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Why the Loons Won’t Win Many Post-Season Awards

Minnesota United have a number of players up for MLS’s End of Year Awards. Don’t expect a lot of wins.

Schuller
Rasmus Schuller thanks the fans after Minnesota United falls 1-3 to the Los Angeles Galaxy on October 21. The Loons close the season on Sunday against Columbus, with few players mounting a serious case for post-season awards.
Tim C McLaughlin

One of the more intriguing points in the year is when Major League Soccer releases its ballots for the various awards given to the league’s top performers. With each team able to nominate one or two players for awards, along with one Coach of the Year and one Humanitarian of the Year, it yields insight for how teams value their performances. A left-field selection can suggest a player holds special value to their front office staff—Samuel Piette in Montreal has been solid in midfield but was a surprise choice—while glaring omissions spark angst among league watchers and, in the case of New York Red BullsTim Parker, agents:

Minnesota United sidestepped the most fun pitfall of all, filling nearly all of their allotted slate of nominations rather than keep their players and coaches off the list (looking at you, Colorado and Chicago). The Loons have two players up for MVP, two for Defender of the Year, and one each for Goalkeeper of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Humanitarian of the Year; they skipped out on nominating a Rookie of the Year candidate and had no relevant candidate for Comeback Player. With the team’s checkered season, it might not surprise you that the team’s nominees don’t have much of a shot.

Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player

Loons Nominees: Darwin Quintero, Miguel Ibarra

The Case For The Loons: By what metrics do you value a player’s contributions? How does that player fit into the lineup? How does the offense flow through him? Does the defense fall apart without his presence? Does his durability and versatility stabilize the lineup? By those counts, nominating Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra makes perfect sense for how Minnesota went through its season.

October 21, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United forward Darwin Quintero (25) cuts in to cross the ball during the Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Darwin Quintero looks to cross the ball against the Los Angeles Galaxy during the Loons’ October 21 match.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

For Quintero, it’s fairly obvious. Coming into Sunday’s game against the Galaxy (where he boosted his stats with an assist), El Cientifico either scored or had a primary assist on 43.5% of Minnesota’s total season goals, and 50% of the goals scored since his first game on April 14. He ranks third among a trimmed down shortlist of 32 players in team goal share behind Ignacio Piatti and Bradley Wright-Phillips. Since 2015, only six players have tallied a higher amount of expected assists per 96 minutes for a season, according to American Soccer Analysis; of them, only one (Carlos Vela this year) has also had a higher expected goal tally. Quintero’s 9.1 total expected assists rank 13th in the last four seasons in MLS; of the 12 in front of him, only one (again, Carlos Vela this season) has fewer minutes played. To say that he’s been productive is an understatement.

Miguel Ibarra’s production is nothing to sneeze at either. 7 goals and 7 assists on the year is commendable for a winger of any stripe; among MVP candidates it puts him in front of a set of high-salary, high-value players like Real Salt Lake’s Albert Rusnak and Philadelphia’s Alejandro Bedoya, and level with New York Red Bulls’ Kaku Gamarra and Dallas’s Maxi Urruti. He was also a clean passer all year; American Soccer Analysis rated his pass completion as better than expected, one of the nine shortlisted MVP candidates to do so and only one of two to do so from a position that wasn’t primarily central. The key difference in Ibarra’s season, though, is that he played all across the field. First introduced to the team as a quasi-#10 in the wake of Kevin Molino’s injury, Ibarra spent significant minutes as a wing back on both sides of the field, along with starting matches as both a left and right winger; he even spent part of the match against the Galaxy at right back in a back four. Credit needs to be given to Ibarra’s numbers for the fact that he played in a withdrawn position for much of the year; while he had some reign to get forward as a wing back, the added defensive responsibility depresses offensive production.

The Case Against The Loons: The single-season goals record was broken this year by Josef Martinez, and it’s a fair shout to suggest that he wasn’t even the catalyst for Atlanta United being inches away from the total season points record. As good as Quintero’s been, the tandem of Martinez and Miguel Almiron has been the most prolific duo in the last four years in terms of combined expected goals and assists, racking up 57.6 together as of this weekend (the closest tandem: Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kjlestan for NYRB in 2015 at 44.1). The only question is which of the two should get the vote; given the number of touches taken and the amount of penalty kicks for Martinez, I have to go with Almiron here, particularly seeing the lack of sting the team had against Chicago with him out with a hamstring injury.

