening their wallets as wide as we’d like, but they’re not closing their eyes either
Minnesota may lack the sheer star power enjoyed by some of its competitors in the league, but the front office has demonstrated the willingness and ability to make adjustments in order to remain competitive.
The carnage that was the opening month left many people scratching their heads. While Adrian Heath began the recovery process by benching then captain and highest paid player on the team, Vadim Demidov, in favor of NASL holdover Brent Kallman, the front office followed this up by engineering a crucial trade with Colorado that brought in defensive midfield anchor Sam Cronin and left back Marc Burch. These two players brought a world of MLS experience and helped stabilize the back line. Since their arrival, The Loons have looked like they can play defense more like a real live MLS team.
The front office has been far from perfect. Beyond the Demidov fiasco, there is a cadre of promising Scandinavian players that have mostly fizzled on contact, and there are still looming questions about the Loons starting 11, including the ultimate successor to Burch – who is out for months after bilateral hernia surgery – and the number 10 slot that has been, at best, a work in progress. However, based on how management responded to the early season swoon, there are reasons to be optimistic about the summer transfer window. Scottish winger Sam Nicholson is apparently on the way already, and it appears that there is more to come.
A. Heath said that #MNUFC is "actively pursuing" 3-4 targets from within MLS and beyond. Looking at both starters and depth.— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) June 27, 2017
Reason number three: there are tangible reasons to be optimistic about the long term future
Sure enough, the team has taken a – ahem – somewhat conservative approach to roster building this year. Heath told the Pioneer Press that he isn’t asking Bill Mcguire to sign a designated player considering the $150 million private investment necessary for the stadium as well as the remodeling of the club’s training grounds at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
The relatively frugal approach to roster building might be frustrating in the short term, but it underscores that the organization has its eye on the bigger picture. While cities like Chicago and Denver opted to buy cheap land and build stadiums out in the suburbs, and NYCFC sits on a huge pile of money but continues to play on an improvised baseball field, Minnesota United opted for an urban stadium on the Green Line and plans appear to be moving full steam ahead. A viable stadium plan and up to date training facilities are things that, in the long run, provide the franchise with a higher ceiling. When it comes to long term potential, that big pile of dirt at the corner of I94 and Snelling is a lot more valuable to me than David Villa.
As far as the current iteration of Minnesota United is concerned, I think most fans find following this team a worthwhile pastime. Last weekend I rode the light rail to Surly Brewery, where I caught up with some friends who I used to play with in the local men’s league. We drank good beer, ate out on the patio, and reminisced about Tuesday night games in Blaine, then followed a marching band to TCF Bank Stadium. At The Loons temporary residence, I yelled at the referee, chanted along with the supporter’s section to my right, then had the opportunity to celebrate with gusto when Calvo, then Thiesson scored goals to level the game at two apiece.
The outcome left head coach Adrian Heath fuming about a missed opportunity to earn three points at home. As for me, this game in many ways captures how I feel about the season itself so far. The results have been far from perfect, but the product has been consistently compelling. The liquid in the glass doesn’t go all the way to the top, but to me it looks half full.