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Why MNUFC Might Win Some Post-Season Awards This Year

Last year, Minnesota United had little chance of winning playing awards. This year is very different.

Ike Opara celebrates a goal during an MLS match between Minnesota United FC and FC Cincinnati at Allianz Field on June 29.
Tim C McLaughlin

Last year I wrote over 2,500 words about Minnesota United’s chances to win post-season awards. To be blunt, it was secretly just a framing device to discuss another difficult season for the team and contextualize how positively to look at individual contributions. Such is life when you break your own record for defensive futility, look upon the playoffs with envy, and wonder what to be optimistic about.

So when I perused the list of candidates for Major League Soccer’s end of season awards, Minnesota’s fighting chances in a lot of them startled me. What would be my angle? How would I justify Adrian Heath getting a spirited campaign push from the team’s PR department for his Coach of the Year candidacy? How would I write this without a modicum of snark?

Ultimately I opted to frame things the same way as I did last year. There are positive and negative cases to be made for each of the team’s candidates. Unlike last year, however, the positive cases just got a lot more convincing, which means this piece has to be in two parts.

2019 Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player

Loons Nominees: Ike Opara

The Case For The Loons: With Minnesota only picking one candidate for MVP, Ike Opara needs to be a positional standout. Luckily the breadth of his statistical dominance qualifies. Among the 67 players with 10 or more appearances on the season at center back coming into Wednesday, Opara comes in 5th in clearances per 90 minutes (4th in total), is top-15 in overall blocks per 90 (35 total, which is good for 10th) and is 16th in interceptions on a per-game basis (7th total) and eighth in total aerial duels won. Center backs often only rate out as elite in the league in one or two specialties, so take note: of the players in front of him in interceptions per game, just three lead him in blocks and none lead in clearances.

August 4, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - An MLS match between Minnesota United FC and The Portland Timbers at Allianz Field. (Tim C McLaughlin)
Ike Opara heads the ball in an August 4 MLS match between Minnesota United FC and The Portland Timbers at Allianz Field.
Tim C McLaughlin

Opara’s case goes beyond the all-around contribution in the center. Minnesota moved ahead slightly in terms of their goals scored per game this season—with three to play, they had as many goals as the two years prior—but the difference was that Minnesota cut its goals allowed per game by around 38% prior to the win against Sporting Kansas City. Defense led to the team making the playoffs, and it’s hard to deny that Opara’s presence played a major role in that shift. Top-level center backs force opponents to shift play; not surprisingly, Minnesota ranks second-last in the percentage of shots against taken from the middle sectors of the field and second-highest in the percentage of shots against taken from outside the box. Opara’s spot anchoring the back line keeps teams from attacking the center of the park, and his ability to organize his teammates has helped Minnesota allow the second-fewest open play goals in the league this season. Keep in mind that anecdotes don’t directly result in causal relationships, but remember that with two games remaining the only two teams to allow more than 40 goals combined between open play and counter attacks in 2019 are FC Cincinnati and Opara’s former employer, Sporting Kansas City; a year ago, SKC allowed 34 such goals in 34 games.

Also, for what it’s worth, only picking one MVP candidate meant a snub to the offense. Darwin Quintero quietly has combined for MLS’s 12th-best mark in expected goals/assists, is tied for 16th in combined goals and assists with 15, and is one of 25 double-digit scorers in the league this season (among them, 15 made their teams’ lists, and only Diego Rossi, Gyasi Zardes, Valentin Castellanos and Quintero were snubbed with 15 or more total goals and assists).

