Minnesotans have sat back while other MLS teams parade their Designated Player-level attackers. We’ve watched with envy as teams like Toronto, Seattle, Atlanta, and Portland stake their offensive production on singular creative players in the center of the midfield. We’ve seen those teams reap the benefits in the form of deep playoff runs. It was understandable, then, that Saturday against the Portland Timbers felt a bit like Christmas morning for a young child. Loons fans had their new toy in Darwin Quintero.
The big areas for curiosity coming into this game all centered around the club’s new Designated Player. How would he perform against a Timbers defense that had seriously under-performed in the five games coming into the match? What sort of central figure would he strike? How would he work with his teammates? Most importantly, would it work and strike reasons for optimism going forward?
To say that Quintero performed well would be an understatement. Here’s his box score: one goal on five shots (two on target), two key passes on set plays, 25 completed passes to fourteen not completed—which includes the through ball to Abu Danladi that Bill Tuiloma shot into his own net—and seven successful dribbles to three unsuccessful. He wasn’t a defensive liability as feared, earning six recoveries, nor was he beaten at all by his positioning with zero offside calls.
Two things stand out in his chalkboard that were immediately evident in watching the game. First, seven completed dribbles by a Minnesota United player is ridiculous. Up to this game, Sam Nicholson’s seven against Orlando City—in which he spent most of his time setting the aging Scott Sutter ablaze—was the most a MNUFC player even attempted. Given that Quintero wasn’t hugging a comparatively open wing flank, it becomes even more apparent that his skill and confidence with the ball at his feet is going to be part of how the team plays, something that he made evident in his first goal.
The second aspect is where he was getting his productive touches. Coming into the game, most of Quintero’s comments suggested that his role would be to hang behind the striker and find where he could assist the game. True to form, the first half in particular saw him running nearly level with Christian Ramirez on the break, extending the run centrally when Ramirez was holding up play, then hovering near the top of the 18 to recycle play as defenders collapsed near the six.
If you balance his touches and passes, however, there is definitely a right-of-center tilt. On those breaking runs, Quintero set himself to the right of Ramirez as a duo, and was found especially in the first 15 minutes providing some of the same support runs that Miguel Ibarra did for Ethan Finlay in the wake of Kevin Molino’s injury.
This was particularly evident in the goal that Ibarra had called back for offsides. The play gets into the final third with Finlay and Jerome Thiesson streaming down the flank. The M.O. for the Loons thus far had been to switch the field to Ibarra right away; instead, Finlay spots Quintero hanging near the top corner of the box, who then slides it through to Thiesson. The pass inward draws the defense off of Jerry’s run, giving him enough space to perfectly weight his cross to Ibarra’s open side.
What will be interesting to see is how Quintero can vary these runs. The first great chance of the second half saw him switch flanks in the 51st minute to attack the left side of the box on the dribble, then attempt a pass across goal to an on-rushing Ramirez. The ball was spot on, and had Christian jumped up instead of leaning forward, we wouldn’t continue talking about his goalless start.
A quick sidebar: In probably his best game of the year, Christian Ramirez was inches away multiple times from a goal. He had his closest shot of the year saved acrobatically over the bar by Jake Gleeson, missed that header by a breath, and consistently showed the ability to link up play to whichever wing was streaking forward. Hold up play is going to be critical if you want to get Quintero open or one-v-one in the final third, and if Saturday was any indication, it’ll come well from Ramirez as soon as he gets that last inch of sharpness to score as well.
Now, how did this all show up on the scoreboard in the second half? Off of a throw-in, Carter Manley makes a quick pass to Quintero. With his back to Portland’s Diego Chara, he spins him around, takes two steps toward Zarek Valentin before cutting him outside, then finds the angle to shoot past Gleeson across the goal. What was impressive about that shot was that unless he shot directly into Gleeson’s stomach, the likelihood that the ball gets trapped is minimal. If it wasn’t going to be him scoring, Ramirez and Ibarra were on the doorstep. The knowledge to take shots that strand the goalkeeper hasn’t been evident for the Loons thus far.
Quintero will unjustly receive a demerit for the second goal given that it was an unsuccessful through ball. Rightfully or not, MLS defending gets a reputation for allowing modest mistakes to turn into goals. The trick is to find opportunities to force mistakes. In this case, Quintero saw substitute Abu Danladi running level with Portland’s two center backs and beating them slightly for pace. In hoofing the ball forward and to Danladi’s right foot, his weighted ball was only a last-ditch effort away by Tuiloma away from an easy shot at the penalty spot. To get there, Tuiloma would have needed an acrobatic stretch away. Well...
LETS JUST CALL THAT A DARWIN GOAL— Fists Of The North Star (@FistsOfNorth) April 15, 2018
Sure, apocalyptic supporters group. That works.
So, how does Minnesota United move forward with the rest of the team? By placing a lot of the creative weight further ahead, it means that the center/defensive midfield partnership of Ibson and Rasmus Schuller can focus more on winning the ball and cycling it forward. That seems to play well into Schuller’s game, but I honestly think it means that Ibson has to work more for scraps. This wasn’t his finest performance, with much of his workrate clustered in the defensive third. Like Quintero, Ibson works best when he’s able to find the game going forward; unlike Quintero, Ibson lacks a striker’s clinical touch in attack. With the apparent coming of Maximiano as an option in midfield, Ibson could see his role lessened; that said, if the two Brazilians spark a combo together, it’d make sense to see the elder keep moving as a deeper option for the attack and the younger anchoring in front of the back four.
More importantly for the attack, I think you have to go with the crew Adrian Heath started against Portland. Christian Ramirez’s hold up play is something that clearly helped Quintero on the run, and while Danladi gave a good outlet option late, that can actually be a detriment if you want play held back enough to get Quintero on the ball. If Quintero is going to hover a little bit to the right, he should be working alongside a pair willing to give him service from there. When he’s been healthy, Tyrone Mears has been happy to stay forward to overlap with Ethan Finlay, whose first instinct is to work within the gap between the touchline and a center back’s outside shoulder. I’d be interested to see if the dribble happy Sam Nicholson would function well for more than eight late minutes, but the partnership between Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra and Ibarra’s better ability in the box is enough of a differentiator.
What is clear is this: Minnesota should feel more than happy to run their offense through Darwin Quintero. Against a decent and emotionally charged defense against Portland, he caused havoc throughout the game, finding ways to sneak between the defense and midfield lines. He took players on via the dribble and left them embarrassed. He can score, distribute both far and close, and can create space for his teammates. Not terrible for a debut.