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What The Loons Need To Do With Darwin and Angelo

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After a strong game against the Red Bulls, is Angelo Rodriguez’s shortcoming his Colombian counterpart?

MLS: Minnesota United FC at New England Revolution
Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez celebrate a penalty goal against New England. Their partnership for Minnesota United has given few reasons to dance.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Amid the number of concerns hitting Loons fans this week—Will the field ever not be snow covered? Have I rehearsed getting to Allianz Field enough? What will Roger Bennett think of snow? Star Tribune, can you not?—Adrian Heath’s comments after Tuesday’s practice went under the radar. As Jeff Rueter of The Athletic spelled out, last week’s success against the Red Bulls puts Heath’s mantra of not replacing a winning team to the test:

Heath’s insistence on repeating the same team has some strange facets. For one, a strategy of clogging the midfield and zones 14/17 isn’t needed as much at home. Planning to play over a press via easy movement to the wings is less needed against a team like NYCFC that doesn’t provide ball pressure. But most crucially, the two goals that the Loons scored against the Red Bulls were in fact the only goals scored by the team when Darwin Quintero hasn’t been on the field.

Minnesota looked competent going forward against the Red Bulls, taking advantage of glaring mistakes by Michael Murillo to get space for shots. But it’s the opening of Allianz Field against a team ripe to be torn apart by the passing and movement of a player like Quintero. Why bench your team’s most valuable attacker?

Simple: If you feel a need to play Angelo Rodriguez, you probably shouldn’t play El Cientifico.

I went through every game that Minnesota United played spanning last week and Darwin Quintero’s debut against Portland last April and coded out the performances of the two Minnesota primary central attackers in goals, assists, shots, and key passes, as well as tracking the team’s goals in each game. For the most part, this was Quintero with a rotating cast of strikers: Christian Ramirez, Angelo Rodriguez, Abu Danladi, Romario Ibarra, Mason Toye, and the match against LAFC where Quintero was on his own up top amid suspensions and injuries. There was also a trio of games where Quintero was absent, with Rodriguez playing the focal point with Toye, Danladi, and (trigger warning) Frantz Pangop.

Figure 1 - Quintero’s Performance With and Without Rodriguez

Darwin With Starter Games Minutes Goals Goals Per 96 Assists Assists Per 96 Shots Shots Per 96 Key Passes Key Passes Per 96 Team Goals Team Goals/96 Fwd Minutes Fwd Minutes Per Game Fwd Goals Fwd Goals Per 96 Fwd Assists Fwd Assists Per 96 Fwd Shots Fwd Shots Per 96 Fwd Key Passes Fwd Key Passes Per 96
Darwin With Starter Games Minutes Goals Goals Per 96 Assists Assists Per 96 Shots Shots Per 96 Key Passes Key Passes Per 96 Team Goals Team Goals/96 Fwd Minutes Fwd Minutes Per Game Fwd Goals Fwd Goals Per 96 Fwd Assists Fwd Assists Per 96 Fwd Shots Fwd Shots Per 96 Fwd Key Passes Fwd Key Passes Per 96
Darwin W/ Rodri 9 810 3 0.355555556 3 0.355555556 28 3.318518519 20 2.37037037 11 1.303703704 717 84.97777778 4 0.474074074 1 0.118518519 24 2.844444444 12 1.422222222
Darwin W/o Rodri 22 1948 11 0.542094456 9 0.443531828 63 3.104722793 70 3.449691992 39 1.921971253 1417 69.83162218 10 0.492813142 1 0.049281314 44 2.168377823 7 0.344969199
Rodriguez Without Darwin 3 254 0 0 1 0.377952756 7 2.645669291 4 1.511811024 2 0.755905512 232 87.68503937 2 0.755905512 0 0 8 3.023622047 1 0.377952756

To say that the team and Quintero’s performances have been imbalanced with Quintero partnering with Rodriguez is an understatement. Despite taking marginally more shots with his countryman, Quintero averages more goals with a different starting striker, more assists, and more key passes. Other forwards score marginally more than Rodriguez while playing with Quintero as well despite taking fewer shots. While Rodriguez generates more assists and key passes than his peers, the drop in Quintero’s performance level outweighs those benefits. Ultimately, the telling stat is that as a team Minnesota scores 0.62 fewer goals per 96 minutes in Quintero/Rodriguez partnered starts than in starts with Quintero and a different partner.

