Minnesota United began the 2020 MLS season in impressive fashion on Sunday night, dispatching the Portland Timbers 3-1 at Providence Park.
The outcome surprised plenty in both teams’ circles, but it’s undeniably a tremendous start for the Loons. Let’s break down the win, looking at United’s team and individual performances through film and statistics.
There were no surprises in Adrian Heath’s choice for his first eleven players. The team has been built for the 4-2-3-1 formation it so commonly deploys, so everything fit.
Something that demands further attention, perhaps, is the exclusion of young attacking midfielder Thomas Chacon from the matchday squad. That was a “coaches’ decision,” according to a report from the Pioneer Press’ Andy Greder, which might prompt some speculation. It’s probably unfounded, but where’s the fun in not panicking about Minnesota United?
Minnesota was extremely content with sitting back and counter-attacking during the game. The Loons held 42.6% possession with 280 completed passes, compared to Portland’s 407.
Part of why United’s scheme was successful comes in where those passes were located: Minnesota had 105 in the attacking third while the Timbers had 104. It’s a lesson that the “quality over quantity” cliche can prove true in soccer, too.
While one of Minnesota’s goals was probably statistically fluky, the team’s attacking performance wasn’t. The Loons’ expected goals value comes out to 2.48 (0.25 per shot), much better than the Timbers’ 1.68 (0.12 per shot).
While xG isn’t a perfect model or an indicator of actual scoreline – Sporting Kansas City scored three goals on 0.52 xG this weekend – it shows that Minnesota’s scheme was creating quality opportunities.
Whether or not a team over- or under-performs its xG value is usually attributed to good/bad luck or good/bad finishing, both of which tend to mostly even out over the course of a 34-game season. So in a single game sense, it might not reflect a specific result, but does reflect overall schematic effectiveness.
That scheme was counter-attacking, which produced all three of United’s goals. The best example of the Loons’ set-up came in the second one:
Centerback Ike Opara steps up to intercept a diagonal ball, sending a clearance/long ball combination out to the right wing. That’s where Ethan Finlay’s promptly started breaking toward the opposite goal, meaning he’s able to receive the ball in stride and maintain speed.
There’s more to the finish of this goal that we’ll get to later, but notice one aspect of this play for now: Portland’s fullbacks are ridiculously high up the field.
When Finlay changes directions to begin the counter, Portland left back Jorge Villafaña is closer to Minnesota’s goal than Finlay is, meaning the Loons’ winger has already cleared the Timbers’ fullback when he receives the ball.
Villafaña and his right-side counterpart, Jorge Moreira, were both torched – again by Finlay – on United’s first goal.
Fullbacks are a necessary part of any team’s attacking set-up, and Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese’s system is designed for them to press up the field. That can lead to effective offense and sustained possessions, but the danger lies in fullbacks overcommitting and allowing counter-attacking players to almost automatically clear a line of defense.
Minnesota’s exploitation of that seems to have been a halftime adjustment from Heath and his staff. Savarese pointed out after the game that United wasn’t finding opportunities off the counter attack in the first half.
The game’s passing chalkboard doesn’t include stats on pass distance, but the eye test makes it look like the Loons were generally making longer passes in the second half.
By looking at Portland’s positional report, we can see how exploitable the Timbers’ defense was for a counter-attacking team:
Look at how far up the field Moreira (No. 2)’s average position was. He’s about level with central midfielder/No. 8 Cristhian Paredes (No. 22) and nearly level with right winger Yimmi Chara (No. 23). That’s exploitable.
The strange thing, though, is that all three of Minnesota’s goals came down Portland’s left flank, where Villafaña (No. 4) and centerback Dario Zuparic (No. 13) maintained much more normal positioning.
In fact, the Loons greatly concentrated their attention on that side of the field (Minnesota’s right, Portland’s left) in the second interval:
That’s likely why the left side of Portland’s defense was pinned back more – there was just more action to deal with.
GK - Tyler Miller
It was, statistically speaking, a pretty quiet game for Minnesota’s new goalkeeper. Miller made two saves and allowed one goal, off a penalty kick.
Early in the game, he almost conceded a penalty. The foul wasn’t called in real-time, and a VAR review upheld that decision.
It was almost a shaky start, but Miller settled in to play from a pure shot-stopping perspective. The only goal he allowed was a penalty to Diego Valeri, who’s now converted 23 of 27 from the spot in his career.
An important part of modern soccer, however, is now goalkeeper distribution. Take a peek at Miller’s passing chart:
He completed 12 of 26 passes. He was 8/14 in the middle third but 3/11 in the attacking third. In general, his successful passes were fairly evenly dispersed across the field. He even got three passes straight to striker Luis Amarilla, including one on Minnesota’s third goal:
That passing chart above also shows that United isn’t having Miller play it short out of the back. Evidently, the team trusts his long-range distribution enough to have him continue sending the ball into the other half of the field or far out onto the wings.
