These international breaks can be tough on the psyche. Like most of us, you are probably having trouble sleeping. After an hour of tossing and turning in your bed, you stumble into the bathroom to bathe your face in cold water.
Glancing up in the mirror, you are startled to see a tiny version of yourself, hovering over your right shoulder. This mini you is smiling beatifically and appears to be wearing a 2018 Minnesota United replica jersey – the cool one with the stripes. When he turns slightly, you see the name on the back is Ramirez, or is it Ibarra? It seems to shift back and forth depending on the moon light that filters in through the window.
“I am Half-Full man,” the figure says in a reassuring voice, gesturing with a half-full glass of water. You feel your heart rate begin to slow as you take slow, deep breaths.
“The team has recovered well from some devastating injuries,” says Half-Full man. “We have signed a real DP, are ahead of last year’s point total, and Miguel’s playing like his old self again. Did I mention the new stadium is more than halfway done?”
“Construction projects never finish on time,” interrupts a figure perched near your left shoulder that you didn’t realize was there. This one wears a scowl, a crudely lettered #HeathOut headband, and . . . is that a Demidov jersey? He is also brandishing a glass of water.
“We’ve scored fewer goals than last year, we lost to the worst team in the league – twice, and those Extra Time Radio guys are still making fun of us.”
You feel your heart rate pick up again as you glance back and forth in the mirror trying to make sense of these hovering likenesses.
Which one is right? Is this a dream?
Relax. MNUFC withdrawal afflicts many in the Loon nation. We cannot know whether the glass is half empty or full until the end of the season anyway. But if you’re intent on staying up to ponder the odds of a Minnesota playoff run, here are three key issues that are likely to shape the team’s progress in that direction.
Issue one: pace out wide
The following statement is not meant to be ironic: Minnesota United needs a winger. After all the jokes brought on by almost two years of stockpiling wide players, injuries and trades have made winger a position of genuine need in Minnesota. While Alexi Gomez has showed flashes of brilliance, too many of his passes go errant, and too many of his shots go high. He has yet to register a goal or an assist across 465 league minutes.
It appears that the front office is already making moves to address this issue.
A winger who can control the ball effectively and do so with pace would do a lot towards making Minnesota’s attack more complex and dynamic. Darwin Quintero has the ability to hold the ball in the middle and draw a lot of attention, but he would benefit from viable options on both sides of the field. Minnesota needs this signing, or one like it, to work out. A starting quality winger to offset Miguel Ibarra should be a top priority during the summer transfer window.
Issue two: strengthening the shield
Much has been made of Francisco Calvo’s struggles prior to his World Cup departure. Many suggest he is being played out of position, and the hosts of the MLS Extra Time Radio podcast have been calling for him to spend some time on the bench. Heath continues to stand by his talented center back, and unless something changes we can expect to see Calvo anchoring the defense again soon.
In spite of the attention given to center back problems, the midfield pivot may be even more important long term. Sam Cronin’s concussion problems have left the team with a hole that’s difficult to fill. In a long interview with The Athletic’s Jeff Reuter, sporting director Manny Lagos talked about how much the team has missed Cronin’s “grit and experience, work rate and position.” He went on to speak about the importance of acquiring a number six down the road: “It’s an area that, if it’s found in this window, great. It if’s not it has to be found in a window very soon where we can have a little more grit and steel in the middle of the field.”
Rasmus Schuller and Ibson are both talented players, but a quality number six would make other teams a great deal less comfortable on the ball as they advance into Loon territory. I’m not sure who would be the odd man out if Lagos finds the number six he’s looking for in this window, but a more stable midfield pivot could be crucial down the road.
Issue three: wake up the young guns
Remember when Abu Danladi was scoring goals? Remember back in March when it seemed like a matter of time before Mason Toye began to score goals? The Loons top Superdraft picks from the past two years have both gone cold. This is a problem.
Neither of these two players needs to lead the team in scoring, or even start, but teams that get hot down the stretch tend to find contributions from a variety of sources. If at least one of these players were to find their form, it would give Minnesota another dimension.
Toye has size and heaps of athleticism, but he is a lot more than that. He he can put defenders on their heels on the run and has the ability to slip a clever pass. As for Danladi, a trip through some game film from the end of last season should remove any doubt about what he can do in this league when he’s healthy.
Both of these players are off their game right now. If at least one them finds some confidence, it could be that X factor that would make Minnesota that much harder to defend.
So my advice for Loons fans afflicted by international break malaise is to go back to bed. Try counting sheep so you can get some needed rest before league play starts up again in earnest. If all three of the above issues get addressed, well, Half-Full man just might have his day in the sun. If we don’t see progress in these areas, then his scowling alter ego will surely have the last word.