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Why MNUFC Won’t Win All The Post-Season Awards This Year

In Part Two, we look at the awards that the Loons, despite being pretty good, probably won’t win.

August 27, 2019 - Atlanta, Georgia, United States - Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath looks towards the trophy as Minnesota United fall 2-1 to Atlanta United during the US Open Cup Final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Adrian Heath looks towards the trophy as Minnesota United fall 2-1 to Atlanta United during the US Open Cup Final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 27.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

In Part One, I went through five of Major League Soccer’s post-season awards that Minnesota United have a good chance of winning (okay, Ike Opara doesn’t really have a chance at MVP, but that’s the big one). In this go-around, there are three more awards. Minnesota looks a little bit more questionable on each of these:

Newcomer of the Year

Loons Nominees: Jan Gregus, Romain Metanire

The Case For The Loons: Sourcing the team’s improvement from 2018 makes you point to the contributions of Minnesota United’s new veterans. Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso rightfully will win plaudits, but the Loons are perhaps the only team outside of NYCFC to legitimately agonize over which Newcomer of the Year candidates would find their ways to two slots. For most teams, Vito Mannone would be enough of an upgrade to warrant a nod. Instead, the Loons went with a possible Best XI fullback in Romain Metanire and an Honorable Mention candidate for the midfield in Jan Gregus.

Romain Metanire plays a ball in during Minnesota United's 2-3 loss to the Philadelphia Union
Romain Metanire plays a ball in during Minnesota United’s 2-3 loss to the Philadelphia Union on June 2.
Tim C McLaughlin

Metanire made his money in 2019 defensively and offensively. Depending on your characterization of Julian Gressel’s hybrid wing back/winger role for Atlanta, Metanire leads or comes in second in key passes completed among the league’s fullbacks; his seven total assists come in third among fullbacks, trailing Anton Tinnerholm at NYCFC and fellow newcomer Kai Wagner of Philadelpha. Since 2015, only two fullbacks with 1000 or more minutes took more of a team’s touches while on the field than Metanire, while only eight attempted more passes per game in the attacking third than him. The two that usurped him in 2019 were effectively midfielders in Atlanta (Gressel and Justin Meram). No fullbacks in the league took a higher proportion of his team’s key passes in 2019 than Metanire. You only get the full picture of what Romain Metanire meant to Minnesota through the 2019 season when seeing just how much of a standout he was in both directions.

Jan Gregus takes a free kick during Minnesota United's 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo
Jan Gregus takes a free kick during Minnesota United’s 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on May 25.
Tim C McLaughlin

Jan Gregus, meanwhile, has been under the radar in his success. Through last weekend’s games, Gregus’s 59 key passes on the season were in the top twenty among central and defensive midfielders going back to 2015 and were fourth on the year; in doing so, his key passes resulted in one in every twenty Loons shots this season, good for eighth among all midfielders with over 1000 minutes. He also ranks sixth among his position in shots attempted (11th in the last five years) and 17th among all midfielders in expected goals by goal chain involvement, due in no small part to taking 13.1% of Minnesota’s touches while on the field. That’s sixth in the league among all players surpassing 1000 minutes. With over 2700 minutes on the season, Gregus was a busy man centrally for Minnesota, and his movement between the boxes, long shots, and set piece ability resulted in a goal and eleven assists (seven primary)—solid numbers for an import.

The Case Against The Loons: Frustratingly for Metanire and Gregus they may not have the best cases among candidates at their own positions. At fullback, Metanire will have to compete against Jorge Moreira of the Portland Timbers, whose own defensive numbers (second in attempted tackles and first in tackles won among fullbacks, right behind Metanire in interceptions, ahead on clearances and blocks) might make him a better candidate for Defender of the Year and Best XI consideration given still solid offensive production. For Gregus’s part, his offensive production pales in comparison to Carles Gil. Playing as a deeper #10 for the Revs has unlocked the former Valencia and Aston Villa man to power in fourteen assists (twelve primary ones, natch) while scoring ten goals. He’s 13th in the league in total expected goals plus assists after playing all 32 games for New England, while also claiming the fifth spot in key passes per game.

MLS: New England Revolution at Portland Timbers
New England Revolution midfielder Carles Gil scores a goal on a penalty kick against the Portland Timbers during the second half at Providence Park on September 25
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Gil’s competition for the award comes down to an actual #10 in Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo. The fellow Spaniard didn’t replace Sebastian Giovinco, but he did more than enough to bring the Reds back into the playoff race: eleven goals and eleven assists (six primary) is the best combined total among non-Gil candidates. Moreover, his teammates’ profligacy left him to actually underperform to his expected assist rate: of the players that cleared 0.3 expected assists per game this year, only three did so with a greater assist minus expected deficit. Ultimately he’s been one of the most productive and balanced attack/create threats in the league: only Carlos Vela and NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez have more combined expected goals and assists per game than his 0.65 with more than 0.30 expected assists.

Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year

Loons Nominees: Adrian Heath

The Case For The Loons: When evaluating coaches for these awards, three questions come up:

- How much did the team improve year over year?

- How much better did the team do compared to expectations?

- How evident were coaching moves in the improvement?

By the first two criteria, Adrian Heath’s defensive numbers are compelling. Coming into Wednesday’s game, Minnesota has allowed 1.29 goals per game, the sixth-best tally in the league. That’s not bad; when you consider that in 2018 they allowed 2.09 per game it’s astounding. Their 0.80 goals allowed differential year over year leads MLS, and having only equaled their goals scored tally from last year with three games to play the defense clearly is responsible for their 0.52 points per game improvement from last year, which ranks second in the league. Predictive metrics like the Loons too: Before Sunday’s match at Portland, Minnesota had its first positive expected goal difference in three seasons in MLS, its first over-50% ratio of shots for versus shots against after boasting the second- and fifth-worst marks over the last three years combined, and a PDO (save percentage plus finishing percentage normalized to 1000) of 1095–the sixth highest in MLS over the last three seasons, trailing 2018’s Seattle, 2017’s MLS Cup winning Toronto side, Atlanta’s debut in 2017, and both this and last year’s DC United.

July 13, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - An MLS match between Minnesota United and FC Dallas at Allianz Field. (Tim C McLaughlin)
Adrian Heath shows the length of his arms during a July 13 MLS match between Minnesota United and FC Dallas at Allianz Field.
Tim C McLaughlin

Minnesota also beat predictions, and not only on the league website. When the Westgate sports book listed MLS Cup winner odds in the first week of January, Minnesota, San Jose, Orlando, and Colorado all had 100/1 odds to win, ranking dead last in the league. Coming into last week, Minnesota was one of two teams (Real Salt Lake the other) to be ten or more positions higher in the Supporters Shield race than their rank in January’s odds. And while overall compensation generally is a poor predictor of a team’s points total—per American Soccer Analysis, the correlation coefficient is 0.18, meaning a plot of compensation against points per game looks like a shotgun blast from a football field away—the Loons entered last weekend with the fifth-best points per game total among teams in the last three seasons (third-best this year) that spent below that season’s median salary.

And there’s some reason to say that the coaching helped drive some of the personnel decisions, specifically with the advancement of drafted players into the lineup. Between international call ups, injuries, poor form, and certain roster excisions, the team leaned heavily into its 2018 and 2019 draft classes. Hassani Dotson emerged as a major role player, capping both sides of defense and in the midfield engine room as a second round pick. Chase Gasper—whose recent form has admittedly regressed—showed why he was considered the most pro-ready defender in the SuperDraft. After a bust of a rookie season without a goal or assist in 17 appearances, Mason Toye took a huge leap in his second year to force his way into the USYNT, leading the league’s under-21 players in goals per 90 minutes.

The Case Against The Loons: There are two arguments about why Adrian Heath shouldn’t get the award. The easy one: two of the other candidates oversaw a bigger overall turnaround in their teams’ performances, and both have a more compelling and visible tactical identity. At this rate, Bob Bradley is on track to pull LAFC to a bigger swing in goal differential than Minnesota United, coming both with more goals scored and, more importantly, fewer conceded. His base was higher, sure, but they’re on track to convert as many losses and ties to wins as the Loons, operating his club in a way that looks mysteriously like the Platonic ideal of modern coaching: force the opposition to play in their defensive third by smothering them with short, progressive passes and a whole lot of shots on target.

Then there’s Matias Almeyda in San Jose. The Quakes are on pace to turn 10 dropped results into wins after winning fewer games and points last year than 2019’s Wooden Spoon winners FC Cincinnati, clinging to playoff contention in the West—a reminder, two of their four wins were against Minnesota last year. All of this happened while only bringing in three new regular starters in the underrated defensive midfielder Judson, Cristian Espinoza—a solid piece, but seven goals and seven assists isn’t lighting the world on fire—and Daniel Vega, who lost out on last year’s NPSL Goalkeeper of the Year to Duluth FC’s Jan Hoffelner. Their “man mark everywhere” scheme has holes, namely picking up defenders rushing into attack, but the paucity of apparent talent on that team in long-term deals after the debacle of 2018 means anything approaching relevance would be worth a Coach of the Year vote.