Figure 2 - Darwin Quintero’s Performances By Striker

Darwin With Starter Games Minutes Goals Goals Per 96 Assists Assists Per 96 Shots Shots Per 96 Key Passes Key Passes Per 96 Team Goals Team Goals/96 Fwd Minutes Fwd Minutes Per Game Fwd Goals Fwd Goals Per 96 Fwd Assists Fwd Assists Per 96 Fwd Shots Fwd Shots Per 96 Fwd Key Passes Fwd Key Passes Per 96
Darwin With Starter Games Minutes Goals Goals Per 96 Assists Assists Per 96 Shots Shots Per 96 Key Passes Key Passes Per 96 Team Goals Team Goals/96 Fwd Minutes Fwd Minutes Per Game Fwd Goals Fwd Goals Per 96 Fwd Assists Fwd Assists Per 96 Fwd Shots Fwd Shots Per 96 Fwd Key Passes Fwd Key Passes Per 96
Romario 4 360 2 0.533333333 2 0.533333333 13 3.466666667 17 4.533333333 10 2.666666667 253 67.46666667 3 0.8 0 0 12 3.2 1 0.266666667
Ramirez 14 1228 9 0.703583062 5 0.390879479 43 3.361563518 44 3.439739414 27 2.110749186 1038 81.1465798 6 0.469055375 1 0.078175896 31 2.423452769 5 0.390879479
Rodriguez 9 810 3 0.355555556 3 0.355555556 28 3.318518519 20 2.37037037 11 1.303703704 717 84.97777778 4 0.474074074 1 0.118518519 24 2.844444444 12 1.422222222
Danladi 2 180 0 0 2 1.066666667 6 3.2 5 2.666666667 2 1.066666667 76 40.53333333 1 0.533333333 0 0 1 0.533333333 0 0
Rodriguez Without Darwin 3 254 0 0 1 0.377952756 7 2.645669291 4 1.511811024 2 0.755905512 232 87.68503937 2 0.755905512 0 0 8 3.023622047 1 0.377952756
Lone Striker 1 90 0 0 0 0 1 1.066666667 3 3.2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Toye 1 90 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1.066666667 0 0 50 53.33333333 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1.066666667

The tempting way to analyze this gap is to just credit the dearly departed Christian Ramirez for being around for Quintero’s scintillating first seventeen games—especially since the bead on Quintero was that he was prone to streaky performances. The evidence doesn’t fully bear that out, however. Quintero’s goals, assists, key passes, and shots are all higher with both Ramirez and Romario Ibarra than they are with Rodriguez up top; he’s generated more assists and key passes with Abu Danladi running the point as well.

There are a few caveats to this analysis. First, Quintero’s goals are boosted a bit by penalties, a stat that typically analysts screen out. I kept them in not entirely by accident, as the penalties won by the Loons have included significant play contributions by the forwards, but in case you’re worried, the individual balancing has an outsized benefit for his play with Romario and an aggregate minimal bias toward the “Without Rodriguez” grouping. The second is that Rodriguez’s performance as the focal point striker is included as a comparison to Quintero’s performances. Yes, they are different players stylistically, but they do also play a strangely similar centering role as the lynchpin of the attack; more importantly as a caveat, which I’ll get into in a bit, is some small sample bias.