Defender of the Year

Loons Nominees: Michael Boxall, Brent Kallman

The Case For The Loons: Minnesota’s center backs had ample opportunity to work through the season, and it’s come through in their counting stats. Among defenders with more than 15 appearances in MLS this season, Michael Boxall came into the Galaxy game just behind teammate Francisco Calvo with the ninth most tackles on the year. He’s cleared 111 balls this year, good for 17th, and has blocked the 13th most shots at 21. He’s also been a workhorse for the team this year, tying for ninth among defenders in minutes played at 2700.

October 21, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United defender Brent Kallman (14) get the better of LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (9) during the Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Brent Kallman renders a player motionless against the Los Angeles Galaxy during the Loons’ October 21 match.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

Kallman’s story is how productively tidy he’s been at the back. While he’s made a tackle every 64 minutes on the year, he’s only been dribbled past once every 450 minutes, good for sixth among the league’s appearance-qualifying defenders. He’s been good for a clearance every 18.8 minutes, ranking 12th, and comes in 13th in blocking a shot every 100 minutes; likewise, he’s been dispossessed by a poor touch just nine times and had the ball taken from him just twice. Perhaps most impressively, he commits fouls at a clip of just one every 129 minutes, and is one of seven qualifying defenders to receive neither a yellow nor red card on the season.

The Case Against The Loons: With one game left to play, Minnesota has allowed 68 goals this season.

I really wanted to just leave that fact to speak for itself. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that before this weekend Minnesota had allowed 1.76 expected goals per game, third worst behind San Jose and Orlando, on 16.4 shots allowed per game, second worst behind D.C. United. 76% of its total match time has been either in its own or midfield third, behind only Chicago. It’s almost impossible to make an argument that an inept defensive unit overall can warrant a vote for Defender of the Year, unless that one player spent his season standing on his head, which is just part of why Boxall and Kallman’s contributions ring somewhat hollow. It’s fair that the award usually goes to the standout performer of the league’s stingiest defense—which won’t happen this year with Tim Parker off of New York Red Bulls’ ballot.

Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year

Loons Nominees: Bobby Shuttleworth

The Case For The Loons: Among the 21 nominees, Shuttleworth has faced the most shots on goal per 96 minutes, rates second in expected goals allowed—more a demerit to his defenders—and is the only candidate averaging over four saves per 96 minutes. The performances have certainly waned a bit throughout the season, with the veteran netminder rightfully scrutinized for his movement in the recent drubbing away to Philadelphia, but on the whole he’s generally been trusted to make the saves he’s expected to make. His case is simple: he’s done the most work for it.

July 4, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth (33) makes a save during the Minnesota United vs Toronto FC match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Bobby Shuttleworth leaps to make a save during Minnesota’s game against Toronto FC on July 4.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

The Case Against The Loons: Bobby’s issues are twofold. A terrible defense puts you in line to rack up counting stats, both positively and negatively. Despite all of those saves, Shuttleworth is one of only five nominated keepers to allow more than fifty goals, coming in third in goals allowed per 96 minutes. Accordingly, he also rates below median in save percentage at 66.9% on the year—in front of Columbus and USMNT star Zack Steffen, but behind less heralded names like LAFC’s Tyler Miller and the Galaxy’s David Bingham. Even if this wasn’t Seattle’s Stefan Frei’s award to lose (goals against per 96 under one, 77.4% save percentage, and goals allowed minus expected per 96 at -0.388), Shuttleworth ultimately falls victim to the fact that his goals allowed minus expected per 96 rates at -0.002, suggesting that his aggregate totals make him a thoroughly average keeper.

Newcomer of the Year

Loons Nominees: Darwin Quintero

The Case For The Loons: From a value and performance standpoint, Darwin Quintero has been special since coming to Minnesota, but most crucial is the fact that he’s become the offensive focal point over the last six months. Among attackers this season, Quintero ranks eighth in percentage of a team’s touches while on the field at 12%; only Ibson and Fernando Bob rank higher on the team, and only Borek Dockal of Philadelphia is ahead on the Newcomer ballot. This amount of usage from an attacker is remarkable for a team so scarcely in the attacking third—for comparison, Miguel Almiron is next among attackers with an 11.4% usage rate, with Atlanta spending 3% more time in the attacking third than the Loons. Darwin Quintero has been given complete responsibility this year to drive the offense, and has largely lived up to it.

