For the talk about Minnesota United FC being a transformed team from 2017’s calamitous entry, the Loons are having a hard time differentiating results and goal counts from last year. Minnesota slumped to two defeats to close 2017, allowing three goals each to the Galaxy (3-0) and Earthquakes (3-2). This year? Four of their six games have seen three goals allowed--one with the same scoreline to the Quakes, another suffering a toothless shutout away (this time against Red Bulls). It’s fair to ask what changed between now and then.
The core of the back stayed mostly the same, with Francisco Calvo and Michael Boxall the preferred center back pairing when not on international duty and Jerry Thiesson moving leftward to accommodate Tyrone Mears on the right. For the first five games, Minnesota swapped Bobby Shuttleworth for new arrival Matt Lampson, and included some extra depth with as-yet unseen international signing Bertrand Owundi Eko’o and draftees Wyatt Omsberg and Carter Manley. Mears’s injury woes first brought the whole back four band together again with Marc Burch returning on the left; when he turned into a forest fire in Portland, he yielded a chance to Manley, and Shuttleworth spelled Lampson following similarly poor form against the Timbers.
From a stylistic perspective, the new pieces didn’t radically change anything. Thiesson’s mentioned in team materials that he prefers defending on the left, which works with a swap for a defensively minded Burch; when in the attack, Thiesson trended higher up when on the right, which fits the styles of both Mears and Manley. Neither Shuttleworth nor Lampson occupy different spaces in the 18, though Lampson moves the ball with more ease. Calvo is still a ball-player, and Boxall is still a muscular presence.
This suggests two possible issues. The first is that Minnesota United FC’s top brass felt comfortable with a defense that, had they removed the first four games and replaced them with an average of the remaining 30, would have still let in the third-most goals in the Western Conference (behind San Jose and LA). By not investing allocation reserves on defenders, it appears that the team planned to bring in capable depth and use a younger core for development. Given that results haven’t shown signs of development, this seems to have been a glaring oversight.
The second is a potentially cheaper and easier issue to fix: Minnesota plays a defensive style that allows a lot of free movement for opposing players outside of the box and the occasional over-compression inside it.
Take a look at the first goal by Gustav Svensson, but more importantly take a look at the buildup before it. Svensson comes open for around ten seconds while the Sounders complete 22 touches in a row, with 17 of them coming after he makes a short move to advance play to Cristian Roldan. Through all of this, Minnesota is effectively playing contain defense, with its midfield four spread slightly wide but its defense tight within the box. This space allows for the back and forth passing between Osvaldo Alonso and Nouhou Tolo, who eventually gets deep toward the corner flag. The expectation would be to try to cross between the lines, but Nouhou instead finds Roldan near the top of the 18. Seeing nothing for a pass into the box, he flicks on to the open Svensson, and the missile is history.
Defending deep and compact isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It pushes teams into taking typically poor percentage chances—look no further than Minnesota’s difficulties against Atlanta—and it also helps to conserve energy for extended defensive spells and to burst on the counter. But it only works provided that you have someone ready to attack the recipient of long passes (spoiler alert: Manley was tucked inside and Finlay didn’t provide pressure) and someone guarding a long shot (spoiler: neither Ibson nor Rasmus Schuller did). With minimal pressure deep and eight players defending in a box, an offense can just pass around until the through ball or shot presents itself. Minnesota paid dearly for allowing that much room.
Poor marking isn’t an issue that just popped up against Seattle. Alex Muyl’s opener for Red Bulls saw Ibson and Marc Burch each trying to find a way to mark him while staying three yards away; the result was each player effectively screening each other while Muyl had the freedom to cut inside and shoot across the box. Diego Valeri’s goal last week came from a similar issue, where Alvas Powell was given significant space by an out-of-position Miguel Ibarra to compose his run before crossing into the near post. It happened on the first goal given up by the team all year, when San Jose’s Danny Hoesen was left between an attack-side Ibson and a defending Kevin Molino at the top of the 18.
