Two games into the 2020 MLS season, it looks like Minnesota United might be good. The Loons have outscored opponents 8-3 (7-1 without penalty kicks), and while those opponents might be lesser ones, both games were on the road.
That’s a good start.
Onto what we learned from Minnesota’s 5-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes:
Adrian Heath’s opening 4-2-3-1 personnel seems to be a given at this point – there weren’t any surprises there at all.
Once again, Thomas Chacon was left out of the matchday 18. We can speculate once again on the reason – simply not good enough? a loan in the works? something more dramatic? – but it now seems like the youngster has some work to do if he’s going to be seeing playing time.
There is one interesting angle to Heath’s player management that deserves mention: In the 42nd minute, central attacking midfielder Kevin Molino had to leave the game with a hamstring strain. His replacement was Hassani Dotson, the do-everything second-year player who tends to be more of a defensive midfielder than attacker.
We don’t have average-positioning data for substitutes, but it looks like Dotson made his presence known all around the pitch:
A reminder on how to read these chalkboards: triangles are defensive plays (different colors signify different types, but that’s not the most important thing), circles signify shots, and squares are passes (green is complete, red is incomplete).
Dotson certainly seemed to have done more than just the duty of a No. 10. He didn’t have a pass into the box, and didn’t even have one particularly close to it. It also looks like he shaded toward the left side of the field.
All of this means United’s shape looked like more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1 after Molino’s departure. Ozzie Alonso still played as the defensive midfielder, but Jan Gregus and Dotson seemed split duties as No. 8’s.
This is actually a nice switch to be able to make for United. In a situation, like this game, that sees the Loons up a good amount and in position to take on an even more defensive – or maybe just less aggressive – mentality, switching to a 4-3-3 is helpful.
What’s disappointing about personnel so far is that we have yet to see 2020 Mason Toye in action. It’s been Aaron Schoenfeld off the bench in both games.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Minnesota sat back for counters once again. They ended up with only 37.8% possession, and completed 228 passes to San Jose’s 444. The Loons had a lower pass completion percentage (73.1%) than the Quakes (84.7%), which probably means United’s pass attempts were higher stakes balls. That makes sense for a counter attacking team – a pass designed to start a break going the other way is likely to be a little more complicated or make it/break it.
It’s also important to not that the Loons weren’t pinned up against their own goal. The ball was on United’s half of the field 48.5% of the time, which is quite even.
Take a look at the passing chalkboard for Minnesota:
The passes look longer, don’t they? More noticeably: look how empty the center circle is. By my count, there were twelve passes attempted from inside the circle. That’s not very much at all, considering it’s the exact middle of the pitch.
There seems to be an emphasis on passing to the flanks. Again, this fits a counter-attacking scheme: get the ball, send it out wide to where there are fewer opposition players to clog things up, then get it into the box.
Counter-attacking wasn’t entirely the name of the game for United against the Earthquakes, though. Set pieces, strangely, played quite the role.
And it seems Minnesota’s win was a little bit fluky, or at least flukier than expected.
San Jose registered an expected goals value of 2.26 (0.113 per shot) while the Loons put up 2.19 (0.129). That would suggest the game was quite a bit more even than the scoreline suggests.
Single game xG isn’t a great indicator, but this game wasn’t quite the domination that a 5-2 scoreline suggests, and there’s support for those xG values. Minnesota has struggled, to say the least, on set pieces, so two goals off of corners are rare. Join that with a goal off a saved penalty, and the margin of victory looks a little bit lucky.
But, in an individual game, it’s always better to be lucky than good.
GK - Tyler Miller
It was, once again, a fairly quiet night for Tyler Miller. He made four saves, which isn’t always a good indicator of goalkeeper performance.
Neither of the goals he conceded were particularly his fault. One was off a penalty, which he can’t do much about. The other goal was a bit of a fluke:
Valeri Qazaishvili doesn’t have a shot when the ball comes to him. Defenders have that right (from our perspective) side of the goal pretty well blocked off, but he lets it rip anyway. The shot hits Jan Gregus, but unluckily deflects the opposite direction of the original effort, which Miller had begun to dive for.
While yes, Miller could have anticipated the deflection and stopped the shot, it’s hard to expect that of a ‘keeper.
And of course, distribution is another important aspect of goalkeeping. Miller completed 18 of 32 passes this game. One again, distance was an important factor in his success.
Unlike the win over Portland, Miller played the ball short several times. That, unsurprisingly, puts him in a more successful position. He went 6-9 in the middle third and 5-15 in the attacking third.
What stands out from this game is the location of his targets: after frequently distributing to fullbacks against the Timbers, Miller never passed to them against the Quakes. His chalkboard is noticeably focused on the middle of the pitch. He often targeted left winger Robin Lod, an indicator of how United wanted to kickstart possessions.
To be clear, his distribution has actually been quite good so far, especially compared to Vito Mannone last year. As The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter pointed out, Miller has completed 10.5 long balls per game to Mannone’s 5.9. Remember, this is a tiny sample size so far, though.
