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An Analytical Review of MNUFC’s 2020 Season, To-Date

Examining MNUFC’s first half of 2020 through the prism of tactics and analytics.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Portland Timbers at Minnesota United David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

As Minnesota United transitions to phase 2 of MLS’ continuation of play, they approach the halfway point of a strange 2020 season, having completed 11 of their 23 regular season matches. While this week marks what would’ve been Matchday 32 of the original 2020 schedule (with the easiest strength of schedule in all of MLS), the halfway point of a revised 2020 season is a good opportunity to dive into the numbers and understand MNUFC’s tactical tendencies so far this year.

In 2019, MNUFC looked to improve the defense by making 5 key acquisitions, all of which were in defense or midfield: Vito Mannone (GK), Romain Métanire (RB), Ike Opara (CB), Ján Greguš (CM), and Ozzie Alonso (CM). This approach was undoubtedly successful, reducing goals conceded from 70 in 2017 and 71 in 2018, to 43 in 2019. Conversely, MNUFC has only seen modest improvements in attack since their inaugural year, increasing goals scored from 47 in 2017 and 49 in 2018, to 52 in 2019.

Heading into 2020, the Loons predictably focused on the attack. They brought in Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla, the top scorer in the Ecuadorian Serie A in 2019, and then secured a club-record transfer for Argentinian playmaker Emanuel ‘Bebelo’ Reynoso from Boca Juniors to play underneath Amarilla. The emphasis on the attack was made with the departure of Ángelo Rodríguez and Darwin Quintero, who individually were both in the bottom 10 of MLS in G-xG (out of 646 players), epitomizing the finishing struggles of 2019. With only 63% of MNUFC’s minutes returning in 2020 (which ranked 20th in MLS), they expect these two additions, along with 2019 secondary transfer window acquisitions Robin Lod and Thomás Chacón, to revamp an attack that only managed 11 goals over the final 11 games of the 2019 season.

To maintain their defensive structure, the Loons kept the backline and midfield pairing that was responsible for holding opponents to 10 goals over the final 11 games of the 2019 season. This cohesion in Heath’s system, who used a 4-2-3-1 formation on 23 occasions in 2019, has shown to stick with the 4-2-3-1 with similar frequency in 2020 regular season play.

NOTE: Heath did use a 4-3-3 in all three knockout stage games at the MLS Is Back Tournament, largely due to a hamstring injury that Molino suffered prior to the arrival of Reynoso.

2020 Formations

Formation Times Used PPG GD
Formation Times Used PPG GD
4-2-3-1 7 2.29 9
4-3-3 3 0.33 -4
5-4-1 / 4-3-3 1 0 -1

While a 4-month long suspension of play preceding a congested schedule has led to an increase in injuries, the Loons still find themselves in 3rd place in the Western Conference table. If the Loons can get healthy prior to the post-season, Heath’s starting XI could realistically resemble the lineup below, shown in the preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

2020 MNUFC In A 4-2-3-1 Formation

This 2020 version of MNUFC has seen a slight uptick in possession, increasing from an average of 46.3% in 2019 to 47.5% in 2020. This negligible increase indicates a similar approach to the 2019 season, one that prioritizes defensive structure, absorbing pressure, and looking to attack into space on the break.

A more noticeable change from 2019 has been the point of attack for the Loons. In 2019, MNUFC favored attacking the right side of the field over the left side by 12%, the most unbalanced attack in all of MLS. In 2020, the Loons continue to favor attacking the right side of the field, but have reduced the disparity over the left side to 5% in 2020. This is attributable to the continued emergence of Chase Gasper and his familiarity with Lod on the left, as well as the recent revelation of Lod on the right wing which has seen Molino move to the left with the addition of Reynoso centrally.

