It’s really fun to jump headlong onto a hype train when it starts running. The first two games were fun to watch as a Loons fan, with the team looking cohesive against a pair of teams that set the bar for early season futility. The last two games—one against a team that will probably make the playoffs, the second against a group of players bolstered by a coach who seemed to favorably suggest that fans should wait by their cars after games to threaten violence against them—were harsh letdowns.
Such is the rollercoaster stemming from the expectations that come from major offseason investment. Minnesota United listened to the criticism about the team’s softness in central areas that followed for two seasons in MLS, paying up to $1 million in TAM for Ike Opara, a pick swap deal for the right to pay Ozzie Alonso TAM-level wages, TAM-level wages for Vito Mannone, and a DP-level transfer fee for Jan Gregus. That makeover should be expected to take a minute to congeal, sure, but the first returns were largely good.
To everyone saying #MNUFC are good now, listen to your friend/veteran of having seen no men’s pro sport champions since I shat into Pull-Ups: remain dead inside. REMAIN. DEAD. INSIDE.— Colin O’Donnell, but a current name meme (@theattachment) March 10, 2019
But between the nearly thirty year lifetime of disappointment of being a fan of Minnesota men’s sports, expired SSRIs, and the general knowledge that it’s early in the season, I opted against riding the hype train this time. Those feelings and the rational side of my brain are also why I’m not riding the despair train more than usual: any attempt to project how the season will go off of these games is an exercise in confirmation bias.
Here are three reasons why you can discount a lot of these first four games—this one included—when fully guessing how the season for the Loons will unfold:
The team has played all of its games on the road.
The data is rampant for how much of a drop off there is for road teams in MLS. Last season teams earned an average of 0.96 points per game on the road, a full 0.87 points fewer than their home performance. This isn’t just a feature for bad teams. Last season, just five of the 12 playoff teams had a road PPG that bested noted bottom feeders Orlando City’s home level. The difference between playoff and non-playoff team home/road split performance was a mere 0.098 points per game – everyone, regardless of how good your team is, struggles away.
It’s well known that Minnesota played poorly on the road in its first two years, combining for a 0.47 PPG that would rank behind the road form of last year’s San Jose Earthquakes. So if we’re going to judge their performance from Saturday against any curve, it probably should be the one set by their 2018 away performance. In general, this was just an off game.
Minnesota underperformed their shooting slightly compared to last year’s road stats (10 shots Saturday vs 10.7 per road game last year, three on target vs 3.6 last year), but most egregiously came up short in the key pass department, only registering four versus last year’s average of 8.4 on the road. That said, the Loons did take more passes than last season’s average (454 vs 422), suggesting a higher amount of offensive activity.
Defensively, it followed the same path, albeit at a more extreme level. Your average road performance saw 27.6 attempted tackles per game by the Loons in 2018, with around a 67% completion ratio. Saturday saw the same amount of attempts but just 57% completion. Minnesota was forced into more blocks (16 vs 14.4) and far more clearances (25, 21 of which came within the zone directly in front of goal, vs 19.8 last year). Despite coming out with more possession than the Revs, Minnesota was pushed into playing 37% of the game in their own third of the field against last season’s 31% on the road.
That said, the Revs played the most amount of time in the Loons’ third, allowed the fewest number of shots, dribbled through the most amount of tackles while forcing the worst tackle success rate, and forced the worst passing success rate of all four of the Loons’ games this season. It’s worth monitoring that the success rate on passes, number of shots, and success on tackles have all declined as the road stretch has gone on, but building a trend out of the despair of one game is difficult to justify given that such a lengthy road run is an outlier among MLS teams. Additionally…
A four game set will always be too small of a sample to even consider in the span of 34 games.
Let me have some fun with small sample sizes quick. As it stands, Minnesota United FC is a playoff team despite playing all of its games on the road. The club on track for easily the best defense in league history (DC United) features Steve Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Joseph Mora, and Leo Jara and will probably give up nine goals this season. A Portland team with Diego Chara in its defensive midfield is slated to concede 102 goals. San Jose is slated to concede 119 goals – though that might end up actually happening.
