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How Much Have Injuries Shaped MNUFC’s 2018 Season?

Injuries have been a scourge for the Loons this season. Can we credit them for the disappointing results?

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MLS: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake
Abu Danladi, one of numerous MNUFC players to miss significant time with injuries this season, picks up a knock in the team’s Sept. 15 match at Real Salt Lake.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a common refrain from Adrian Heath and the club’s top brass this year: injuries to key Minnesota United players are one of the main reasons the team has been less competitive in 2018 than the team anticipated. It’s true that the Loons have missed key contributors to injury—as of the most recent MLS Players Union salary release, the team’s fourth, fifth, and sixth highest-paid players (Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay, and Sam Cronin) were all in the midst of season-ending injury spells. But it’s also worth investigating as the team assesses the technical staff’s performance on the year.

2018 Minnesota United FC Games Unavailable Per Player

Player Games Available Games Unavailable Total Possible Games Injured Percent of games unavail Percent of games injured
Player Games Available Games Unavailable Total Possible Games Injured Percent of games unavail Percent of games injured
Boxall 28 2 30 0 6.7% 0.0%
Burch 15 15 30 15 50.0% 50.0%
Calvo 26 4 30 0 13.3% 0.0%
Cronin 0 34 34 34 100.0% 100.0%
Danladi 16 14 30 14 46.7% 46.7%
Fernando Bob 3 1 4 0 25.0% 0.0%
Finlay 7 27 34 27 79.4% 79.4%
Gomez 23 0 23 0 0.0% 0.0%
Heath 29 1 30 1 3.3% 3.3%
M Ibarra 29 1 30 0 3.3% 0.0%
R Ibarra 7 2 9 1 22.2% 11.1%
Ibson 29 1 30 1 3.3% 3.3%
Kallman 30 0 30 0 0.0% 0.0%
Kapp 30 0 30 0 0.0% 0.0%
Lampson 27 3 30 3 10.0% 10.0%
Manley 26 1 27 1 3.7% 3.7%
Martin 29 1 30 1 3.3% 3.3%
Maximiano 26 4 30 3 13.3% 10.0%
Mears 20 6 26 6 23.1% 23.1%
Miller 18 4 22 4 18.2% 18.2%
Molino 2 32 34 32 94.1% 94.1%
Nicholson 8 0 8 0 0.0% 0.0%
Omsberg 26 0 26 0 0.0% 0.0%
Owundi 24 0 24 0 0.0% 0.0%
Pangop 30 0 30 0 0.0% 0.0%
Quintero 24 1 25 1 4.0% 4.0%
Ramirez 22 1 23 1 4.3% 4.3%
Rodriguez 7 1 8 1 12.5% 12.5%
Schuller 28 2 30 0 6.7% 0.0%
Shuttleworth 30 0 30 0 0.0% 0.0%
Thiesson 17 13 30 13 43.3% 43.3%
Toye 26 0 26 0 0.0% 0.0%
Warner 29 1 30 0 3.3% 0.0%
Total 691 172 863 159
Percentage 80.1% 19.9% 100% 18.4%

To do this, I consulted the game preview notes provided for each MLS game on the league website, which include reports of players reported to be suspended, on international duty, and out or questionable due to injury. If the player was listed as injured and didn’t play or make the bench, he was ruled out due to injury; injuries, suspensions, and callups were subsequently ruled as games unavailable. Note that players on loan were considered “not on the roster,” similar to how players traded or transferred out would be.

As the numbers show, injured Minnesota United players have so far missed a total of 159 games so far this season, inclusive of the twelve combined games that Cronin, Finlay, and Molino are required to miss as part of their Season-Ending Injury designation until the end of the season. That amounts to 18.4% of the year’s 863 total possible available games. Aside from that trio, Marc Burch, Jerome Thiesson, and Abu Danladi have all missed more than ten games, each with more than 40% of their season spent on the rehab table.