The Case Against The Loons: Defenders never get MVP awards under any circumstances. In these circumstances, the team at the top of the Supporters Shield race is in the midst of the most prolific season in league history from an attacking perspective. With two games remaining, Carlos Vela has scored 30 goals with 15 assists. He’s been involved in half of the goals scored by a team that has scored 20 more goals than their nearest competition. He’s been the focal point of a team that might earn the highest point-total regular season in league history; despite consuming defensive attention he’s still put up Easy Mode FIFA numbers. His recent hamstring injury only reinforces this: LAFC’s crisis of failing to win in five straight games saw him come out early once and miss two, and in his return he’s scored three goals in his last three.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Los Angeles FC
Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela (10) moves in for a shot on goal against Houston Dynamo during the second half at Banc of California Stadium on September 25
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Vela’s season has been historic in ways that embarrass the rest of the league. Between the start of American Soccer Analysis’s data archive in 2011 and the end of last weekend’s games, 4282 players have logged a shot or a key pass. 25 players have tallied more than Vela’s 84 key passes in a season; among them, Diego Valeri’s 2016 season saw him lead by scoring 14 goals (yes, that’s half as many as Vela). 46 other players have had ten or more primary assists on a season; Sebastian Giovinco (2015) had been the only one to score 20 goals. 20 players hit double digits in goals and primary assists; only he and Giovinco (both 2015 and 2016) have combined for 30 or more total goals and primary assists. Eight players have had ten or more expected assists on a season; Vela is the only one to score more than 12 goals. Nine players had 20 or more expected goals in a season; only he and Bradley Wright-Phillips (2015) have had more than five primary assists. 80 players have had half as many overall expected goals on a season as Vela’s 23.43; only he and Miguel Almiron (2018) had more than 10 expected assists. Only he and Josef Martinez (2018) combined for more than 30 expected goals and assists. Vela leads in league history with 40 combined goals and primary assists—45 if you count secondary ones, and still has two games to overtake Martinez for the single-season goal scoring record. He’s the MVP. Deal with it.

Defender of the Year

Loons Nominees: Romain Metanire, Ike Opara

The Case For The Loons: Take the team that had the best defense and pick its most impactful defender: that’s your Defender of the Year, usually. By that criteria Ike Opara’s efforts could be plenty to win the award. Minnesota is tied for the fifth-fewest goals allowed in the league this season behind LAFC, DC United, NYCFC, and Real Salt Lake. LAFC and NYCFC defend primarily from the front, and are tied for second in the league in possession; LAFC is particularly noteworthy for spending 33% of its game time in the opponent’s third. DC United, meanwhile, has one of the most reactive defenses in the league, allowing 17.3 shots per game (only behind Vancouver) and relying on blocks (5.3 shots blocked lead the league with Vancouver) and clearances (also tied with Vancouver for most on 23.3 per game) versus proactive measures to keep the ball out of the net.

The Loons instead spend more time than almost anyone defending, conceding a third-worst 53.7% of game possession to their opponents. Conceding possession usually means goal concession: the average amount of goals allowed by the other bottom five sides in possession league-wide is 54.25. For Minnesota to have allowed just 41 goals is a remarkable achievement, particularly when just NYCFC has allowed fewer from non-dead ball or own goal situations. That underscores the point that Ike Opara might just be the best and most influential defender in the league this season: he’s been the player that does everything on the back line well for the team whose style requires the most work out of its defenders.

Romain Metanire holds off some guy during a scoreless draw between Minnesota United and the Los Angeles Galaxy on April 25
Tim C McLaughlin

Romain Metanire also checks in well defensively. Of the 53 fullbacks in MLS to clock ten or more appearances this year, Metanire placed 11th in overall minutes despite missing time with the Madagascar National Team, and did so productively. He was one of 13 to complete more than 75% of his attempted tackles on the season, leading that cohort in fullback minutes. He placed sixth in interceptions per 90, with only Keegan Rosenberry also having played more minutes. Despite ostensibly being caught ahead in the attacking third, Metanire’s right flank ultimately saw just 19% of opponents’ shooting chances on the season. Metanire’s defensive-only numbers aren’t staggering, but in the broader context of his contributions they’re stellar.

