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Grit and Luck in the Loons’ Home Return

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Minnesota United turned in a gritty away performance against Houston. Even if it was at home.

April 28, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United fans support a a tifo of the club's crest during the Minnesota United vs Houston Dynamo match at TCF Bank Stadium. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
April 28, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United fans support a a tifo of the club's crest during the Minnesota United vs Houston Dynamo match at TCF Bank Stadium. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

I find it surprising that people are ragging on Minnesota United’s performance Saturday against Houston Dynamo this past weekend. Just look at the statistical advantages that the Loons had in their home match, directly pulled from the league’s website:

The Totally Real Stats from 4/28/2018 versus Houston

See? There was a clear advantage for Minnesota in all of the shot types, passing, and possession. Houston was clearly in the defensive throughout the game, as noted by the fouls and tackles.

[looks off-screen, quizzically, as if listening to very important information] I’m being told this was not, in fact, the correct graphic.

The Actual Real Stats from 4/28/2018 versus Houston
Stats: Minnesota United FC vs Houston Dynamo, 4/28/2018 - MatchCenter.MLSSoccer.com

Oh. Well now.

What’s funny is that the statistics would suggest that Houston played as the home team, getting more freedom to shoot, more clear pass opportunities, and earning the ball with more frequency in the midfield. They also mustered nine shots off target in the box; sure enough, according to American Soccer Analysis’s expected goals model, Houston should have scored 2.35 goals in this game to Minnesota’s 1.01 (1.53 by the player model, which they admit overrates penalty kicks). Minnesota United played much of the game defensively, despite being down 1-0 within 10 minutes, and only had a clear possession advantage in four of the game’s eighteen five-minute intervals. Minnesota gave up a lot of the swagger that comes from playing at TCF Bank Stadium and instead won an ugly game. Why would they cede that much of the home-field advantage to a team like Houston, and why did it work?

Realistically, in the first half, it didn’t. Houston pressed early and earned a goal off of a common move through Minnesota’s MLS existence: crossing to a runner, this time Alberth Elis, checking on the far post shoulder of a compressed back line. A free piece of advice to prospective Loons opponents: no matter who is marking that spot, there will be adequate separation for a forward to get to the end of a cross at the far corner of the six. From there, Minnesota had only two passes “completed” into the box in the first half: Darwin Quintero’s corner headed over by Christian Ramirez, and Miguel Ibarra’s deep cross caught by Houston’s Alejandro Fuenmayor for the penalty.

MNUFC First Half Passing, 4/28/2018 vs. Houston Dynamo
Opta Chalkboard, Minnesota United FC vs. Houston Dynamo - Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

Two things stand out to me here. First, look at all of the activity in the space between midfield and the back line compared to the general lack of positive movements in the attacking half. Minnesota absorbed a lot of pressure and found the best outlets out to the left, in part because their defensive midfielders turned the middle of the park into a black hole. Which reminds me...

Second, look at how often Minnesota was trying to play long balls. The Loons noticed the two lines of pressure Houston was trying to put on: the front four attackers recycling play, and their fullbacks and defensive midfielders guarding the center circle. Darwin Ceren was particularly effective in closing down play through the holding mid spot, which forced the Loons to push too quickly into the flanks, specifically through Sam Nicholson and Jerome Thiesson, against the more inexperienced Andrew Wenger.

The other aspect of playing on the wide break is that it allows some room to catch the defense early and force mistakes. Minnesota had two of those moments: Christian Ramirez’s long shot, and the handball against Alejandro Fuenmayor. Ramirez’s shot was a finger’s length from reaching the corner from 40 yards out while Joe Willis was off his line, while a cross into an on-rushing Quintero took a member’s bounce off of the young center back Fuenmayor’s arm. Neither of these were truly good chances by the book, but part of winning ugly means taking every chance possible and hoping one pays off.