October 21, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - LA Galaxy defender Ashley Cole (3) heads the ball as Minnesota United forward Darwin Quintero (25) looks on during the Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Darwin Quintero looks on as Los Angeles’s Ashley Cole heads the ball away. As impressive as his performances have been, they’ve come up short.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

The Case Against The Loons: Three players sit ahead of Quintero in expected goals and assists per 96 up for the award. Wayne Rooney turned his team into a hard out in the Eastern Conference knockout round, and while his team has only picked up two road points since his arrival—relevant given that they could leapfrog the Union and/or NYCFC with a win against Chicago for a home first-round tie—it’s obvious that the Black and Red are ticking better with him working off of Lucho Acosta; the four assists Rooney has to Acosta rank seventh for a player combination in the league, with Rooney absent in the first 14 games of the year. There’s also Carlos Vela, who has been the catalyst in the #10 role for LAFC all season. It’s remarkable how close Vela’s stats track to Quintero’s, with the main difference in production driven by being a marginally more prolific and accurate shooter:

Carlos Vela vs Darwin Quintero, 2018 Season

Player Minutes Shots/96 Shots on Target/96 Goals/96 Expected Goals/96 Key Passes/96 Assists/96 Expected Assists/96 Expected Goals and Assists/96
Player Minutes Shots/96 Shots on Target/96 Goals/96 Expected Goals/96 Key Passes/96 Assists/96 Expected Assists/96 Expected Goals and Assists/96
Carlos Vela 2368 3.69 1.66 0.53 0.43 2.84 0.36 0.38 0.81
Darwin Quintero 2373 3.03 1.25 0.45 0.36 2.83 0.4 0.36 0.72
Stats courtesy of AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com as of 10-14-2018

Then there’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Only 11 players have tallied 20 or more goals in a season since 2015. Ibrahimovic will have done it in the second-fewest minutes (only Robbie Keane in 2015 had fewer, and only scored 20). Eliminating Ibrahimovic’s goals from the Galaxy’s ledger would drop their goal differential to just one goal ahead of Minnesota United’s this year. In other words, the Galaxy are close to the playoffs coming into Decision Day because of Ibrahimovic; otherwise, they’d be in around the same spot as the Loons.

Coach of the Year

Loons Nominees: Adrian Heath

The Case For The Loons: Let’s not kid ourselves. Minnesota United have a number of headwinds in terms of gathering talent. TCF Bank Stadium features a turf field that keeps the stars of the league from even stopping by. It’s cold here. And the Loons spend money like a team self-financing a stadium in a small market, ranking seventh-lowest in the league in salary as of May 1 (including Darwin Quintero). When you compound that with injuries to players like Sam Cronin, Kevin Molino, and Ethan Finlay—all of whom are the team’s highest-paid players at their positions—getting anything out of this team should be commended.

Adrian Heath
Adrian Heath exits the field after Minnesota United’s 0-2 loss to the Colorado Rapids.
Tim C McLaughlin

The Case Against The Loons: But it’s fair to question if Adrian Heath got anything out of this team. Despite spending on attackers like Darwin Quintero, Angelo Rodriguez, and Romario Ibarra, Minnesota rank eighth-worst in the league in expected goals created, outperforming their expected goals by just two on the year. The defense is third-worst in expected goals allowed behind San Jose and Orlando, allowing 8.6 more goals than expected. They’re tied for dead last in away wins this year with Houston and D.C. United, and are last by a ways in road points per game. They’re third-last in possession, second-worst in shots conceded per game, and tied for last in both shots per game and ratio of shots for versus shots against. Minnesota United are not a good team, and the team isn’t stylistically inclined to play attractively enough to balance that out.

MLS Works Humanitarian of the Year

Loons Nominees: Matt Lampson

The Case For The Loons: Lampson’s work off the field with his own Lampstrong Foundation has been an inspiration throughout his time in MLS. The organization runs numerous support programs for children with cancer and their families, funding grants to families looking to defray costs, providing emotional support through activities for children in treatment and their families, treating kids receiving treatment across the country to tickets to MLS games in VIP areas, funding cancer research, and even helping kids get back to full strength with physical training and nutritional plans as they transition through recovery. This is his fifth year on the ballot, having won in 2016.

October 21, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Matthew Lampson (28) catches the ball during the Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Matt Lampson catches a cross against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

The Case Against The Loons: With due respect to the other candidates, Lampson is one of two candidates who actually has his own foundation versus partnering with team partners or other local groups; the other, Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake, uses his fund to assign summer reading to elementary school children. Again with due respect, giving kids homework during the summer isn’t a humanitarian act. It’s punishment. Because Lampson is the only one running an actual humanitarian organization, there’s no excuse not to vote for him.