What’s strange is that Minnesota hasn’t necessarily benefited from the positive of contain defense: congestion in the box. In theory it’s harder for an offense to get low passes or high crosses in when there are six defensive minded players in a small area. Yet just watch what happens when no one is there to guard the low cross from Cristian Roldan:
The #DancingBear Will Bruin gets a 2nd for Seattle just moments later! #SEAvMIN #SoundersMatchday #MNUFC pic.twitter.com/0TnHAZcA8a— GolazoJuice (@GolazoJuice) April 22, 2018
It’s times like this where you wonder what type of defending Minnesota does. Four Loons are on the six-yard box once the ball reaches Will Bruin, and yet none of them are pulling to guard the man. If they were zonal marking, you’d expect them to be spread into more than just the single area; if they were man marking, someone would have to be assigned to the opposing striker. The same problem happened for Fanendo Adi’s insurance goal last week, with both Manley and Calvo on the line and neither playing the man standing directly between them.
I’d be tempted to agree that Minnesota starts slow—check Kyle Eliason’s piece out at ProSoccerUSA.com—but these sorts of mistakes happening in multiple games suggests that other changes need to happen. At minimum, Minnesota needs to focus on one basic skill: marking players in the final third. If there’s an instruction to give space to players deep, ignore it. If the concern is to give respect to pace due to a lack of athleticism, remember Carter Manley’s Combine-topping speed. If the play is to double-team a striker, ensure that one of the markers stays on them as a full-time job. Play the man in the box as opposed to a perceived run that you can otherwise catch.
Another more difficult trick is something that the Loons’ opponents have done well in recent weeks: press in the midfield. Opposing teams can’t get into attacking space if you stop the ball from first getting through the midfield. It takes concerted work from your attacking midfielders to switch on/off between attack and defense, but it pays dividends. Think back to the 3-0 defeat away at New York last month, where the highlight quotes after the game were that Red Bulls consistently won first and second balls. Many of those takeaways were happening in the middle third, before the Loons could get into attack:
The most active numbers on the board don’t necessarily correspond with the defensive midfield spot; Marc Rzatkowski’s #90 appears frequently, but so does the #77 of winger Daniel Royer and the #22 of their central attacker Florian Valot. By being available to bring the ball back before it crosses the center line, those attacking midfielders were able to start forward movement effectively and in higher-percentage areas than they would if they left the work to the back four.
Getting back to this weekend, let me point you to the first half. Here’s how Seattle’s defense fared on the attack side of the center:
Seattle pressed with a little bit more reserve, using their midfield pairing of Oswaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson around as much as wingers Alex Roldan and Nico Lodeiro, but with both Darwin Quintero and Ethan Finlay set on the counter, they were especially effective in stopping attacks down Minnesota’s right flank. As for the Loons...
Only three recoveries were recorded beyond the center circle. The lone cluster of actual challenges on players happened entirely in the back of zone 12, with Carter Manley’s interceptions and a tackle each for Darwin Quintero and Rasmus Schuller. Essentially, if Seattle was bringing the ball from the back, they had free reign behind the center.
Minnesota has the athleticism to provide the sort of pressure that Seattle and New York gave. Carter Manley showed a lot of ability to pick up runs from a more forward position, and he has the pace to catch up if he gets beat. Miguel Ibarra’s defensive work and his stamina are two of his best features as a front midfielder; perhaps giving him a similar role to Cristian Roldan in the middle with either Quintero out to the right (which worked well after Christian Ramirez came on) or as a double-pivot #10 could do wonders. Quintero shows at least some desire to pick the ball back.
The big question is whether an aging Ibson can keep his legs underneath him for a lengthy spell of activity or if Schuller can stretch his fitness to work that hard for 90 minutes—a serious issue in the last two matches. For me, I’d give a chance to Maximiano in front of a home crowd against Houston to see if he can win the ball with enough consistency, with Schuller in reserve should he take significant lumps.
Whatever the answer is, the key for Minnesota is going to be to decide a defensive identity. If the team wants to zonally mark, get spread out enough and do it. If the team wants to man mark, put bodies on the players that pose a risk. If the team wants to press from the front, put the more industrious players in positions to disrupt. If the team wants to continue holding on loosely to marks, score ten goals to outscore teams.