While this doesn’t fully capture the number of players left out of the 18 with mild health concerns—Maximiano’s knee, for instance, was only cited for three missed games despite a number of times not in the lineup—it does paint a picture of a team that had issues keeping players fit. Between injuries and games missed from either suspensions or callups this season, the Loons have been without key players often. Of the 17 players with zero missed games for injury this year, only six (Francisco Calvo, Rasmus Schuller, Michael Boxall, Miguel Ibarra, Bobby Shuttleworth, and Brent Kallman) have been regularly competing for the starting eleven since the beginning of the year; on the flip side, the team’s starters in the first game of the year versus San Jose have combined to miss 95 games.

It’s hard to fully accept the premise that injuries were a fully negative force, however, given the different additions Minnesota made throughout the season. Maximiano was initially seen as promising insurance for delays to Sam Cronin’s return. Kevin Molino was fully entrenched in the #10 position to start the season; it’s no shock that the team began to seriously target Darwin Quintero immediately after his ACL tear, with The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter initially reporting the team’s principals scouting him three days after Molino’s injury. Durability concerns surrounding Tyrone Mears, Marc Burch, and Jerome Thiesson were all present as the Loons initially chased Alexi Gomez and Eric Miller; in the eight matches before Miller arrived from Colorado, that fullback trio had missed a combined five games through injury, and Gomez, first seen as a left back, was forced further up the field following Ethan Finlay’s ACL tear.

Minnesota has spent its season adapting to injuries in different ways. The switch to the 3-5-2 formation against FC Dallas came with the team nursing injuries to Thiesson, Burch, and Eric Miller while boasting a glut of center back and central midfield health. The lack of a true defensive midfielder with Cronin missing when there were lingering concerns about Maximiano’s availability led alternately to a double- and triple-pivot of deeper lying midfielders, theoretically to clog the space with bodies versus natural ball-winning skill; no shock, then, that Rasmus Schuller continues to far outpace the league in tackles per 90 minutes.

Given that MNUFC had to shift its focus from using 2018 to improve and build momentum to needing to improvise with personnel adds and tactical shifts, it’s fair to say that the biggest drawback from the team’s injury crisis was one of opportunity cost. Had the team gotten reliable health from its top offensive performers, perhaps it could have used the funds and cap space to bolster the midfield with a Quintero-esque #6 in the transfer window versus Fernando Bob. The two-way potential of Alexi Gomez was an allure on his arrival due to various wing injuries, but in retrospect that international and senior space could have been used on a game-breaking true fullback.

How one grades the Loons this year comes down to counterfactuals based on their responses to injuries. Would the team have been quicker to sign a ready-made defensive midfielder versus the loan for Maximiano in the winter had they known the extent of Sam Cronin’s neck and head injuries? If so, would that player have displaced Rasmus Schuller, Ibson, or someone else? Would Darwin Quintero have been signed had Kevin Molino not gotten injured? If so, imagine them alternating spots on the right wing; if not, consider the performance of Molino last season, project it to this year, and compare it to Quintero’s production. Would the Loons have been as quick to trade Christian Ramirez when Angelo Rodriguez came in had Abu Danladi not had two straight games of adequate health to make the bench? Would they have moved to the 3-5-2 as a way of solving the defensive woes if their fullback line was less depleted? If not, what would they have tried?

To be blunt, we can’t answer those questions with any certainty. We can make educated guesses, but perhaps more importantly we can make educated projections for how these pieces will fit together next season. Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay are both in advanced stages of their recoveries, which establishes significant depth with Miguel and Romario Ibarra. But the more chronic injuries—joint wear and tear for Jerome Thiesson, ligament breakdowns for Marc Burch, and the curious case of Abu Danladi’s hamstrings—are more difficult to work with, and could help to focus transfer dealings. The Loons could also choose to stand pat in a similar way to their treatment of Sam Cronin’s position, opting to believe that their injuries will be sorted with a quick vacation before the opening of Allianz Field.