1. “There’s nothing worse than having to rely on other teams,” Wil Trapp shared after the team’s loss to Vancouver. “Thankfully for us,” he continued, “we still control our destiny in the sense that we got two huge games and we have to win.” After a weekend when no-one in the West wanted to take control of their season, mid-week, everyone did. Portland won, Vancouver won, Salt Lake won, LAFC won. Everyone, that is, except Minnesota United, who have now dropped to 8th place, out of the playoffs. Technically, of course, Trapp was right, as was Adrian Heath in his post-game argument: “I think it’s going to go all the way to the wire and, tonight, wouldn’t really change anything for me on that point.” Decision day will probably be decision day for both Minnesota and LA Galaxy. But if goals change games then wins change seasons, and at some point the Loons will need to find something to get a win, to make themselves a playoff team, a something they have been missing all season. Now, at this point, the horrible start is in the past, the injuries have been overcome, there has been plenty of time to acclimate to a new league. Win and the season can be salvaged. Lose and it seems it will be time for other decisions at the club.
2. A bit of a fuss is being made about an old Bruce Arena quote. As the inevitability of Arena’s resurrection of the New England Revolution was becoming real and the team was moving closer to clinching the Supporters’ Shield in historical fashion, Sam Stejskal brought out an old article in which Arena argues that “This whole Supporters’ Shield concept with an unbalanced schedule, to me, is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen in my life.” Steven Bichler and Ashle Norling have begun the conversation on trophies here already, so let me just add this. Without knowing Arena’s intent, his wording seems right: with an imbalanced schedule the Supporters’ Shield is relatively meaningless as it doesn’t actually measure what it is trying to reward. But, with that being said, imagining all other things being equal even as they are far from it, a valued ranking of trophies available to MLS clubs would be: 1) Supporters’ Shield, 2) US Open Cup/Canadian Championship, 3) CONCACAF Champions League, 4) League’s Cup, 5) MLS Cup. And the argument would briefly be: post-season play-offs are either simple money grabs or attempts to make up a competitive limit to a regular season; for example, making up for the regionalism and historical divisions of MLB, or the short season and need for physical rest in the NFL, or the barriers to participation from the cost of travel in any lower division league. Or the imbalanced schedule of MLS, an imbalance that has been exacerbated by COVID but is a result of the league’s desire to capture the revenue of a national television audience combined with its fear of pro/rel. And while a short tournament or play-off is a measure and so also a valuing of a team, a season is a measure of and valuing of a club. It is a measure of a technical staff’s ability to make tactical and roster decisions to be consistently good, to train players into health and coach them into a team, and to keep them motivated; of a front office’s ability to build a deep and coherent roster through scouting, trades, and youth development; of the reciprocal community support required to sustain a club through a season. And since a facsimile of most of those things can be bought, in leagues that do not regulate parity the season often becomes a measure of a club’s wealth rather than its skill. A play-off or short tournament is, on the other hand, a measure of a team’s ability to win. The ability, on any given night and with no need for the discipline that allows for sustainability, to simply win. To value the Supporters’ Shield is, then, to value the club and the community over the team and it’s nightly results. The ranking of trophies is then, in order: a measure of MLS clubs, a long tournament that is a measure of national soccer with a bit of anarchic openness and the kind of hope and possibility any good competition creates, a long tournament that is a measure of regional soccer, a secondary measure of regional soccer, and a secondary measure of MLS teams.
3. In other post-game comments Heath described his team’s performance as comfortable: “I just thought we were comfortable most of the evening. If you look at the game in general, we probably dominated most of the possession. Probably didn’t create enough with it in the final third... I just don’t think we were quite at it the way we were, or the way we have been the last few weeks.” Which as a description, seems about right. Although not as dominant as against LAFC, Minnesota did win most of the statistical game.
But, Adrien Hunou’s nutmeg to a kiss off the post chance aside, they never looked that threatening, and even with that chance they never played with much passion. Which is really surprising given the circumstances: Three Games To Go!!! Every Game Is A Final!!!! Playoffs On The Line!!! With a chance to take control of their season they didn’t, and didn’t do much else. Which, of course, might be exhaustion. These players have rarely, with any sort of obvious reason, been rotated. But it didn’t look like physical exhaustion. Rather, the defensive errors on the night, the ones that led to the goals and others that didn’t lead to goals, certainly looked like mental exhaustion. But more fundamentally, the team seemed to have nothing else to give. A problem they have had, off and on, all season. In the past Heath has worked hard to create a narrative of this team as the disrespected underdog, motivating everyone to play with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. It was, of course, laughably wrong as a factual narrative of the team, and who knows how it was received in the locker room, but it worked. This season, given the benefit of expectation, they failed to find or be given the motivation to play into that quality. That, it seems, is what the team is now playing for.