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From The Loonigan: Team Identity

Understand aspects of Minnesota United’s tactical identity in 2019 with some video highlights

MLS: Minnesota United FC at FC Dallas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

We’re excited to build Minnesota’s soccer fanbase one supporter at a time. Pass this article on to someone enticed by the atmosphere of a soccer game, but wants to learn more on its strategies and idiosyncratic rules with a Minnesota flavor.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the basics of soccer formations and how the Loons might choose a particular formation in reaction to their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. This is a reactive, defensive approach for a team. Preferably, MNUFC would wield formidable strengths to force opponents out of their natural tactical identity.

Does MNUFC have a team identity that they call their own? Does Adrian Heath have a system that he builds around? Let’s look at some formation statistics, describe the observed tactical identity of the 2019 season and highlight one of the more enjoyable games at Allianz Field that displays the team’s identity at its best.

First, 21 out of 35 games were played with the 4-2-3-1 formation. In this formation, speedy fullbacks fly up the wings with the confidence that defensive midfielders will drop back to fill their gap on defense. Romaine Metanire, a 2019 all-star, is lauded for his speed and vision in this role. Despite Metanire’s towering strengths, it was maddening how often he would send beautiful crosses in front of the net with no result. Metanire’s crosses were so on-target, a cross deflected off a post in the May 25th home game against the Houston Dynamo resulted in a goal.

(WATCH) Metanire’s cross that was not. (Yes, that’s your very own Loonigan cheering at the end of the video. Look for the COYL hat.)

The sheer amount of crosses from talented wingers that failed to result in a goal comes down to poor quality finishing. Attackers need to be in optimal position and the winger who serves the cross requires impeccable timing and placement. This lack of finishing quality is apparent when you see our striker, Angelo Rodriquez, only posting five goals all season. That being said, four of those goals were from crosses; three served from Metanire and one from Finlay. The fifth was a creative pass from Quintero into open space against a struggling FC Cincinnati side. This fifth score is better example of the importance of a creative midfielder in a 4-2-3-1.

A 4-2-3-1 requires the central midfielder to be a creative, attacking mid-fielder, usually referred to as the “number 10” role. This player must distribute the ball into the right spaces to create scoring chances while being a scoring threat himself. To be successful, the attacking midfielder must have field vision and a strong rapport with his wingers and striker. Darwin Quintero scored ten goals in 2019 playing the number 10 role. However, a good measure of an attacking mid-fielder is through assists. Quintero delivered a measly six assists in 2019. Quintero was a creative scorer, but did not appear to have the vision to bring his teammates into the game. Let’s revisit that Quintero pass to Rodriquez against FC Cincinnati. It’s unfortunate Quintero couldn’t make more chances like this happen in 2019.

(WATCH) A creative Quintero pass makes Rodriquez’s goal easy

Outside of formations, it appears Heath prefers a tight defense, holding its positional shape at all costs, while sacrificing possession for the opportunity to score on opponents’ mistakes through the counterattack. MNUFC finished 2019 with a possession percentage of only 46.3%, ranking third from last in the entire MLS.

Surrendering possession with a counterattack strategy is defensive in its roots. The team tries to force turnovers in defense by playing compact and shutting down passing lanes. This invites an opponent’s offensive mistake of which the Loons gather and quickly pass downfield. The intent is to have one or two attackers hover at the center of the pitch, ready for the ball and use pace to beat an unprepared defense. The key to successful counterattacks is to have quick passes and field vision. A standout game, in regards to counterattacks, was MNUFC’s 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake at Allianz Field on September 15th, 2019. All three goals were counters.

For our first goal, Ozzie collected a lazy pass from RSL, looked up the pitch, quickly passed to Molino who immediately served Quintero running at full pace towards the net with defenders behind him. After faking out the keeper, Quintero bobbled his possession, but scored with the outside of his right foot. This was a clinical counterattack. MNUFC pounced on the opponent’s mistake, passed quickly while the defense has lost its shape and left the rest to Darwin’s creativity.

(WATCH) Quintero’s equalizer

For the second goal in this game, Metanire, diving desperately, cleared a ball out of defense landing at the feet of two RSL players. Shockingly enough, the RSL players tripped over each other and the ball fell open for Quintero to collect. Quintero dribbled down the pitch with Molino up ahead, facing only two defenders. In a rush of poor judgement, but with a dash of good luck, Quintero nutmegged his defender for a brace. Quintero could have opted to pass to an open Molino with a better chance for a goal. This possession paints a clear picture of Quintero’s strike first, pass later mentality.

Here are two terms here for the newly initiated fan. A nutmeg refers to player passing a ball between an opponents legs. A brace is a soccer term for a player’s second goal scored in a single game.

(WATCH) Quintero’s nutmeg goal

The final score is the best representation of the team’s identity. Metanire, in his all-star fashion, broke from defense on the right side of the pitch. Quintero turned on his jets, running full speed ahead, ready to outrun the two defenders surrounding him for a third scoring chance. Ethan Finlay smartly anticipated an alternative play, beat his defender and was wide open in the center of the pitch. Metanire’s wide vision saw the better chance and brilliantly served Finlay across the open expanse. Finlay calmly collected the ball and picked the right spot to score with his left foot. I hope Finlay bought Metanire a nice dinner that night.

When watching the highlight, stick to the end to chuckle and enjoy Finlay’s botched celebration and how he takes it out on the corner flag. While speed is Finlay’s calling card, I would argue that his ability to be in the right place at the right time is his finest strength. I am baffled that MNUFC exposed Finlay to be selected in the expansion draft earlier this offseason.

(WATCH) Ethan Finlay extends Minnesota’s lead

With that simplistic analysis, it appears some, but not all, players fit Heath’s system. Contrary to where we were in our first MLS season, I would advocate that MNUFC now has a defined system and a core of players to build around, but has some critical puzzle pieces missing. Looking back, the glow of an inaugural MLS season softened the chaos of a team discovering their newly signed player’s capabilities and a coach assessing performance under bright lights. It’s comforting that in Year Four, we know what to expect tactically and can debate offseason moves in context of our identity. Our team’s tactical identity also gives us clues as to why MNUFC traded Quintero, despite his scoring prowess.

With the announcement of Adrian Heath’s expanded role to include scouting and procuring players, it’s a clear signal that MNUFC is confident in Heath’s tactics. By giving Heath a direct hand in player selection, he can build the team to fit his desired tactical identity. When opponents speak of our tactics and how they will react accordingly, then we will know we’ve arrived in the MLS as an upper echelon team. However, we are not there yet. One thing will be certain in 2020, it will be hard for Heath to shirk accountability. This will be Heath’s team in 2020 and he will rise or fall with it.

As offseason signings are announced, we will be back here on E Pluribus Loonum to discuss the new players’ fit into Heath’s system.