The Case Against The Loons: I can rationalize two cases against Opara: collective efforts of others and the potential for a protest vote. For those who take the route of voting for the best defender on the best defense, NYCFC allowed the fewest goals in open play and LAFC allowed the fewest overall goals in the league. Each of those teams has its own prolific defenders: Maxime Chanot in New York has been a prolific in his own right, with the fewest times dribbled past per game among players averaging more than 2.5 attempted tackles per game and, like Opara, coming in the upper 30% of center backs in tackles, interceptions, clearances, and passes blocked per game. Eddie Segura and Walker Zimmerman have also excelled under Bob Bradley: both are in the upper quarter of completed tackles, while Segura is a top quintile pass and cross defender.

April 13, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United forward Angelo Rodriguez (9) holds off New York City FC defender Maxime Chanot (4) and New York City FC midfielder Alexander Ring (8) during the Loon's inaugural match at Allianz Field. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
Angelo Rodriguez holds off New York City FC defender Maxime Chanot (foreground) and midfielder Alexander Ring during an April 13 game at Allianz Field
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

But in terms of Opara’s risk of losing this award, I’d frankly be more concerned that Metanire’s two-way work could split the vote a bit. The narrative is there for Opara, but as fullbacks take on a more prominent role in soccer tactics it’s approaching time that one of them gets more than token consideration for MLS Defender of the Year: no fullback has ever won the award, and since the league began releasing the vote shares of non-winners only Kemar Lawrence (2018) has gotten into the top five. Would a voter look at Minnesota’s work this year and conclude that Metanire was the deciding factor for their defensive success? Probably not, but those who watch the team regularly enough know the importance he holds within the team’s shape on both sides of the ball. The award should be Opara’s, but if there are fine margins it could be a question mark.

AT&T Rookie of the Year

Loons Nominees: Hassani Dotson, Chase Gasper

The Case For The Loons: MLS teams that look to rookies as primary contributors usually do so with academy products that break through as being too talented to bother spending time in USL, an issue that makes the league’s rookie classifications exclusionary to a fault at times. Nine teams didn’t have a rookie to even nominate for end of year consideration. That in part is why it’s so remarkable that Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper broke through from the SuperDraft.

June 29, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United defender Chase Gasper (77) cools of during a hydration break during the Minnesota United vs FC Cincinnati match at Allianz Field.
Hassani Dotson gets subbed off and Chase Gasper cools off during a hydration break during the Minnesota United vs FC Cincinnati match at Allianz Field June 29.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

After brief cameos late in games, Dotson’s entry to the starting lineup saw him at left back, then right back, before settling into his preferred midfield role as a super sub. That ability to fit into multiple spots helped the team in its post-Gold Cup (and intra-Metanire absence) run, and included two of the four goals that put him second among the league’s RotY candidates. His positional utility has given the Loons the ability to carry more attacking firepower on the bench, and only scoring bangers (to wit: at a 0.19, he’s the only player on the rookie list to outperform his goals minus expected per shot by more than 0.02) has given him a highlight reel that would rival nearly anyone else in the running—one that got a little bit longer on Wednesday night. Few rookies have the ability to fit into the shape of their teams; Dotson’s malleability allows him to fit into Adrian Heath’s system, increasingly in ways that make the coach change shape to fit him in.

Coming into the team after an injury-ravaged start of the year, Chase Gasper has also become a lock-down left back. Among the 23 players at the position with more than 10 appearances this year, Gasper boasts the seventh most completed tackles per 90 minutes and the seventh-fewest times dribbled past, with the fourth-most clearances and second most crosses blocked. He’s overall been one of the most active defensive left backs in the league and has engaged well as an attacking threat. Most importantly, he’s emerged as a starting-caliber player at a high-value position that scarcely gets strong rookie contributions: only last year’s top SuperDraftee, Joao Moutinho, logged more minutes as a rookie left back than Gasper among the last three seasons’ nominees. With the Loons short on depth at the position through much of the summer, Gasper’s ability to stay healthy in the business end of the season—starting each of the seven unbeaten league games between June 29 and August 4—was a major boost to the defense.

