When Minnesota United entered the Western Conference Final on December 7th, they did so on a club-record 10-game unbeaten streak in which they only conceded 5 goals in nearly 1,000 minutes. Ultimately, it was 3 goals in just 18 minutes which ended the Loons season that night in Seattle. It somewhat epitomized a year full of highs, lows, and many uncertainties, where the elation of a 2-0 lead quickly spiraled into uncertainty, and eventually heartbreak. In the end, as the only MLS team to make two semi-final appearances in an unprecedented year, Loons fans should be happy of the progress made. Here we will reflect on how MNUFC’s tactical identity brought these successes, the joy that came with it, and what to look forward to next season.
The conclusion of the 2019 season saw the Loons clinch their first-ever MLS playoff spot before falling to the LA Galaxy at a brand-new Allianz Field. It was MNUFC’s defense that received most of the praise for the club’s turnaround, reducing their goals conceded from 71 in 2018 to 43 in 2019. Conversely, it was their attack that sputtered toward the seasons end, managing to score just 11 goals over the final 11 games of the season. Heading into the offseason, the MNUFC front office placed a clear emphasis on improving this attack.
The first attacking acquisition came in the form of Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla, the top scorer in the Ecuadorian Serie A in 2019. Acquired on a 12-month loan from Vélez Sarsfield, it was a low-risk/high-reward investment that reaped rewards immediately, notching 2 goals and 1 assist in his first two games in a Loons uniform. Unknown to anyone at the time, a shortened season and series of injuries would see Amarilla play less than 500 minutes over the remainder of the season.
Injuries were always going to be prevalent in a shortened and compact season. With MNUFC entering the season as the 4th oldest team in the league, injuries quickly piled up for the Loons, accumulating over 100 absences due to injury over the course of the regular season. In addition to Amarilla, season-ending injuries also saw Tyler Miller and Ike Opara fail to play more than 500 minutes in 2020.
Despite season-ending injuries to the Loons starting goalkeeper and 2019 Defender of the Year, they saw a negligible improvement in defense, reducing their goals conceded per game for the 2nd consecutive year from 1.26/game in 2019 to 1.24/game in 2020. More impressively, the Loons saw a substantial improvement in attack, increasing their goals scored per game for the 4th consecutive year from 1.53/game in 2019 to 1.71/game in 2020.
To understand where these improvements came from, it is hard to look anywhere other than Emanuel Reynoso, MNUFC’s second attacking acquisition from South American powerhouse Boca Juniors. The reported $5M transfer fee for the Argentinian not only cemented the central attacking midfielder spot for the Loons, but neatly organized the attack around him. The acquisition saw previous central attacking midfielder Kevin Molino move to an inverted position on the left, while initially moving Robin Lod to an inverted position on the right.
Setting up the attack with two inverted wingers was a revelation for MNUFC, urging the wingers to drift inside the half-spaces closer to Reynoso as the central attacking midfielder. This enabled a few things: occupy more vertical channels, allow the fullbacks to easily overlap the wingers into space, and most importantly, provide combination options for Reynoso in the middle of the field.
Although as MNUFC entered Decision Day with a home playoff spot on the line, strikers Kei Kamara and Aaron Schoenfeld went down with injuries that forced Heath to deviate from the dual-inverted winger setup. Heath made the decision to push Robin Lod up into a false 9 position, where a healthy Ethan Finlay slotted back into the lineup on the right as a traditional winger. While there was no large target presence for the Loons up top, this created a hyper-fluid front 4 that leveraged their creativity and fluidity to confuse opposing defenses. An example of this was the 2nd goal against FC Dallas on Decision Day, the first of three consecutive 3-0 wins en-route to the Western Conference Final.
The sequence leading to Reynoso’s goal represents the fluidity of the front four, where a turnover by FC Dallas in the defensive third finds Molino, the inverted left winger, in a central location. Molino then one-touches to Lod, the false 9, on the left side of the attack, who then picks out Reynoso at the top of the box because of the space created by Finlay, the traditional right winger, in an advanced forward position.
This tactical flexibility and creativity in attack showed a Loons side that was slightly more comfortable on the ball, increasing their average possession from 44.8% in 2019 to 47.3% in 2020. This increased comfort in possession with an improved attacking front-line changed the way in which Minnesota directed their attack in 2020.
The primary reasons for the shift in attacking direction was largely because of two Loons: Emanuel Reynoso and Ike Opara.
Firstly, the connection between Reynoso as a central attacking midfielder and Molino as an inverted left winger proved to be one of the most impressive partnerships throughout MLS over the 2020 season. The dynamic nature of these two was always going to increase the number of attacks originating on that side in comparison to 2019.
Secondly, the presence of Ike Opara in 2019 continually afforded Romain Métanire the ability to push high and be a primary progressor of the Loons attack. Métanire’s propensity to overlap and send crosses in without hesitation was largely due to Opara’s ability to cover for him in defense, and with the absence of Opara at the RCB position for the majority of 2020, Métanire tended not to venture as far forward as a result. While the potential return of Opara is anticipated by many, his absence made the Loons diversify their attack, become more balanced, and ultimately less predictable.
While the Loons enjoyed slightly more possession this season, they remained a direct, fast tempo, counter-attacking team. In 2020, the Loons ranked:
- 3rd in counter-attacking goals to total goals ratio (per WhoScored)
- 3rd in progressive pass distance to total pass distance ratio
- 4th in attacking third touches to total touches ratio
Frankly, this style of play was apparent from the Loons first goal of the year.