August 14, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath looks for a call as Minnesota United forward Darwin Quintero (25) goes down during the match against the Colorado Rapids at Allianz Field.
Adrian Heath looks for a field goal call as Minnesota United play against the Colorado Rapids at Allianz Field on August 15.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

Adrian Heath’s year over year improvement was the opposite of what happened in San Jose. The conversion on Minnesota’s goal differential is about 80% from the team slashing its goals allowed number, which happens when your starting defensive seven (goalkeeper, back line, holding midfield) contains just one person from the prior two years in Michael Boxall. Minnesota brought in three potential Best XI players in Vito Mannone, Ike Opara, and Romain Metanire, and arguably the greatest defensive midfielder in MLS history in Ozzie Alonso. That’s not lost on Heath, who undermined his case in numerous press conferences this year by saying that the talent in his locker room allowed him to coach the way he wanted to. The case for Adrian Heath to be Coach of the Year ultimately looks suspicously like Manny Lagos’s case for Executive of the Year.

Comeback Player of the Year

Loons Nominees: Ethan Finlay

The Case For The Loons: Minnesota United’s right flank has been defined by returning fitness in 2019. When he’s been on, Kevin Molino has been a difference maker, lobbing in key passes, generating assists at the most prolific rate on the team, and causing havoc on the dribble. The issue has been his availability, missing time first for continued rehab from his torn ACL, then muscle injuries, then the Gold Cup. It’s part of why Ethan Finlay has been so valuable to the Loons this season after coming back from a very similar injury.

September 15, 2019 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finlay (13) celebrates his goal during a match against Real Salt Lake at Allianz Field.
Ethan Finlay does the worst thing he’s ever done to his knee during a September 15 match against Real Salt Lake at Allianz Field.
Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

Finlay’s ACL tear was, by all accounts, a cleaner rip than Molino’s. But he still tore an ACL last April, missed the remainder of the year, and has since played in all but one game for the Loons this season, making every single match day roster in both MLS and Open Cup and starting in 21 of his 32 appearances. His seven goals and ten combined goals and assists are each second on the team behind Darwin Quintero; by expected goals, he only trails Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez. His constant runs up and down the field have made the space for Romain Metanire and Hassani Dotson’s success getting forward from right back. The sort of stamina he’s had through the year is commendable for anyone, let alone someone whose knee was blown out last spring.

The Case Against The Loons: Let’s start by criticizing this award: of the sixteen candidates, eight of them “came back” from just being really bad for their teams (or other teams) the year before. Pedro Santos came into Columbus as a hyped DP before getting a goal and seven assists in over 3500 minutes in his first two years in the league. Tesho Akindele, Steve Clark, Richie Laryea, Brian Rowe, Shea Salinas, and Tommy Thompson all were overlooked by their prior teams or coaches. Kacper Przybylko was finishing recovery from a foot injury when he signed for Philadelphia, but was seemingly a coach’s decision scratch in the seven games he could have played last season. Those aren’t comebacks.

There are a few legitimate comebacks from adversity that isn’t just being bad, and one includes a player that should be in short lists for a spot in a Best XI midfield. Mark-Anthony Kaye suffered a horror ankle injury in LAFC’s second edition of El Trafico last July, missing the remainder of the year. Since then, he’s gone on to be one of the cogs of the best midfield duos in the league alongside Eduard Atuesta, missing only three games for the top team in the league due to international callups. Kaye leads LAFC’s non-forward players in combined goals and primary assists, and is second overall on the team for key passes per game. He also contributes defensively, leading the non-back line players in combined blocks and interceptions per game. Few players get up and down the field with as much skill and regularity as Kaye, and doing it for a team closing in on the greatest regular season in league history is more than worth plaudits.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Los Angeles FC
Mark-Anthony Kaye controls the ball in front of LA Galaxy forward Favio Alvarez in the first half of LAFC’s August 25th match at Banc of California Stadium
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There’s also the case for Jordan Morris. After tearing an ACL in Champions League prior to the start of the MLS season, Morris came back to his prior self on the wing for Seattle. His fifteen combined goals and assists lead the West’s second-best team, while his 10.2 expected goals and assists come in third behind Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz. There’s a significant amount of luck involved for his numbers—Morris ranks fifth in the league in combined goals and assists minus expected—but his vein of form after the Gold Cup (five goals, five assists in 890 minutes) has helped keep the Sounders in the running for a home playoff seed. Morris’s goals and assists both lead Finlay in roughly the same amount of minutes despite getting called up for USMNT duty, and that should more than put Finlay’s case to bed.