And just because Miller doesn’t complete a goal kick or long ball doesn’t mean the play is lost, though. The sequence that led to Jan Gregus’ rocket goal started off a goal kick that first went to a San Jose player.
In some instances, a Miller service can set up a counter-attacking opportunity for the Loons.
LB - Chase Gasper
Chase Gasper had a challenging night at left back, the most glaring flaw being a penalty he conceded:
It’s definitely a penalty, and it’s a bad one to give up. Gasper cleanly deflects the ball, but his trail leg sweeps through Tommy Thompson. That’s unnecessary and rather sloppy. And on a wet surface like the one this game was played on, defenders need to be extra careful when it comes to plays like this.
Gasper’s passing left something to be desired.
Considering the Earthquakes tended to push higher up the field and put pressure, offensive and defensive, on Gasper’s flank, that’s understandable.
His passing patterns varied quite a bit from the Timbers game. Then, he passed vertically quite a lot and had several crosses. But this time, he played short and diagonal more often and didn’t venture as far up the pitch.
RB - Romain Metanire
Romain Metanire had quite an interesting game at the right back position. Let’s examine the average position chart for the first time:
Metanire (No. 19)’s average position essentially overlaps with right winger Ethan Finlay’s (No. 13, obscured). That’s aggressive play from a fullback.
He didn’t have a pass inside the defensive third and only completed one in the middle third. He sent five directly to striker Luis Amarilla.
He did have defensive contributions back in a more normal position, but his influence was definitely more like that of a right winger than a right back.
While this worked against the Earthquakes, it’s unlikely to be a viable strategy every game. It’s also rather redundant to start two right wingers, which is what Metanire functionally played as.
The bottom line, though, is that this is a testament to why small sample sizes make bad indicators of play. What works or is evident in one game may never appear in the 33 other ones.
CB - Ike Opara
What a game for Ike Opara. A two-goal (plus drawn penalty) performance earned him MLS Player of the Week honors.
His first goal – which came off a corner! – is a masterclass in set piece design.
Watch three players near the top of the box: Opara, fellow centerback Michael Boxall (No. 15) and striker Luis Amarilla (No. 9). All three are aerial threats, and they’re set up near each other at the beginning of this sequence.
They all have an individual San Jose player marking them. At the designated time, however, they all scatter. This is not a particularly novel strategy, but it sure is effective here. Boxall cuts into the thick of things, gaining a step of separation, but he’s not the target here and simply draws his defender into traffic. Amarilla fully breaks the ankles of his marker, cutting back and toward the corner before juking to the far post. You might remember from last week how he likes to make those far post runs...
And then there’s Opara. He bolts straight for the near post. He slips into a little bit of traffic there, but he’s locked onto Jan Gregus, the corner taker, and the ball. He’s also got his marker chasing him, which gives him a clean header that he doesn’t have to go up to compete for.
There’s a different story on his second goal.
Minnesota doesn’t deploy the same amount of motion and complexity on this corner, which is understandable – they’re up two goals and in decent control at this point. For that reason, the Quakes’ marking is, across the board, quite effective here. Opara simply gets up above his man to put his head on the ball here.
It’s a different kind of aerial dominance, but certainly something that he’s capable of. Heading just might be a strongsuit of United’s this year.
Last week, Opara played a rather strangely offensive role for the Loons, often distributing the ball along the right side. As you’ll see momentarily below, he played much more conventionally against San Jose. Outside of these two set piece efforts, there really wasn’t much offense stemming from Opara.
CB - Michael Boxall
There was nothing remarkable about Boxall’s performance, which is quite fine for a centerback. As Lil Wayne put it, real G’s move in silence like lasagna.
One nice aspect of his performance is how it fits with Opara’s. Their combined chalkboards look like art:
What’s interesting here is how little overlap there is. Boxall and Opara quite clearly stuck to their respective side assignments, which shows a strong level organization in Minnesota’s defense. As anyone who has played in a recreational or casual soccer league can attest, organization – especially defensive organization – is a beautiful thing.
There isn’t a drastic difference, but Boxall seems to have played slightly more offensively than he did against the Timbers. That’s quite relative, but he did seem more comfortable advancing the ball.
DM - Ozzie Alonso
I still find Alonso’s role fascinating, and after two games of his positioning looking almost identical, I’m prepared to argue that Minnesota plays a back five, and he’s part of it.
Once again, average positioning:
Once again, he’s positioned level, or even slightly behind, left back Chase Gasper. Right back Romain Metanire’s positioning, as discussed above, was weirdly far forward for this game, but Alonso’s lining up at fullback level.
Essentially, he’s playing as a sort of central fullback. He slides into the back four to defend frequently, but is also getting forward and distributing. His value to this team changes when he’s viewed like that.