Regardless of these trends, any significantly poor performance—which an eye test would suggest the New England game was—causes big ripples in how you review a team for the course of a year. With a team that overhauled three of the most important units in its formation (central midfield, central defense, and goalkeeper) while holding space open for injured attackers Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino to return, these early returns are best for reading way too much into early year predictions either way about teams.
That’s part of why my tactical takeaway from the New England game confirms a narrative that I worried about as the team’s shape coalesced: Minnesota is poor against teams that press heavy from the front. Good teams against the press either pass through or over the line giving chase via quick movement and long balls from deep. Minnesota’s outfield players instead played seven long balls forward from the defensive third and just 38 short passes forward from the back, compared to 64 short back passes and two long ones. Minnesota lost possession 16 times in the back half of the field compared to New England’s two. To say that the Loons played into a team looking to win the ball back in just one spot is an understatement.
But this isn’t new information. Adrian Heath professed ball control in key parts of the field as part of his tactical identity, hence why he went all in on strong dribblers and hold up play in the attack with Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez. It’s why his system needs a ball magnet like Ozzie Alonso. If control in the middle of the park will be your modus operandi, teams that actively attempt to disrupt in the middle will hurt you hard. If you split the field into thirds by imagining the vertical lines of the 6-yard box going all the way up the field, Minnesota was dispossessed in the middle eighteen times versus New England’s five. That’s not an acceptable number, but that’s what you get when…
The team has played games against teams with outlier styles within the league that either complement or wreck the Loons’ neutral style of play.
New England is one of the few teams that makes significant pressure at the start of attack its tactical identity. Minnesota attempted two tackles in their attacking half. New England did that 19 times. That’s definitely an outlier among MLS teams, with the Red Bulls (the next opponent) maybe the only other team that aggressive from the point. But they’re not the first tactically enigmatic opponent that Minnesota has faced this year.
Consider the San Jose game. That 3-0 win came against the one team in the league that man marks across the field, playing little to no press and limiting their duels to a few spots on the coach’s formation chalkboard. How did Minnesota beat them? They forced mistakes on dribbles and passes close to goal: Marcos Lopez’s flapping at a ball in the box for a penalty and Harold Cummings’ clearance whiff that hit his shoulder en route to an own goal. Think back as well to Vancouver, whose inexperience with one another led to midfield giveaways that led to Minnesota’s two open play goals. Vancouver had yet to shape its tactical identity on the field, hoping that by putting players into natural positions some accidental chemistry would develop. It hadn’t, and it really hasn’t after four games.
But think back also to the game against the Galaxy, where the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to injury forced the Loons into the difficult quandary of facing the unknown in front. Uriel Antuna came into that match with 25 senior-level games at any level in his career, all of which were on the wing, yet by forcing the rest of the team to play quick enough to use his pace up front he gave the Galaxy a much faster pace of play than they had shown in their first couple of games with Ibrahimovic and Chris Pontius leading the line. The imbalance that happened in the first half was due in large part to how frenetic the game was, with Los Angeles refusing to let Minnesota maintain control and catching the Loons off guard. It was only as the game progressed and the Galaxy slowed down that Minnesota got a foothold.
So why bring up these three truisms of early grades?
Because they all played a significant role in the team’s performance Saturday. Minnesota underperformed a road standard that already is bad among MLS teams and acts as a depressant to even competent levels of success. Minnesota suffered a defeat with outlier-level bad performance, which gets magnified early in the year due to your lack of data. And Minnesota played bad against an enigmatic style they’re already poorly suited to. Sometimes you fall victim to the cavalcade of bad things that happen early in the year—lest we forget, both Rasmus Schuller and Romario Ibarra were left off the plane due to residual international break knocks. Sometimes bad games happen. And sometimes you have to resist the urge to learn something from the fourth game in the season.