The Case Against The Loons: Gasper has ground to pick up, having not made his first league appearance until right before the Gold Cup break due to injury. Indifferent games in the team’s matches against Colorado and Houston over the last month didn’t help matters for his case either, and he doesn’t have the counting stats to back up his offensive work, without a goal or assist on just three shots and 11 key passes. While he’s been an active player on both sides of the ball, some of that just comes from teams seeing him as the weaker option to prey on: if you’re playing against the Loons, would you want to attack Gasper, Romain Metanire, or the spine of the defense?

For Dotson, I’ll cop to something: I rewrote his section after Wednesday’s game winner. The shift back to playing him in his preferred position does mean that he has a more complex route to the starting lineup, which means his contributions are going to come through play as a late substitute to change the team’s shape or when Adrian Heath switches away from his usual 4-2-3-1. That’ll dull the charge Dotson can make in his candidacy, especially if the troika midfield looks like it did against Houston as opposed to late Wednesday. With a couple of additional games to pad his resume, he might need to do a bit more to get over the line, and his late-season role seems like the biggest possible limiter.

September 25, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States -An MLS match between Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City at Allianz Field (Photo: Tim C McLaughlin)
Hassani Dotson can’t believe what he’s done during Minnesota United’s game against Sporting Kansas City at Allianz Field on September 25
Tim C McLaughlin

Well, also that Andre Shinyashiki has been phenomenal in Colorado. The University of Denver product was a prolific scorer in college, exploding in his senior year to score 28 goals in 21 matches for the Pioneers en route to a finalist spot for the MAC Hermann Award and the highest single-season goals scored total in Division I in over two decades. He’s been smartly used as a late substitute, sure, but the Brazil-born Shinyashiki has scored seven times with two assists. Among MLS wingers and attacking mids with over 1,000 minutes on the year, Shinyashiki ranks 11th out of 80 in expected goals per 96 minutes, 18th in total goals, and 19th in both goals and expected goals and assists per 96. Of the players in front of him on G+xG/96, only Diego Rossi is younger than Shinyashiki, and only Daniel Salloi and Shea Salinas aren’t Designated or TAM players. At another position usually reserved for high budget players, the Rapids have found a consistent attacking threat from their fifth overall pick.

Allstate Goalkeeper of the Year

Loons Nominees: Vito Mannone

The Case For The Loons: A significant chunk of the Loons’ drop in goals allowed comes from the one stopping those goals. Vito Mannone was brought in on loan from Reading and very quickly established himself as a top-level #1. In appearing in all 32 games for the Loons, Mannone has been a steadying force in the goal mouth, directing traffic and keeping a solid 75% of his shots on target faced out of the goal. The result has been a dramatic improvement in the team’s fortunes from last year: Mannone allows 1.28 goals per 96 minutes, down 38% from the collective 2018 Loons against 16% fewer shots. That’s led to 11 clean sheets on the season, nearly doubling the total from the team’s first two seasons. You need to have a high-quality goalkeeper to bunker, and Mannone has come through in spades.

September 25, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone (1) makes a save during the first half against Sporting KC at Allianz Field.
Vito Mannone makes a save during the first half against Sporting Kansas City at Allianz Field on September 25.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

Comparing him to the rest of the league also yields impressive results. Through last weekend, Mannone ranks third in total saves, fourth in save percentage, fifth in saves per game, and eighth in goals allowed per game among nominated goalkeepers. Just DC United’s Bill Hamid leads in save percentage as a full-time goalkeeper, with Matt Turner of New England and Portland’s Steve Clark both coming in as early season replacements. Mannone has also been a cog for Minnesota’s passing offense, accounting for the fifth-highest touch rate among the league’s goalkeepers and taking the fifth-most aggressive passes by expected passing percentage. Those 11 clean sheets also compare pretty well: second in the league behind Bill Hamid. And germane to his competition, Mannone has been an iron man for the Loons, joining five other goalkeepers in playing every single minute for his team in league play.

