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Errors Shake Core of Minnesota United’s Defense

After another poor performance, Francisco Calvo lit a match over the media pointing out the Loons’ errors. The numbers suggest we should do that.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Minnesota United FC
Francisco Calvo defended his performance against San Jose by calling out a respect defecit.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In his comments targeting media outlets covering his and his teammates’ performances, Francisco Calvo—perhaps bitterly—gave license to directly criticize his play. Rather than take the analytical license inherent in critique, let’s just look at some numbers first:

According to, Calvo’s amount of interceptions per 90 are down 36% this year. His amount of times dribbled past per 90 minutes has gone from 0.7 in 2017 to 1.0 in 2018. He’s also seen his clearances per 90 dip 12%, and his overall blocks of shots, crosses, and passes are down 23%. His performance against San Jose, in which he conceded an assist and a penalty, actually helped his stat line in that it brought his tackles per 90 back to the 1.8 that he had in 2017.

It’s unfair to critique single errors that players make at Zapruder-level focus. I get that, and I’m certainly sympathetic to Calvo’s argument that a team plays as a unit rather than as individuals. But as someone who watches these games week after week, I also know that individual mistakes have caused a lot of goals this year. So, in the interest of fairness, I did a little experiment. I watched every goal that Minnesota has conceded so far this year, took down the scorer, scoreline, minute of the shot, and assessed whether the goal came from one of four causes:

  1. The attacker was just Better: Did the attacker make a fantastic play to get open? Did he do a rainbow dribble over one guy and rabona the next before backheeling the ball in? Or did the attacker at least go one vs. one and zig when the defender was rightfully expecting a zag? Sometimes it’s acceptable to admit an attacker scored a well-defended goal.
  2. The Tactic failed: I’ve been critical of Adrian Heath and Mark Watson’s tactical identity for the team’s defense this year. Midfielders often don’t press the ball at the point of giveaways, instead dropping back to track runs. The back line often gets too compact and separated from the holding midfield, allowing for crosses to get through and long shot opportunities. These have yielded a good amount of goals.
  3. The defender got Beat: These goals may look like the attacker being better, but for one or two specific reasons why the defender should have been the equal. If a ball is set up by a header from a far shorter player, it’s fair to ask why the defender couldn’t clear it. If the attacker muscled the defender out despite not having leverage, one should wonder why that happened. If a defender had decent positioning but the attacker just ran around them like a traffic cone, that’s a problem.
  4. The defender made a glaring Mistake: These are the galling errors, like running back from a ball for a goal kick when it was two feet inside the end line, making a clearance directly into the path of the attacker, weighting a back pass so a striker can pounce, or conceding a penalty for an obvious handball. Note for these: if a penalty was conceded, the likelihood of scoring is high enough that blame should go to the one who conceded it, rather than the goalkeeper.

To save yourself from the therapy bills, here’s a helpful link to the carnage, including descriptions of each goal allowed. Here’s the summation of the various ways:

Goals Conceded by Minnesota United FC by Player and Type

Better, Tactic, Beat, Mistake Burch Calvo Calvo and Boxall Calvo and Burch Finlay Ibson and Boxall n/a Omsberg Schuller Thiesson Grand Total
Better, Tactic, Beat, Mistake Burch Calvo Calvo and Boxall Calvo and Burch Finlay Ibson and Boxall n/a Omsberg Schuller Thiesson Grand Total
Better 1 1
Tactic 2 2
Beat 2 1 1 1 5
Mistake 6 1 1 1 1 1 2 13
Grand Total 2 6 2 1 1 1 3 1 1 3 21

When Adrian Heath talks about individual errors being the difference, he’s right. Of the 21 goals allowed by Minnesota this year, 13 have come as the result of a clear and obvious miscue by the defender, including three penalties. Five goals have come from the defender just getting beat, two have come from the offensive player being a space not defended due to the tactics employed, and one—Diego Valeri’s goal to make it 2-0 in Portland—was ruled to be too difficult for any one player to make a good enough play to stop it.

Pie graph of conceded goal reasons for 2018 Minnesota United FC season

Within these errors come some interesting trends. Michael Boxall has yet to make an individual error this season, but has contributed to three; the Chicago goal by Elliot Collier is a good example, where he and Ibson practically colliding in the box passed the ball into the attacking run. The two tactical mistakes were where space was left open near the top of the box, either through the holding midfielders being too high or too withdrawn. Where the Loons have just gotten beat has usually been from wide positions.

Despite these connections, it’s almost impossible to ignore the leader in defensive errors. Francisco Calvo has made a direct error in being beaten, mentally lapsing, or missing a touch in nine of the team’s goals this year. His amount of mistakes alone are higher than the combined total of the team’s beats. The goal where the attacker did too well to stop also happened on Calvo’s mark. All told, Calvo has twice the number of straight mistakes than any of his teammates have total errors.

If Calvo’s play were fully cleaned up to avoid errors and beats, Minnesota would have in theory conceded at least eight fewer goals, depending on how you rate his contributions to key passes conceded. That’s 0.8 goals per 90, for anyone scoring at home.

Goal Errors Conceded per 90 minutes for Minnesota United FC
Minutes info via

Wyatt Omsberg and Marc Burch both outpace Calvo’s error rates per 90, but by virtue of playing 900 minutes to Omsberg’s 103 and Burch’s 224, Calvo’s rates have had a far more significant result on team performance.

As someone predisposed to being let down by his teams (recall: Minnesotan Arsenal fan who got into the Gunners two years after the Invincibles) even I can’t expect a team to play completely error free all of the time. But if the team committed half of the mistake errors it has thus far, it would have let off 15 goals, good for 7th in the West compared to tied for last right now. Four of the six losses this year came in games where a mistake led to the deciding goal. These individual mistakes have absolutely cost points in 2018, and it would be wrong for people who analyze the team to not point to them.

It’s expected that in Major League Soccer, your defender is liable to get beaten by someone here or there, particularly given the amount of allocation resources put in to attackers compared to the other side of the ball. But when players are going uncontested six yards from goal (Adi for 3-1 at Portland, 4/14, as well as Bruin for 2-0 at Seattle, 4/22), when your aerial prowess is beaten by someone six inches shorter because you opt against jumping (Blessing to Kaye for 2-0 at LAFC, 5/9), when conceding assists are preferred to a corner kick (Wondo to Hoesen for 2-1 vs. San Jose, 5/12), when you flail your arms out like a goalkeeper when you’re a center back (penalty for 3-1 vs. San Jose, 5/12), you lose the opportunity to claim bad luck.

I’m willing to admit that mistakes have been on everyone this year; seven players have been involved in a “mistake goal.” But I’m also not fully willing to listen to Francisco Calvo when he says that defending is something that happens with the full team. All of those errors that I listed above that suggested the team has run out of excusable mistakes? All of them were from Calvo. For the second time, Calvo instead opted to deflect criticism from his performance onto a narrative of media disrespect.

Calvo has had decent play in other occasions, but thus far, he has only received the respect that his performances have earned.