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Two Steps Forward?

MNUFC’s recent road success gives fans reason to hope

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to think.

There were times during Minnesota United’s failed summer home stand – the first half of the Houston game, most of the Seattle game – where I felt like a time machine had transported me back to March. Meanwhile, back at HQ, the front office spent the summer transfer window grabbing every winger that wasn’t nailed down, seemingly oblivious to the team’s shortcomings at central midfield. Looking ahead to daunting road games at Seattle and Chicago, I saw dark clouds on the horizon, and not the ones who lead clever chants behind the goal.

Then, as if to confound everyone who couldn’t help but succumb to visions of gloom and doom, the Loons followed up a close-but-no-cigar effort at Century Link Field in Seattle with perhaps their most impressive feat of the season – a real live road victory at the expense of the Chicago Fire.

I’m not sure which way is up anymore, but upon reflection I am willing to entertain the notion that perhaps there is a sense of forward progress in the midst of this chaos. Perhaps some of the unorthodox choices Minnesota made during the summer transfer window will bear fruit after all. Taking the last two games as a microcosm, I want to consider three factors that could help the Loons remain competitive down the stretch.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

First off, and it’s impossible not to say this without heaping dollop of irony, one factor that has propelled the team in the past two weeks is . . . wait for it – wing play. Wing of the month Ethan Finlay made an immediate impact for the Loons, scoring just 21 minutes into his Minnesota tenure. He cut across the middle, gathered a deft pass from Ibson, sliced through Seattle’s final two defenders and put home a clinical finish to give Minnesota the lead. It was an impressive strike, and although the lead didn’t hold, it signaled that the Loons were perhaps emerging from the latest series of transactions with a bit more fight in them.

The theme of strong wing play was further bolstered in Chicago, where both Finlay and Sam Nicholson put their stamp on the game. Nicholson helped newly appointed left back Francisco Calvo limit Chicago on the left side, and also managed to get forward and deliver some dangerous crosses. Finlay, meanwhile, factored in the team’s first goal, making good on a perfectly weighted Kevin Molino pass down the flank by setting up Abu Danladi for an easy put in that gave the Loons their second lead on the road in as many weeks.

Finlay put the punctuation mark on the wing play soundtrack in the waning minutes of the game, when he scrapped with Chicago’s Patrick Doody deep in Minnesota territory. He went in for a hard but precise tackle, popped up with the ball still on his foot, and willed himself forward in a messy tangle until Doody capitulated by committing a foul. These are the kinds of plays – on the wing and elsewhere – that help teams win close games. If Finlay goes in for a lazy foul here, Minnesota is suddenly facing a dangerous set piece situation and contemplating a very bitter taste of déjà vu. Immediately after they acquired him, Adrian Heath said of Finlay, “Every day he brings it, and leaves it all out there.” This sequence was case in point.

The second important piece of the puzzle was defensive discipline. Minnesota did not to apply a high press against Chicago or Seattle, opting instead to sit a bit deeper and absorb pressure. Chicago took 18 shots, but 14 were off target, and goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth was rarely outside of his comfort zone. The Chicago broadcast talked about how difficult it was to beat Minnesota in the air with Brent Kallman and Michael Boxall roaming the box, and Sam Polok wrote a piece for MLS which praised Minnesota for its “solid, methodical defense.” The soccer media giving props to the Loons defense – now that’s a first. Boxall had far and away his best game for Minnesota, and aside from the indecision that allowed David Accam to get behind the defense for Chicago’s only goal, the defense seemed to be for the most part in sync.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The final piece that was in evidence during the past two weeks was depth. Depth has been a topic of much angst for Minnesota United fans since well before the season began. As the roster began to take shape late in preseason, it was already clear that depth was an issue, and even after Minnesota parlayed a key trade with Colorado into a spring renaissance of sorts, the team still always seemed a turned ankle or an international call up away from catastrophe. The month of July, in many respects, brought this feared lack of depth to fruition; Calvo and Jermaine Taylor spent much of the month at the Gold Cup, which forced the team into rushing Kallman back from a series of complicated injuries, and the loss of Marc Burch meant that the team had to experiment with a variety of options at left back in an effort to regain an ever elusive defensive stability.

Minnesota wasn’t exactly plagued by injuries against Chicago, but a few key adjustments and strong bench play were instrumental. Most significantly, Abu Danladi was able to replicate the kind of offensive performance we have come to expect from Christian Ramirez. When your leading scorer is on the bench, and the guy who replaces him picks up a brace, well, what more can you ask for? (Editor’s note: a hat trick?)

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, another seemingly irreplaceable player was lost when defensive midfielder anchor Sam Cronin was forced to leave the game in the first half after taking a direct shot to the head. Collen Warner, the defensive midfielder who tends to roam out of position, stepped in and didn’t. Warner had his best game since he helped the team earn a road tie against Houston in April. He made some key tackles and helped contain Bastian Schweinsteiger by plugging up the middle.

Depth was evident elsewhere on the pitch too. The addition of Boxall gave Heath the option of putting Calvo out left, allowing him to put an experienced back four on the field, yet still have an ace in the hole in Jermaine Taylor, who came in for Molino to help lock things down in final 15 minutes. Heath also called on Miguel Ibarra -- who still brings work rate, poise, and pace – to spell a tiring Nicholson down the stretch. The absence of Burch and Ramirez, coupled with Cronin’s injury and player fatigue pushed the envelope of Minnesota’s roster options, and the end result demonstrated some tangible progress in the overall viability of the team’s depth chart.

The rest of the season will be important to this organization regardless of what happens in the playoff chase. Players will be fighting for jobs on an increasingly competitive roster, and my sense is that Heath remains motivated to give the team’s supporters as many wins as he can muster. The numerous mistakes made by this organization have been well documented, and the season has been an up and down affair at best, but when you consider the road victory at Chicago, and pair it with the close miss at Seattle – then squint and tilt your head to just the right angle – it is still possible to envision a glass that just might be half full.

The best case scenario, as I see it, is for Minnesota to grind out the rest of the season in a semi respectable fashion, then use the offseason to make some decisions about which of our 29 wingers best fit the system, and make some trades/throw down some real money for a #10, as well as some depth at defensive central midfield. If, on the other hand, Manny Lagos uses the entire offseason to scout wingers in Scandinavia, then we’ll know for certain that Loons fans were just born to suffer.