The Case Against The Loons: Last year I argued Bobby Shuttleworth as the league’s best via the amount of work he had to put in. That’s the undoing for Vito Mannone. In around 3,100 minutes in goal for Minnesota this year, Mannone faced 163 shots on target; his backup Bobby Shuttleworth faced ten fewer shots last season in 678 fewer minutes—effectively seven fewer games. What’s more, Minnesota’s shots allowed have been less trouble for Mannone. 2018’s Loons backline allowed 66.93 expected goals on their 203 shots allowed on target, good for 0.329 xG/shot; Mannone, in contrast, has only faced 0.255 xG/shot prior to Wednesday’s game. That’s due in no small part to the team allowing fewer headers (something that Mannone’s ability to catch and punch away crosses helps with). Ultimately, much like his predecessor Shuttleworth in 2018, Mannone rates within decimals of even in terms of goals allowed versus his expected goals faced. While many of those saves have been headline makers—a game-saving penalty against Dallas, the double save against Kansas City—many others have been simply the ones that he’s supposed to make.

That’s ultimately why Matt Turner’s performance has been so impressive. Turner was bizarrely underrated by former coach Brad Friedel, benching him in favor of Brad Knighton to start the season. Turner’s first start coincided with Friedel’s last game; after that 5-0 defeat, Turner started all but two games due to a red card suspension; New England allowed multiple goals just four times in the next nineteen games despite facing 5.8 shots on target per 96 minutes. Extrapolating his goals allowed per 96 to a full 34 game season, Turner’s Revs should allow roughly 47.5 goals on the year—behind Mannone’s projected 43.4—but his defense would yield 65.5 expected goals, bested only by Spencer Richey in Cincinnati. Turner is dragging the equivalent of the 2018 Loons defense to the playoffs; that should be enough for Matt Turner to win Goalkeeper of the Year, though if weight is put on playing the full season as a starter Mannone could sneak through.

MLS Works Humanitarian of the Year

Loons Nominees: Lawrence Olum

The Case For The Loons: Humanitarian work is tough to write about for the analytically inclined, but the Lawrence Olum Foundation is one of four foundations actually started by a nominee for the Humanitarian of the Year award. The veteran midfielder started the Foundation in 2017 to promote a balance of sports and education infrastructure in his native Kenya, using soccer, basketball, and volleyball as a means to get promising youth a quality education. The Foundation also works to get kids in their programs in front of college coaches, mirroring Olum’s own experience that led to him first coming to the United States to study at Missouri Baptist University. The organization also brings monetary investment and sporting equipment to underserved communities. Taking the independent initiative to operate a charity rather than working solely through team programs has been a solid predictor for this award, including former Loon Matt Lampson, who won the award in 2018.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake
Lawrence Olum prepares for the Loons’s game against Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium on July 20.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The Case Against The Loons: It’s fair to put Olum as a lead candidate, but he’ll have to compete with a legacy candidate in Colorado’s Tim Howard. The legendary goalkeeper has long been an advocate for individuals with Tourette syndrome, which he was diagnosed with as a child. Along with being a public face for TS, Howard has regularly invited children with the same diagnosis and their families to Rapids games to talk about symptoms and experiences, navigating difficulties like bullying and social stigma, and how to be a role model within the community. His Howard’s Heroes program has worked hand in hand with his efforts to champion research and awareness about TS, and his decades of advocacy include efforts that won him the league’s 2001 Humanitarian of the Year prize. Besides, it’s not as if the league will pass up a chance to give Tim Howard an award, especially since they have no case to give him Goalkeeper of the Year.

In Part Two, we’ll discuss Minnesota United’s less likely award wins. In the meantime, let us know what you think in the comments below!