Because this is a one-game sample size, however, there could be a few different caveats. Portland could have been giving Miller looks that force a certain pass, or different United players could just be positioning themselves better on a given play. Goalkeeper distribution is a trend best analyzed in the long-term.
LB - Chase Gasper
It was a pretty quiet game along the left flank for Gasper. One noticeable aspect of his game was how closely he stuck to that side of the field:
Notice the lack of diagonal passing. There’s a lot of vertical action going on with his passing game. Remember how United concentrated so much play down the right wing in the second half? You’ll see a difference in usage when we look at Romain Metanire in the next section.
Also of note is where Gasper’s defensive plays (triangles) fall: Some are located rather centrally for a fullback. The eye test showed that he drifted centrally quite often, especially when the ball was on the opposite flank. Because Romain Metanire was drifting a little bit farther up the field, there were some openings behind him on the right side, which then draws centerback Ike Opara in that direction and causes the other two defenders to shift.
It does create some opposite-field openings behind Gasper, but that’s where a midfielder or winger has to drop in to fill a void. It’s all about keeping the defense compact and organized – which has to do with more players than just Gasper.
RB - Romain Metanire
Metanire looked expectedly solid on the right side, which quickly became the Loons’ primary channel of attack.
He tended to pass to the interior more often than Gasper did. A lot of the interplay comes from right-side, attack-minded central midfielder Jan Gregus and No. 10 Kevin Molino.
Metanire’s average position was also slightly higher up the field than Gasper’s, which is to be expected.
It seems that the Metanire-Ethan Finlay combination on the right side – matched with Gregus inside – will be more heavily utilized than the Gasper-Robin Lod set-up on the left.
CB - Ike Opara
Opara had a fascinating game.
First and most obviously on the scoresheet, he conceded a penalty that allowed Portland’s only goal.
It is, objectively, a penalty. Is it a hard one? No, but Opara wraps his leg around Felipe Mora and brings the striker down with it. Watching live, it looked a little soft, but it’s the right call.
Outside of that play, Opara played an interesting role for Minnesota.
We’ll look at Minnesota’s positional chart in a bit, but first notice Opara’s offensive involvement.
He wasn’t passing a ton – he’s a centerback, after all – but he passed in a lot of different directions to a number of different players. He had a drastically bigger role in Minnesota’s counter-attacking than Michael Boxall, who we’ll examine next.
Opara most commonly looked to Metanire with shorter passes to get the ball out on the flanks. He also turned regularly to Gregus and Finlay farther up the field, but on the same side.
Opara has tended to be more comfortable bringing the ball up the field or distributing it than Boxall, and that shows in his usage. He’s also on that right side of the formation that fueled United’s second-half offense.
His defensive plays (triangles on the chalkboard above) were also distributed around the right side of the field, showing a level of freedom in his role as a centerback. He made plays in front of the penalty area and low along the endline, indicating his defensive presence.
CB - Michael Boxall
Boxall, expectedly, was the more defensive part of Minnesota’s centerback tandem.
He made more defensive plays around the back third and fewer passes overall, noticeably more inside the penalty area than Opara did. If Opara is the type of centerback to be able to bring the ball forward, Boxall is much more of a pure stopper.
That shows in his distribution pattern. The only players he sent multiple passes to were Gasper, Opara and defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso. Those shorter passes were effective: he was perfect within the defensive third.
Boxall and Opara played with two distinctly different styles, but that creates a good and necessary balance for the Loons. Minnesota wanted to take on a counter-minded approach which requires getting a defensive stop and quickly turning that into an offensive opportunity, and the centerbacks’ complementary styles of play help make that work.
DM - Ozzie Alonso
Alonso presents another interesting case.
This is where we’ll look at Minnesota’s positional chart:
There’s always a lot to look at with these charts – see the Opara-Boxall tandem? – but Alonso’s position is key.
He (No. 6) is clearly playing in the role of his number. Positionally, Minnesota’s defense is almost a five-man block. Boxall and Opara play deep, then Alonso, Gasper and Metanire make up another line: right side, middle, left side.
Viewing him as more of a defender than a midfielder makes for an interesting approach. Aspects of that style show up in his chalkboard.
Look at Alonso’s defensive contributions and you’ll see why he’s the No. 6 United so desperately needed in the first two MLS seasons.
His passing pattern, however, is what’s especially interesting. There isn’t a ton for a midfielder and the passing tends to be fairly horizontal.
Alonso only attempted nine passes in the attacking third. The chalkboard shows most of those went to the wings and none came particularly close to the penalty area.
