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Minnesota United’s defense should be a lot better this season — what if it isn't?

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The Loons have improved slightly so far this season, but not as much as could be hoped for.

April 13, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone (1) gets into position to cover the goal during the Loon's inaugural match at Allianz Field. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
April 13, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone (1) gets into position to cover the goal during the Loon’s inaugural match at Allianz Field. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

This season should be a different one for Minnesota United, in many different ways.

First and most obviously, there’s Allianz Field. With a soccer-specific stadium to call their own, the Loons should, if nothing else, be an improved club off the field with the facility addition. That indeed seems to be the case.

On the field, we expected to see some pretty big changes too. After two years of what we’ll call disappointing soccer, five new additions to the starting lineup should turn Minnesota into a solidly playoff-caliber team.

April 13, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States -Minnesota United midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (6) celebrates the first goal to be scored during the Loon's inaugural match at Allianz Field. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
April 13, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States -Minnesota United midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (6) celebrates the first goal to be scored during the Loon’s inaugural match at Allianz Field. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

The biggest area for improvement comes in defense. After conceding more than 140 goals through their first two seasons of play in MLS, United really only can improve.

As defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso, right back Romain Metanire, centerback Ike Opara and goalkeeper Vito Mannone attempt to rejuvenate the struggling back line, the defense should improve greatly.

So far, it hasn’t.

To be clear, we’re looking at a small sample size. American Soccer Analysis, the source for MLS expected goals statistics, only has data through six games — up to Minnesota’s 3-3 draw at home to NYCFC. Since the missing match was a 4-3 loss to Toronto FC, we’ll assume that, if anything, we’re giving the side a bit of the benefit of the doubt. Still, there’s plenty of time for the ship to be righted.

Take a peek at the data:

Minnesota United Defensive Stats

Year xGA (per game) xGD (per game) GA (per game) GD (per game)
Year xGA (per game) xGD (per game) GA (per game) GD (per game)
2017 1.86 -0.78 1.97 -0.65
2018 1.71 -0.4 2.06 -0.65
2019 1.57 -0.16 1.83 0.17

Before we look at what this means, a quick look at what these numbers actually are. xG stands for expected goals (explained here), so xGA is the expected amount of goals conceded per game, and xGD is the expected goal differential per game between expected goals scored and allowed. The goals allowed per game is the actual number of goals allowed, and the goal differential is the actual goal differential. It’s important that we look at the differential numbers in this analysis, since defense can be situational: letting in one goal is devastating in a 1-0 loss, but not a big deal in a 4-1 win.

Obviously, Minnesota has improved some from year to year.

There’s still a problem, though. United seem to have gotten lucky so far this year, having a better per game differential than they, in theory, should. Based on the xG numbers, the Loons should give up slightly more goals than they score each game, which is a clear issue.

And has the defense improved as much as should be expected, considering the upgrades? Those changes could be part of the problem as new players learn to play with each other, but there may very well be other concerns.

April 3, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone (1) throws the ball back into play during the Loon's first team practice at Allianz Field. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
April 3, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone (1) throws the ball back into play during the Loon’s first team practice at Allianz Field. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

Goalkeeper is one of the most difficult positions in any sport. The task is simple — keep the ball out of the net — but the responsibility that comes with being the last line of defense is great. For that reason, it’s tough to point to a ‘keeper as the source of a team’s defensive problems.

The numbers suggest, however, that Vito Mannone might not be helping his back line out as much as he could be. American Soccer Analysis also computes xG data for goalkeepers, factoring in aspects such as shot distance and type. Mannone ranks third-to-last of all MLS ‘keepers in the differential between his goals allowed (11) and expected (9.21).

That’s not to say that he’s the problem, but it’s an easy flaw to notice.

As mentioned above, defense is situational. An excellent offensive team can be a lesser defensive side, so long as they can consistently score more goals than they allow, and vice versa.

The “Lamborghini in the front, station wagon in the back” approach might not be the best one to go with, especially since United’s offense hasn’t been amazing this year. Injuries have played a role in that, but as the season progresses, one of two things will have to happen if the Loons are going to be successful: the offense has to step up their production, or the defense needs to settle things down.