To understand how efficient MNUFC were in transition moments, the image below plots each team’s goal differential vs. expected goal differential when in transition. Teams in the quadrant 1, the upper-right quadrant, recorded both a positive goal differential and expected goal differential when in transition in 2020.
The two Loons primarily responsible for progressing the ball in these situations continues to be Romain Métanire and Ján Greguš, who both ranked top-20 throughout MLS in total progressive passes. As the ball progresses from these defensive and midfield positions, the ball is then usually funneled to Reynoso. More impressively, Reynoso ranks 12th in MLS in progressive passes per 90, ahead of both Métanire and Greguš, despite being in a more advanced position.
When Reynoso gets on the ball, watch out. What he has been able to do through just 12 regular season appearances is off the charts. Below is how Reynoso ranks among all MLS players in per 90 playmaking statistics throughout the 2020 season.
- 1st in assists per 90
- 1st in key passes per 90
- 1st in goal-creating actions per 90
- 2nd in shot-creating actions per 90
Most of these assists, key passes, and goal/shot-creating actions have been focused towards the wingers around him, as the Loons have largely been without a consistent presence at striker for most of 2020. The table below shows the minutes played by each striker, along with their goals per 90 (G/90) and expected goals per 90 (xG/90) metrics. For reference, a G/90 or xG/90 of 0.50 or greater in a typical indication of an above average striker.
MNUFC Striker Production
While the Loons lacked consistent production from the striker position, they still managed to find goals from other sources. The Loons posted a G-xG of +6.2 as a team, meaning they scored approximately 6 more goals than they were expected to, good for 5th in MLS. This is a bit surprising considering MNUFC’s quartet of strikers combined for a G-xG of -1.9. However, the difference was largely made up by Kevin Molino and Robin Lod, who individually ranked 4th and T-18th throughout all of MLS with a G-xG of +4.1 and +2.1, respectively. This again shows how the performance of the inverted wingers alongside Reynoso masked the inconsistency of strikers in attack.
Defensively, MNUFC posted a stunning GA-xGA of -10.3, meaning they conceded approximately 10 less goals than they were expected to, 1st in all of MLS. Combining their G-xG of +6.2 and GA-xGA of -10.3, yielding a GD-xGD of +16.5 meant StatsBomb’s model suggests MNUFC’s goal differential was nearly 17 goals better than expected, easily ranking 1st throughout MLS. This type of number is not only difficult to understand, but even more difficult to explain.
While MNUFC perhaps got lucky in defense on several occasions, they also tweaked their defensive tactics by pushing their defensive line of confrontation up-field, showing a willingness to high press and defend from the front. The table below compares the areas MNUFC applied pressure to an opponent per game in 2019 and 2020.
MNUFC Defensive Pressures per Game
The increased defensive aggression is also noticeable when considering MNUFC ranked 4th in MLS in total tackles won, but 18th in interceptions. This higher tackles won to interceptions ratio is indicative of a defense looking to apply pressure directly, rather than passively block passing lanes.
Behind the defensive line, the emergence of Canadian goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair was a revelation for the Loons defense. Unable to bring back Vito Mannone, 2019 Goalkeeper of the Year, MNUFC brought in Tyler Miller to be the starter with Greg Ranjitsingh as the backup. As Miller went out with a season-ending hip surgery in August, followed by subsequent injuries to Ranjitsingh, St. Clair was called upon to be the starter despite initially being the 3rd-string option at just 23 years of age.
While the 2020 goalkeeping group put up similar save percentage and post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed (PSxG - GA) numbers in comparison to 2019, the individual metrics show just how impressive St. Clair’s season has been.
MNUFC Goalkeeper Shot-Stopping
|Dayne St. Clair||2020||1170||78.30%||2.2|
NOTE: PSxG – GA is one of the most commonly used statistics to analyze goalkeeper performance, as it is the cumulative xG for all shots on target minus goals allowed. A positive PSxG – GA value indicates that a goalkeeper has saved more goals than expected, and conversely, a negative value indicates that a goalkeeper has conceded more goals than expected.
Although St. Clair put up impressive shot stopping numbers, he certainly has room for improvement when it comes to distribution. The table below, with numbers provided by American Soccer Analysis, shows that Mannone’s and Miller’s passing percentage, expected passing percentage, and passing distance are nearly identical. Since then, MNUFC has seen a drop-off in these categories with St. Clair in net.
MNUFC Goalkeeper Passing
|Player||Season||Minutes||Passes||Pass %||xPass %||Distance|
|Player||Season||Minutes||Passes||Pass %||xPass %||Distance|
|Dayne St. Clair||2020||1170||381||54%||59%||44.4|
The image below can help visualize St. Clair’s distribution, with more incomplete passes and reduced range in comparison to Miller.
Improving his passing numbers will come with time, repetition, and comfort. After all, shot stopping is a goalkeeper’s primary job and St. Clair has been outstanding in that department. Safe to say, the MNUFC front office will have a big decision to make regarding their #1 goalkeeper heading in 2021.
So will MNUFC keep St. Clair in-between the posts on Matchday 1 in 2021? Will they bring back the likes of Amarilla and Alonso, or look for reinforcements elsewhere? Will they be able to open two valuable DP spots, and if so, who and where will they be used? These are a few of the many questions to be answered this offseason as the Loons aim for their first piece of silverware in club history.
NOTE: All statistics and data are provided by StatsBomb, via fbref.com, unless otherwise noted.
C’mon You Loons!