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Loon Dive: Minnesota United’s draw against Real Salt Lake raises questions on wingers, possession and more

The Loons’ attack has stalled, but the defense is in great shape.

SOCCER: JUL 17 MLS - Real Salt Lake v Minnesota United FC Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is good soccer, and there is bad soccer.

There are games that seem so wild, so bonkers, that they could only have been played on a field surrounded by giant green screens in a pandemic-prompted bubble in the late hours of a humid Florida summer night.

And then there are 0-0 draws between the two probable best teams of a group.

We’ve seen a lot of the first category during the MLS is Back Tournament, but we got our karmic dose of the latter on Friday night.

Minnesota United and Real Salt Lake both succeeded in keeping their opponent from scoring, which is an indicator of how the game felt.

I have a large degree of freedom in what I do with these postgame analytical columns I write. Sometimes I dive into really specific bits of United’s system, but I want to go broad here.

And the two games we’ve seen of 2020 Minnesota United 2.0 have raised a lot of questions in my mind.

I’m exercising my ability to write what I want to provide very few answers in this column — rather, I’m asking what questions have popped into my mind while watching these games. (I’ll answer some in another story sometime, I promise.)

Where are the wingers?

Robin Lod’s stock as a Loon has never been lower, and for good reason.

His touches are often sloppy, his positioning leaves something to be desired, and that vague quality of creativity just seems to be absent at times. I actually thought Lod had his moments against RSL.

He hit the woodwork, which counts for nothing but feels like something. He also played three different positions in attacking midfield.

Lod spent the first half in his typical inverted left winger spot. Once Tomas Chacon entered the game, Lod shifted to the central No. 10 position. And from the 65th minute until he left the game in the 81st, Lod played on the right wing.

See if you can tell where he was more effective:

It’s kind of a trick problem — Lod really wasn’t more effective on the right. But it’s getting more difficult to justify him starting on the left wing, at least.

An arguably more disappointing performance came from Ethan Finlay, who spent 65 minutes not doing much on the right wing. He was more invisible than Lod, but escapes criticism because he’s established and better than he’s played in these last two games.

We know that Minnesota is a team better-suited to counter-attack. We also know that, at least in March, the Loons were a good crossing side.

If that strategy is going to work, United needs more from its wingers. Or, as Friday night showed, at least something.

What can Minnesota United do with possession?

Another point on this counter-attacking thing: Minnesota looks middle school-dance awkward in possession. The Loons are good when they’re decisive and direct — they were the most direct team in MLS in March.

I haven’t come to a firm conclusion on what Sporting Kansas City and RSL did to limit Minnesota’s counter, but I have an idea: they forced the Loons to possess the ball for prolonged amounts of time.

That doesn’t really sound like a strategy. Getting possession is good, right?

The answer is not necessarily, because teams like Minnesota thrive off of not having the ball. Think about it: United plays a very solid 4-4-2 defensive block with limited front-line pressure. That’s designed to coax opponents into sending numbers forward and over-committing, which then allows the Loons to quickly use vertical passes and numerical advantages to cut through the opposition in transition.

When Minnesota has the ball out of transition — in the run of normal play — they stall. I’ve seen MLS analysts describe them as “not having ideas” in possession, which is a good way to put it. (That’s something I’ll focus on in a future article because it’s a bigger point than what I’m making here.)

So how does a team stop Minnesota on the counter and force the Loons to possess? They take away the first pass.

Think about it: United’s first pass up the field will usually clear a significant portion of the opposition’s defense, ideally their fullbacks. Once that first pass is completed, the counter is off and running because one ball can bypass a lot of too-high-up-the-field players.

By stopping that first pass, opponents buy some much needed time to assemble into their own defensive block and force Minnesota to build a full possession out of the back.

SKC did this by counter-marking — essentially man-marking for a brief amount of time immediately after losing possession — which I pointed out but didn’t think much of after that game.

That could also be part of why the Loons’ wingers have been so quiet: they’re a focus for the opposition.

The battle for giving the other team possession will be particularly interesting to watch when Minnesota faces the Colorado Rapids, who also prefer to counter.

How do you beat this? That’s something I’ll look at later this week with the aforementioned piece on United in possession.

How good is Minnesota United’s depth?

I’m inclined to think the short answer is “pretty darn good.”

Without diving too much into any one player’s performance, there have been some good ones from players who wouldn’t be in the expected first 11.

Jose Aja has filled in for Ike Opara admirably. I haven’t seen a reason to focus on him for much of anything, which is very much a good sign.

Aaron Schoenfeld has been great up top. He’s not just a target man — he gets involved all over and has some tremendous hold-up play.

Raheem Edwards is making a verrrrrry legitimate case to be the starter on the left wing. As an impact sub, he’s bringing energy whenever he enters.

Hassani Dotson also brings a lot of energy. He did well in the SKC game and had a very different, No. 8-type role against RSL. He’s already displayed his versatility, but don’t forget about it.

Thomas Chacon brought a lot of energy in his 45-minute cameo, but not much else. Don’t let a lot of running mask a raw performance. That said, what else should be expected from him? That’s a genuine question. It’s not clear what level he’s really at as a player.

All of this talk of depth is really setting the stage for the real question: How will Adrian Heath use it?

He pulled Kevin Molino at halftime of the RSL game, which I think is a conservation-minded move. Decisions like that will be key over the course of the tournament.

Other questions for Minnesota United that aren’t as important and therefore don’t get explanation:

  • How many starter-level strikers do the Loons have? Should a two-striker set-up be on the table?
  • Just how great is Kevin Molino?
  • Just how great of a defensive team is Minnesota United?
  • Why is a 3-4-3 still a really good option that Adrian Heath should really consider because it really would work for his team and really enhance some of the Loons’ strengths while eliminating some of its flaws?