2019 Attacking Sides (left) vs. 2020 Attacking Sides (right)
https://www.whoscored.com/Teams/9293/Statistics/USA-Minnesota-United

The addition of Reynoso will likely see the ball navigate centrally despite where the attack originates, not only due to the Argentinian’s talent alone, but also how the wingers have operated upon his arrival. Prior to Reynoso arriving in Minnesota, Molino lined up as the central attacking midfielder, surrounded by left-footed Lod on the left and right-footed Finlay on the right. Now with Reynoso plugged in as the central attacking midfielder, he has recently been surrounded by right-footed Molino on the left and left-footed Lod on the right.

Setting up the attack with two inverted wingers has been a revelation for the Loons attack over the past few games. This setup urges the wingers to drift inside the half-spaces and channels, closer to Reynoso as the central attacking midfielder, rather than stay near the touchline to send in crosses on their preferred foot. This has allowed a few things: occupy more vertical channels, allow the fullbacks to overlap the wingers into space more easily, and most importantly, provide combination options for Reynoso in the middle of the field. For more information on the benefits of inverted wingers, a detailed summary can be found at Total Football Analysis.

The difference in how Heath has employed his wingers is shown below. The average position of both wingers are much narrower in the 4-0 win vs. Real Salt Lake when compared to their average position in the 5-2 win vs. San Jose back in March.

Average Position vs. RSL (left) and Average Position vs. SJ (right)
mlssoccer.com

How Minnesota advances the ball into these attacking positions can generally be described as direct. The Loons rank 7th in touches in the attacking third, while ranking 12th and 14th throughout MLS in touches in the defensive and midfield third, respectively. This high percentage of overall touches in the attacking third supports the idea that MNUFC encourages quickly progressing the ball towards goal.

2020 MNUFC Touches in DEF, MID, and ATT (left to right)
https://fbref.com/en/comps/22/Major-League-Soccer-Stats

The Loon who sees most of these touches is Ján Greguš, ranking T-8th throughout MLS in overall touches, while leading the league in touches in the midfield third. As MNUFC’s box-to-box midfielder, he is the most responsible for progressing the ball from defense to the attack.

Another Loon who bears this responsibility is Romain Métanire, who ranks T-7th throughout MLS with 90 progressive passes, just ahead of Greguš in 11th with 81. Loons fans have become familiar with seeing Métanire receiving a pass in-stride from Greguš on the right side, which is why Greguš also ranks T-4th throughout MLS with 64 completed passes into the final third. Many of these passes are directed towards the MNUFC right back, who, as a defender, ranks T-5th in MLS with 20 completed passes into the penalty area. This is a high-volume pattern of progression that we have seen consistently since 2019, exhibited by Molino’s game-winner vs. a 10-man Sporting Kansas City at the MLS Is Back Tournament.

When MNUFC gets the ball into the opponent’s defensive third, they are equally reliant on crosses as they were in 2019. The Loons rank 10th in MLS with 19 crosses/game, in comparison to 4th in MLS with 19 crosses/game in 2019. Over half of these crosses come from Greguš and Métanire, who both are top-15 across MLS with 63 and 51 total crosses, respectively.

While MNUFC’s offense has looked dynamic and dangerous at times, there is an argument that their goal output has either been lucky or simply attributable to excellent finishing. The Loons rank 2nd throughout MLS in G-xG at +4.1, meaning through 11 games, they have scored approximately 4 more goals than what StatsBomb’s xG model would suggest. The majority of this comes from Kevin Molino and Ike Opara, who individually rank 6th and T-11th with a G-xG of +2.4 and +1.8, respectively.

While Opara’s impressive G-xG came off a dominant set-piece performance against San Jose back in March, MNUFC’s red-hot start on set pieces has cooled off in recent weeks. So far in MLS regular season play, they have scored 5 goals from set pieces (two corner kicks, a free kick, a penalty kick, a penalty kick rebound) in addition to 5 goals on the counter attack, with both sources accounting for nearly half of their goal output so far this season.

