The stat heads at American Soccer Analysis just confirmed our worst fears: the season is effectively over.
Playoff odds updated!— American Soccer Analysis (@AnalysisEvolved) September 18, 2018
COL, MIN, SJE:
ATL, NYC, NYRB:
CHI, ORL: https://t.co/k6BeE86WHR
Minnesota United currently sit fourteen points behind the fifth and sixth spots in the Western Conference table with eighteen points available. There are difficult roads in for the Timbers and Whitecaps, sure, and it’s possible that Portland loses all of its final six games while Minnesota wins six games, leapfrogging the Whitecaps, Galaxy, and Dynamo, and... yeah, nope, it’s done.
This means it’s high time for Minnesota United to fully work on plans for 2019 and use the final six matches to answer lingering personnel questions for who should make the move to Allianz Field. It doesn’t necessarily mean to forget about winning, but it does mean keeping a circumspect eye on how to get the team in order for next season.
Let’s first consider the players—good, bad, and indifferent—who are guaranteed a spot on the roster next season. Per Jeff Rueter’s recent rundown in The Athletic (paywall, but it’s totally worth it), Minnesota’s roster has 2019 guarantees for Francisco Calvo, Romario Ibarra, Darwin Quintero, and Angelo Rodriguez. MLSSoccer.com also confirmed in April that, following his trade, Ethan Finlay’s new deal includes a guarantee through 2019. Given a modest raise from last year, it’s possible that Kevin Molino is in the same boat.
The next group are the players who are too inexpensive to pass on. Mason Toye will still be on a Generation Adidas contract. It’s possible that Abu Danladi continues on a GA deal, which would turn him staying into a no-brainer. The rookie contracts for Wyatt Omsberg, Carter Manley, and Alex Kapp include rolling options that keep them in reserve-level numbers through their first couple of years. Even with significant roles on the team, Brent Kallman and Eric Miller are unlikely to make above the MLS median salary for defenders after sizable raises.
After those essential locks, you get to the next tier of players who should (keyword: should) be around based on their deals and performances. Rasmus Schuller can be bought down via TAM, alleviating any reason not to bring him back from a cap perspective, but there’s always a whisper of a chance without guaranteed deals. Miguel Ibarra is on a salary between the average and median level with performances (xG+xA/96 numbers ahead of 15 of the 52 Designated Players listed as attackers or midfielders by American Soccer Analysis) that should make him a lock; if the post-game comments from Adrian Heath are any indication, he’s less than guaranteed. Both of those players would likely be snapped up by any team looking for value compared to their current deals.
Other veterans may be less sexy names, but should be locked in. Bobby Shuttleworth is in his second straight year of being an above-average goalkeeper (13th right now in goals minus expected goals allowed per 96), and only three players with more than three games of play in front of him on the list make less money. Michael Boxall and Jerome Thiesson are both in the twilight zone of being serviceable starters on average salaries in spots the team should look to improve on—good enough to be depth, but thus perhaps too expensive if the cap is a concern. Matt Lampson is a serviceable backup, but could be improved upon at roughly the same salary.
From there, you start hitting the cohort of players where decisions need to be made. Ibson turns 35 in two months and has seen his performance level dip this season. Alexi Gomez and Maximiano have been below the expectations their TAM-utilizing loans would make you believe. Fernando Bob is apparently on a non-guaranteed contract; if he doesn’t significantly impress, he could be on his way out. Collin Martin has been one of the great stories for the team off the field, but has scarcely gotten chances off the bench. Collen Warner provides somewhat expensive depth given his production. Harrison Heath has been reserve level at best, and hasn’t overperformed his contract yet. Any of those seven midfielders are replaceable in a midfield that needs an overhaul.
From there, you hit the easier decisions. Sam Cronin’s neck and head injuries kept him from making a single appearance this year; it could be the end of his career. Johan Venegas burned his bridges last season, making an MLS return a shock. Father Time currently runs faster than Marc Burch, though he could be a mentor for his hometown FC Cincinnati. Frantz Pangop has shown the upside that Ismaila Jome did when he got cut from the team last year. We can’t confirm the existence of Bertrand Owundi.
When considering those tiers, there are three approaches to the last six games of the season: lock in chemistry for 2019, bleed in youth, or give auditions to those question marks. The chemistry argument is a solid one, particularly for the quartet of the two Ibarras, Darwin Quintero, and Angelo Rodriguez. When bypassing the midfield in the second half of Saturday’s Real Salt Lake game, Darwin Quintero had success in finding Miguel Ibarra for goals and Romario for bombing runs. Assuming they’re locks to work with injury returnees Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino, it’d be wise to get them as comfortable together as possible, with Mason Toye and Abu Danladi playing as spark plugs off the bench.
The “play your kids” crowd also has a good shout. The combined output of the eleven Loons under 25 (Danladi, Heath, Romario, Kapp, Manley, Martin, Maximiano, Omsberg, Owundi, Pangop, and Toye) would only lead the individual minutes played standings for the Loons by 89 minutes over Michael Boxall. Supplementing those players with veterans like Francisco Calvo, Brent Kallman, and Eric Miller could give the young guys an opportunity to show their mettle and determine their roles within the organization for next year. At the very least, it can help their cases as they look for future employment.
My choice would be to cycle players in and out who are questions for the roster. It’s taken until now to get Maximiano onto the field regularly, but he’s been competent alongside Fernando Bob. Both of those players should get starts together, to be sure, but each should also be tested as the main defensive midfielder with a two-way player like Rasmus Schuller or Collin Martin to see how their performances stack up. If the jury is out on bringing Collen Warner in as a jack-of-all-central-trades depth piece for next year, sub him in at the 60th minute and see if he can plug holes. If Ibson can be the spark plug in his age-35 season, get him accustomed to that spot alongside Maximiano. On the back line, see if you can trust Carter Manley to be the backup fullback or if he needs another year in USL; the same goes for Wyatt Omsberg as a fourth center back.
Consider the next few games to be like playing video poker. Minnesota is at the point in the season where they can gamble on seeing if the right combination can fall into place. They can be smart about it, picking areas to hold certain cards and keep things constant while risking more to find high payoffs. Should the combinations that haven’t worked out through the year fail, we’ll have a guide for how money gets spent next season.
Let me throw in a wrench, however: with the lack of rumors dropping from Dr. Bill McGuire or Chris Wright about next season, it’s entirely possible that the full technical staff is under the same audition process. Results have been flat year over year, with the Loons .01 points per game ahead of last year, despite bringing in two Designated Players. If the word from up high says they have jobs for next year, the staff can be more free to play like the points don’t matter. If the expectation is to improve on last season, Minnesota can ostensibly do that with decent performances at home and a win on the road against either Philadelphia or Columbus while still testing things out. If the expectation is “playoffs or pink slips,” you best believe the staff will just go for wins until the team is formally eliminated, something that will happen with less than two non-wins.