In a quirk of MLS scheduling Minnesota United have a bit of a Spring Break. After three games in a week the Loons now enter a stretch with one game in four weeks, traveling to Salt Lake on May 29th after a bye week before a few more weeks off for the FIFA international window. And as much as we’d all like to celebrate this break, basking about in the glory of two clean-sheet victories, this will be a working holiday.
We all know the story lines by now. 0-4 the worst start for MNUFC. Since 2000 only six teams making the playoffs after starting 0-3, and only two after starting 0-4, with both of those in 2020, a doubled season with expanded playoffs. 105 shots, 21 on goal, 5 scored. Sitting 11th in the West, 20th overall, with a -5 goal differential and 1 point per game. There is still most of a season to play, and the crux of MLS always comes in the heat of a late summer afternoon, but it is hard not to follow these early storylines.
Yet as we have been reminded again and again and again and again and again... the roster is not yet fully formed. After six games. Which is totally to plan and not a problem at all. As coach Adrian Heath argued recently, “At the end of the day, it’d be very harsh to look at this overall group when it’s not complete. When we have the right people in the right spots, then we’ll have a look. But that has to come sooner rather than later because we can’t keep on losing. I’m aware of that. I’ve been in this game a long time, and I know how it works.”
But the team now is close and should be ready by the June 19th return to play in Dallas. Franco Fragapane and Adrien Hunou are waiting on some final paperwork. And Hunou is, according to his Insta, on a plane now
Bakaye Dibassy is finally fully healthy. Ramón Ábila is close to being game fit. And after the break a whole host of knocks and nicks and tired legs should be rested. Although that is just a weird American desire of those of us who have not been in this game a long time.
As we reset the season, then, and before getting to a time when we can really judge what the 2021 Loons will be, here are three things, spring break edition.
- Games, of course, are to be played and the play so far has been bad more than it has been good. But this is still a team that on paper and in theory should make the playoffs and contend for a top spot in the Western Conference. The two big gaps from the off-season - the loss of Kevin Molino and the lack of a true goal scorer - will soon be addressed with the arrival of Fragapane and Hunou and the full fitness of Ábila. The quality of Emanuel Reynoso seems to be sustainable, and, with a few weeks to rest, he should again be a top of the class number 10. Ozzie Alsono still has a little something in his legs and a whole lot in his heart and head, while Hassani Dotson, Ján Greguš, Jacori Hayes, and Wil Trapp seem up for fighting for minutes. Chase Gasper and Romain Métanire will find their form, Michael Boxall and Jukka Raitala will learn to play together, and Dibassy will earn his way into the starting XI. And in goal the Loons can choose from two MLS starter quality keepers in Tyler Miller and Dayne St. Clair. Add to all of this a bench filled with young talent and veteran consistency, and this should be a quality team.
- And yet… it’s not. At least not yet. It is a team that has more questions than quality. Is a fully fit Ábila still a 90 minute forward? And if he is, is he the best option for this team? Heath has always been attracted to a certain type - an Ábila/Angelo type - of forward even as some of the Loons best non-counter attacking offensive play has come with Robin Lod as a false 9. Will the reality of Fragapane and Hunou be as good as the promise? Is there a non-redundant configuration of Dotson, Greguš, Hayes, and Trapp that is creative going forward but doesn’t expose the defensive line? Will Gasper and Metanire return to form as Boxall and Dibassy or Raitala find a way to play together? And can a mid-tier team really keep two starter-quality keepers? And what of the kids and that bench? What is the point of a bench if it is never used? But the biggest question is what it has always been: how do these players make a team? In the 2019 front office reorganization Heath was given control of the first team, a move that should have brought a certain continuity to roster construction and team style and identity. Yet if this is Heath’s team, it is hard to see what exactly that means and it’s not entirely clear how this roster, in its final form, will actually be a team.
- Where is the joy? Certainly, an 0-4 start will bring out the struggle and frustration in all of us. But there is also something more than that, something more that is weighing heavy in these early games. Maybe it is the futility of Métanire continually crossing into a box left empty by roster decisions. Maybe it is the single attacking option which allows a stifling physicality to be applied to Reynoso. Maybe it is the individual mistakes. Maybe it is that this team has become too easy to game-plan against. And maybe it is the weight of all of this happening again. And again. And again. In a repetition that makes joy and creativity impossible to find. And maybe what we all need from this spring break is just a little Ibsanity.