Defensively, the Loons rank 9th in MLS with an GA-xGA of -2.0, meaning they have conceded 2 less goals than what StatsBomb’s xG model would suggest. With that said, the Loons defense has also leaked goals at a slightly higher rate this year, conceding 1.5 goals/game compared to 1.3 goals/game in 2019. The difference is about 1 goal conceded every 4 games, which is not all that surprising considering the extended injury absence of 2017 and 2019 Defender of the Year, Ike Opara, and a season-ending injury to starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller.

The Loons approach to defense has changed slightly from 2019, with the numbers showing a more active defense with an increased willingness to apply defensive pressure.

Successful Pressures (successfully gaining possession within 5 seconds of applying pressure)

  • 2019: 10th in MLS (41 successful pressures per game)
  • 2020: 4th in MLS (47 successful pressures per game)

Tackles Won

  • 2019: 5th in MLS (12 tackles won per game)
  • 2020: 3rd in MLS (14 tackles won per game)

Interceptions

  • 2019: 1st in MLS (13 interceptions per game)
  • 2020: 1st in MLS (15 interceptions per game)

The location of these defensive pressures and actions, which shows a high percentage of defensive actions in the defensive and midfield third (think mid-low defensive block), has largely remained the same from 2019 through the halfway point of 2020.

Location of Defensive Actions

Location 2019 Tackles per Game 2020 Tackles per Game 2019 Pressures per Game 2020 Pressures per Game
Location 2019 Tackles per Game 2020 Tackles per Game 2019 Pressures per Game 2020 Pressures per Game
DEF Third 10.2 10.3 61.6 57.7
MID Third 6 7.6 67.2 68.2
ATT Third 2.4 2.1 30.4 29.5
https://fbref.com/en/comps/22/Major-League-Soccer-Stats

Behind the defense, the Loons goalkeeping department has seen a drop-off in performance so far in 2020. It has been a volatile position that has seen 23-year-old Dayne St. Clair starting in the wake of a season-ending injury to Tyler Miller and subsequent injury to Greg Ranjitsingh, which had also led to 16-year-old Fred Emmings making a few appearances on the bench.

This 2020 goalkeeping group has seen a decrease in both save percentage and post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed (PSxG – GA). The PSxG – GA is perhaps the most frequently used stat 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. The table below compares save percentage and PSxG – GA for the Loons goalkeeping group in 2019 and so far in 2020.

2019 vs. 2020 Goalkeeping

Year Save % PSxG-xGA
Year Save % PSxG-xGA
2019 75.70% 1.9
2020 69.40% -1.4
https://fbref.com/en/comps/22/Major-League-Soccer-Stats

While MNUFC’s shot-stopping ability has decreased so far in 2020, distribution from the goalkeeping position has remained consistent from 2019, at least with Tyler Miller in the net. Since Miller’s season-ending surgery, the Loons have seen variation in goalkeeping 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 saw an increase in passing percentage with Ranjitsingh, perhaps due to shorter passing distances, followed by a significant drop-off with St. Clair in net.

MNUFC Goalkeeping Distribution

Player Season Minutes Passes Pass % xPass % Distance
Player Season Minutes Passes Pass % xPass % Distance
Tyler Miller 2020 500 146 64% 63% 46.8
Greg Ranjitsingh 2020 297 95 75% 76% 34.1
Dayne St. Clair 2020 290 96 47% 54% 46.5
Vito Mannone 2019 3357 1075 63% 63% 43.5
https://app.americansocceranalysis.com/mls/

So will the Loons find comfort and stability with Dayne St. Clair at the goalkeeping position in 2020? Will the attack continue to out-perform their goal production metrics with the addition of Reynoso, or will recent injuries lead the Loons to search the transfer market for another #9? We will check back in at the end of the 2020 campaign to see what has changed with MNUFC’s roster and tactical tendencies.

NOTE: All statistics and data are provided by StatsBomb, via fbref.com, unless otherwise cited or noted.

C’mon You Loons!