So why would it be that Quintero’s performances be noticeably worse playing with Rodriguez up top? Some of it could be the variance in style to the other forwards he’s worked with. Both Romario and Danladi play up their speed as a way to get through defenders and look to exploit channels between the gaps of a back line by playing outside-in for balls. They share something with Christian Ramirez, who stuck more centrally, in liking to have their first touch of a possession be further forward. Rodriguez is the outlier, looking to get the ball at midfield first before advancing play. This can have some adverse effects, as Anay Patel’s graph of AmericanSoccerAnalysis data showed from the match against New England:

Quintero was brought in to feed off of a high-lined striker corps that stretches the space a defensive block occupies, allowing him greater movement to pass and dribble. Constantly re-adapting to that space being shrunk by where your line leader sits on the field can be jarring, especially if said line leader goes so far back as to be subsumed by the midfield. And while Quintero’s underperformance has been pretty general over the early and later part of the partnership’s nine games, there could be something for the chemistry argument: by not playing together regularly last year and with an abridged preseason due to Rodriguez’s leg injury, they don’t know where to function together.

But it could just be this simple: Rodriguez and Quintero both function best as a supportive focal point in the middle, albeit in different ways. With Quintero, his move is to take the ball in the middle and dribble it until there’s a play to be made, either via shot or pass. Rodriguez wants the ball in the same space but wants to use it to slow things down, work some added possession, and draw his attackers forward so they can attack the back line 1v1. Rodriguez’s work calms things down for a methodical attack, but Quintero’s work is best when able to exploit the chaos of a counterattack.

In looking forward for the Loons—both for the home opener and for the longer term—it seems there are three options that can work with different levels of efficiency. Minnesota can choose to do what they did early in the season and play with Darwin Quintero behind a speed-based striker like Romario Ibarra, play with him backing the possession-based Angelo Rodriguez, or play without Quintero from the outset and rely on Rodriguez’s work solo. Based on the data, the intuitive play would be to prioritize those three options accordingly – the goals are simply more abundant when Darwin plays with someone else. However, that’s a pretty big sunk cost in terms of a buydown-eligible DP slot, an international slot, and overall salary and wages. There are a couple of avenues worth pursuing for alternate ideas:

  • Playing Rodriguez higher: If the issue that Quintero runs into with playing alongside Rodriguez is a lack of space to run off of the target forward, the easy fix is to push Rodriguez to situate his target work closer to the opposition’s back line. By camping out against a team’s center backs, Rodriguez can use his body to muscle out passes between the lines for in-cutting wingers like Romario or Danladi, with the added benefit of forcing more 1v1 matchups between Quintero and the opposing central midfield.
  • Swapping Quintero into the 3-4-3: If Adrian Heath is half as dogmatic as advertised about not changing a winning formation, he can still find a space for Quintero as part of last week’s successful 3-4-3. Quintero’s performances as a second striker are a fairly new element in the broad scheme of his career. For both Santos Laguna and Club America, Quintero thrived as something of an inside forward cutting in and out from the wing; with Santos in particular, he was a fine focal point despite not being in the middle. The drawback would be cutting out either Ethan Finlay or Romario Ibarra and replacing them with someone even less inclined to provide defensive help. That said, both Romario and Abu Danladi played a similar interior-cutting role against the Red Bulls to great success.
  • Leaning in to the same lineup: If Adrian Heath is exactly as dogmatic as advertised, expect Darwin Quintero to stay on the bench, which couldn’t be the worst thing. The movement that the Loons used to overload the wings while keeping enough pressure in the middle helped to draw New York’s full backs out of position, which can discombobulate far weaker defenses than the Red Bulls and can benefit a team with as much talent as Minnesota has on the wing. The overall data doesn’t look too great for comparing the Loons’ look without Quintero, but consider that of those three games where Rodriguez was the primary forward, just one of them was with a player getting regular MLS minutes. Playing with actual MLS-level talent sparked at least enough to be intrigued at what he can do within that system.

The bottom line is to figure out what benefits Minnesota United the most. If there’s a feeling that more work needs to be done to accustom Quintero to Rodriguez, that work needs to happen on the fly. Tactical shifts can help, and theoretically putting Rodriguez far enough ahead to provide an outlet to feed Quintero would benefit both players. For a single game, it might make the most sense to play one or the other. For the opening of Allianz Field, however, the allure might be too strong to keep one benched.