Is this what Alonso’s role will look like this season? Is he a part of the defense, a buffer, a midfielder, or some hybrid of the three? He may end up utilized as the defensive version of a No. 10: freed up to make plays as needed on his side of the field.
CM - Jan Gregus
Gregus quite clearly played as the attack-focused central midfielder. This isn’t a surprise in the slightest, but it’s certainly obvious:
There were actually quite a few defensive plays made by Gregus, a good number of them in Portland’s half. This sort of pressure is certainly a welcome addition to United’s system.
Gregus’ most common passing target was actually his midfield partner, Alonso. But he still sent plenty of passes out to the wings, fitting the Loons’ system.
There’s a lot of green in Gregus’ open play passing: he completed 95% of his passes on Sunday. When he’s responsible for more than a fifth of Minnesota’s passes, as he was against the Timbers, that kind of accuracy.
Positionally, Gregus tended to stay true to a right-sided No. 8, with an average location at the top of the center circle. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he wasn’t doing too much passing around the box – most of his service went out wide to other players.
Set pieces have traditionally been a challenge for Minnesota, and that was no different against Portland. Gregus was unable to complete a pass as United’s set-piece taker.
LW - Robin Lod
Lod had a quietly disappointing night on the left wing.
Positionally, he drifted centrally often, ending up with an average location just behind striker Luis Amarilla. He is the type of winger to be plenty comfortable cutting in or playing at the No. 10, but he spent what’s likely a little bit too much time in the interior against the Timbers.
That showed in the lack of production stemming from the left side of the pitch.
Lod consistently fed the ball to Amarilla and Kevin Molino inside, but only registered one cross. Considering a lot of Minnesota’s offense is geared toward getting the ball to the wings, crossing is likely to be a point of emphasis.
That said, Lod generated 0.3 expected goals with his one shot on target. How exactly he’ll produce and fit into United’s offense still remains to be seen.
RW - Ethan Finlay
It’s a bit odd that Finlay, who only had 16 passes, was arguably the Loons’ most effective player in that category, generating two assists and a key pass on Minnesota’s other goal. Nonetheless, he had an efficient night on the right wing.
Finlay’s most common target was Metanire, showing a lot of interplay along that heavily-used right side. His play was also instrumental in kick-starting some of the Loons’ second-half counter-attacks.
Similar to Lod, Finlay wasn’t able to get a ton inside the box, which is something that United will need more out of from its wingers going forward – though Finlay’s Sunday night performance was clearly enough for the game.
CAM - Kevin Molino
What a night it was for Kevin Molino. He notched a brace and was all over the attacking third for the Loons.
There are a noticeable number of missed passes, but that’s mostly to be expected from a No. 10 like Molino – plays tend to be make-or-break.
Aside from his performance, which won him the fan Player of the Week vote and gave him a second-overall finish, there’s one aspect of his first goal that stands out.
As Minnesota’s counter-attack quickly develops, this play is really only about Finlay, who has the ball, and Lod, the leading runner. That’s the connection that develops as a result of the counter.
But Molino follows the play, too. He’s not in position to realistically get the ball from a cross, but he sticks with the run. He even continues his run once Lod receives the ball, which pays off when Miller slides to take if off of him.
Normally, the ‘keeper would probably hold onto the ball. But Molino – either through his onrush or luck – comes up with a loose ball.
These follow-up and secondary runs were key factors in the Loons’ preseason goalscoring, so it’s a good trend to be continuing.
ST - Luis Amarilla
One down, 24 more to go for Amarilla.
The striker had a strong debut for the Loons, grabbing a goal out of the affair. It was a dandy goal, too, not because it was an acrobatic finish or anything of that sort, but because of its simplicity:
Amarilla’s run here off the counter is fantastic. He starts off positioned between the Portland defenders, but immediately slides behind the back shoulder of the far side defender as Finlay starts advancing the ball. For a couple steps, he feints back in, then commits to moving toward the far post.
Apparently, this is a favorite spot of his. Finlay said as much in a postgame TV interview, and the accuracy of his cross seems like evidence that the far post was a target.
Indeed, that side of the field was a popular spot for Amarilla to be throughout the game.
For reference, the average positions again:
Amarilla (No. 9) is definitely shaded to the left side on average. Now, remember that most of Minnesota’s offense was running through the right side of the pitch, so Amarilla’s most consistent position was on the “weak” or opposite side of the field.
Hassani Dotson and Aaron Schoenfeld weren’t in the game for that long and didn’t have enough of a statistical impact to make for solid analysis.
Thoughts on Minnesota United’s season-opening win? What have you noticed about the Loons’ 2020 system? Let us know in the comments section below!