His passing’s a bit sparse in this one, but he’s covering a lot of ground with his playmaking. Expectedly, there’s more of that happening on the left side than the right. With Jan Gregus and Romain Metanire pushing up on the right, help generally isn’t necessary of there. Gasper isn’t quite the attacker that Metanire is, so Alonso pitching in helps.
The chalkboard also shows an emphasis on getting the ball to the right wing. It wasn’t always successful for Alonso, but he clearly was seeing opportunities to pass in that direction. Of course, there were essentially two right wingers on the pitch for Minnesota, so that seems like an obvious spot to target.
CM - Jan Gregus
Jan Gregus is, expectedly and clearly, the more offensive-minded half of the midfield tandem. He sat back slightly more against the Earthquakes from an average positioning perspective, but also saw more action inside his own half.
Outside of the corners he took – which led to two goals – a lot of his passing on the right side funneled the ball to the wings. This makes sense from a counter-attacking angle: get the ball, then get it out wide to the speedy players before a cross or run brings play back to the interior.
Take his goal as a fantastic example of how he can play in United’s counter-attack:
Gregus starts out holding down the center circle and doesn’t bite on the quick possession changes that inevitably follow a goal kick. He receives the ball, squaring up on it and taking the time to collect himself before sending it goalward. Gregus sends a controlled ball out to the wing, then immediately launches a tracking run behind.
These secondary runs have reaped benefits during preseason play and in the season opener against Portland, and should continue to be a regular occurence. Gregus is rewarded for his trailing effort with a dump off, then blasts a rocket into the goal.
Keep in mind, this is a low probability shot in terms of both accuracy and beating the keeper. Daniel Vega was lurking at the near post and Gregus still beat him there, which deserves both praise and reservation.
LW - Robin Lod
Finally, a breakthrough for Robin Lod.
Just as it seemed he was entering a do-or-die stretch for Minnesota, he scored for the first time in MLS play. Unfortunately, it didn’t stem from an open play opportunity:
This is both a smart play by Lod and incredible lapse by San Jose. He simply positions himself out of contention to go for a rebound, then sneaks behind the Quakes on the border of the penalty area. He’s already a step inside the penalty area when Daniel Vega saves Luis Amarilla’s attempt, and that’s a step ahead of any San Jose players.
What isn’t so great, though, is the finish: it’s blasted right at Vega. Powerful shots like this one are often fine when that happens, but in general, it’s better to try to put the ball where the ‘keeper isn’t. That’s quite difficult to do well when pouncing on a rebound, though, so power’s a fine approach here.
As a whole, Lod had a normal game.
Lod, as an inverted winger, will never be too much of a crosser on the left flank. That said, he had some positive moments playing centrally, in No. 10 territory. We’ll get to that in a moment with Kevin Molino.
RW - Ethan Finlay
It was a rather uneventful night for Ethan Finlay. He was, perhaps, overshadowed in his right winger role by right back Romain Metanire. Nonetheless, Finlay supplied a few key passes as he seemed to focus on playing long(er) balls.
That, of course, leads to more incomplete passes. Finlay hasn’t attempted many passes at all in either match, but that role seems to suit his style. He picks out the opportunities he likes and tries for them, perhaps being a little overambitious at times.
CAM - Kevin Molino
We only saw 42 minutes of Kevin Molino before he left with a hamstring strain, so his chalkboard is a little sparse to analyze. But once again, average positions:
Yes, Molino is the farthest forward of anyone. And yes, it is a smaller sample size than the rest of the starting eleven. That may have to do more with striker Luis Amarilla regularly tracking back than Molino getting excessively forward, though.
Instead of any real analysis into his performance, a proposal for Molino’s usage:
Left winger Robin Lod showed some success playing in the interior, and Molino has previously looked comfortable enough on the wings. What if the two, at times, switched roles during a game? Not just situationally on a fill-in basis, but made a dedicated effort to swap positions.
Would it work? Maybe not, but both seem to have the skillsets to pull it off. If it happens, you heard it here first.
ST - Luis Amarilla
Luis Amarilla is looking like a revelation at striker.
He scored goal two of 25 off another header, slipping between defenders to get an open look at a deflection. He’s a hard player to track, partly because he’s everywhere at times, especially by a forward’s standards:
That level of involvement all around the pitch is part of what makes Amarilla so valuable. Though he’s been an effective finisher thus far, he’s much more than a target forward and but isn’t a false nine either.
One gripe comes in his penalty attempt, which was saved by Daniel Vega. Robin Lod scored the rebound, but something seems wrong with the original shot.
I’m struggling to pin down exactly what, but something with Amarilla’s run-up and shot make it quite clear that he’s going to his left. Believe it or not, I called that this PK would be saved during his run-up while watching this game live. It just seems easy to read.
That’s a nitpicky thing to analyze, though. Amarilla’s been playing fantastically for the Loons already, and that needs to be remembered.
Thoughts on Minnesota’s win? What did you notice? Let us know in the comments section below!