This may surprise people, but I didn’t necessarily hate this plan of attack. Houston excels in getting their pacy attackers behind defensive lines and in smothering nascent attacks in the midfield, but the gaps they showed were just as easy to point out — a defense that lacks left-sided mobility due to age and lacks positional awareness on the right. Defensively, containment of pace pays dividends, provided that you pressure shots enough. When in attack, passing over the central midfield and instead trying to exploit gaps via the long ball is a low-percentage play—a home side should feel more comfort with patient play in the midfield to short pass around the defense—but after a five-game stretch where the Loons lost the fight for the ball in midfield regularly in four of them, I don’t blame Adrian Heath there.

Moreover, it’s undeniable that an enforced substitution changed the outlook for Minnesota. Christian Ramirez being taken off with a hamstring injury in the 30th minute brought a seemingly like-for-like substitute in Mason Toye, but stylistically it meant that the Loons needed to change where they could build play up. The young striker provides a lot of energy going forward, but it’s best to consider his positional awareness as “emerging.” More importantly, the passing role that Ramirez has played through the season is to sit near the circle at the start of the break and play short- to medium-range balls to the attacking midfield. In that role, Toye was not fantastic, only completing five of nine short passes in the middle third and only one going forward:

Mason Toye’s touches (passes, dribbles, and shots), 4/28/2018 vs. Houston Dynamo
Opta Chalkboard, Minnesota United FC vs. Houston Dynamo — Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

Where he did tend to find luck was in running down the channel between Darwin Quintero’s central runs and Miguel Ibarra’s right flank. His run toward the right helped draw Leonardo away from a double team on Quintero in the 38th minute —a move that saw Fuenmayor marooned and yielding a handball in the box—as well as the dribble that brought play into the attack before Ibson’s goal.

Another aspect of the bunkered mentality—and, again, weird as it is to say, a smart move by Adrian Heath—was to switch the formation from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 when Collin Martin came in for the now-departed Sam Nicholson. Martin’s entry was as something of a right-sided central midfielder, pushing Rasmus Schuller into a straight-up #6 role that he had balanced with forward play with Ibson throughout the first half. While his passing wasn’t necessarily tight on the night (78% accuracy per WhoScored.com), Schuller’s defensive workrate on the night—and success at it—was immense, leading the team with eight tackles won and 22 successful defensive touches, along with six fouls conceded. This contrasts heavily with Ibson, whose involvement was almost exclusively offensive (only six recoveries on his defensive sheet). The goal was sumptuous, but it also came as the only productive touch he registered in a twelve minute span. It could mean that the two players are reaching an equilibrium in what work each has to do on the field; if so, it worked this time, though it made perfect sense to see more dynamism come in via Alexi Gomez for Ibson late.

All of the plaudits for the Loons aside, there are a couple worrying aspects to this game, the least of which is Christian Ramirez’s latest knock coming on the back of Abu Danladi’s inability to stay healthy. More importantly, Houston’s finishing was little short of terrible in this game. The Dynamo registered 19 shots in the game. 13 of them came inside the box, and only six of those came on target or were blocked. Bobby Shuttleworth deserves a lot of plaudits for his performance in net, notching three circus saves out of his four total, but even a sheltered team can’t allow that many close-range shots and live to tell the tale more often than not. If anything, Houston furthered the Loons’ cause late by holding off on substitutions until the final 15 minutes, then subbing out their three best attackers in Tomas Martinez, Alberth Elis, and Romell Quioto when chasing the winner. I get that Wilmer Cabrera needed some fresh legs late on, but there was some sort of galaxy brain thinking near the end there.

Whatever the circumstances, though, Minnesota did the most with the few chances they created against a team roughly level with them in the pecking order. There are enough positives from the match to carry into Saturday afternoon with Vancouver, a team whose results this season perhaps flatter the issues they’ve had on field. Minnesota may rely on similar luck to slow and stymie Vancouver’s quick attack, though they will get sanctuary from facing Christian Techera after his celebration-induced second yellow suspended him for the weekend. They’ll still need a fair bit of luck if they plan to play with the level of quality, but perhaps that’s what home matches are for.