Having only mustered one point against them in eight previous tries, Minnesota United will be pleased with Sunday’s win over the league leading Seattle Sounders. Three points is also a great start to a tough run of games, with Portland coming to town next weekend followed by a quick turn-around for a mid-week visit to LAFC. “Overall,” head coach Adrian Heath said after the game, “it’s a big win for us and it sets us up nicely for next week.” It is also well past that point in the season when teams can recover from dropped points at home. So, a good win.
Yet it was not, for all of that, a convincing win. A 1-0 final scoreline with four shots on goal and only three starters with better than 80% passing success against a team that looked, for long stretches of the game, to be quite content with a 0-0 tie and came to town with a bench full of teenagers, two goalkeepers, and a twenty-two year old USL player does not evince excellence. But a win is a win is a win. So what can we take away from the game?
- In his fifth season in charge of MNUFC Heath collected his 50th regular-season win with the team. But that was not the only big news of the day. On Sunday afternoon Atlanta United announced the firing of their third head coach, Gabriel Heinze. It seems that the full story of his tenure with Atlanta has not yet been told and that it will be bad. But the timing of the firing - MNUFC reaches 50 wins under one coach as Atlanta fires its third coach who together have led the team to 62 wins - has called for comparisons between these two four year olds. As Andy Greder pointed out, the trajectories of the two teams have in many ways mirrored each other. While Atlanta, under their first head coach, Tata Martino, were an exceptional expansion team, winning the MLS Cup in their second season, Minnesota struggled with their promotion under Heath. But in 2019 and 2020, as Atlanta began going through coaches as quickly as Minnesota goes through players, the team’s fortunes flipped. Minnesota nows seems ascendent, even as they have struggled to find their form this year, while Atlanta appears to be in chaos. There is obviously much to be learned from these comparisons, but it might also be helpful to remember that we also learned this week that MNUFC CEO Chris Wright will be stepping down at the end of the season. By all outward appearances Wright has been very good at what he was hired to do: to shape and manage the structure of the club in its first few years. The highlight, of course, is Allianz Field which is, by all accounts, best in the league. The team is also solidly a part of the sporting conversation in Minnesota. And the first team and the club have the facilities to be a top-level organization. Wright has guided MNUFC through its expansion from NASL team that nobody wanted to MLS contender, putting in place the physical and material infrastructure for long-term success. Atlanta, of course, came into the league with a much bigger splash. As an expansion team they were instantly relevant with a beautiful stadium, a great team, and a style and swagger that electrified the league. But what we are learning now is that much of that style and swagger resided in one person, head coach Tata Martino. And when he left, that style and swagger left with him. The team continued to win, they still fielded an amazing roster, but they lost their identity, their style, their swagger. Martino held the identity of the team. If Atlanta’s identity had come from the club, had resided in the club itself, they never would have hired Frank de Boer to replace Martino. Regardless of how successful de Boer could have been, he was always, with his very particular form of Reformed Dutch pragmatism, going to be the anti-Martino. He was a beginning of unravelling and chaos. Similarly, for all their talk of being ‘united,’ MNUFC was unable or uninterested in organizing the club as a whole around an identity drawn from its history. Its identity and style has always resided in the stands, with the Dark Clouds and all the supporter’s groups making the team what it is. The club now has a chance to correct that, to bring in a CEO who can give the supporters a club to support. That will require organizing the sporting side of the house around a clear vision for the first team so that signings match tactics and need ending the constant cycling of players while putting in place a developmental structure that closes the Caden & Yueill sized holes in the player pipeline. More importantly, the new CEO will have to commit the club to its community. From the moment of its promotion MNUFC was able to step into an empty space at the center of support that had been created by a long history of soccer in the state. For two years the team was able to sell tickets to a half-empty college football stadium where some quite awful soccer was being played because the support already existed. The club never had to figure out how it wanted to exist in this community because the space was already there for it. It’s time the club found out how it wants to be a part of this community, and what exactly this community is for it.
- There was a moment, at the seven minute mark of the game, where Franco Fragapane was not pleased with Chase Gasper. Fragapane had picked up the ball about ten yards off the sideline just inside Minnesota’s half and Gasper didn’t make the run, opting instead to stay back. This pause allowed the Seattle defense to get organized in space and pick up their assignments leaving Fragapane with nowhere to go. Gasper did not make that mistake again. Although it’s not entirely clear why the Loons’ front four has not yet clicked, at a minimum a 4-2-3-1 with two inverted wingers needs defensive backs willing to work with consistency and confidence to provide width and depth, and for them to be in rhythm with the forward four. Gasper has never lacked in consistent effort and after a really bad start to the season is starting to regain his confidence. DJ Taylor, who has been a revelation filling in for Romain Métanire, likewise has not lacked effort and is every game gaining confidence even as he is, as would be expected, more cautious and conservative than a more seasoned player would be. Neither, though, has been able to find the rhythm. When they enter the attack it is like they are doing so for the first time. This is part of the reason why Niko Hansen has been so good on the right side. Rather than trying to find the rhythm of the other three he creates, with his effort playing wide and deep from a higher beginning, the space for the others to play into. His direct play also allows Taylor to remain a bit more conservative watching the game develop in front of him. On the edge of the field Hansen can set his own rhythm, allowing the others to play into it. With Métanire’s return from France it is hard to know what will become of Hansen: will he become redundant, like Ethan Finley before him who played a very similar role, or will the team find a way to take advantage of what he offers?
- The Robin Lod led breakaway was, in many ways, how this front four is working at the moment. Not an obvious goal-scoring opportunity - Seattle was well organized in getting back and picking up their assignments, dictating the space that Lod could work in - the front four got it all wrong. After being picked up early Adrien Hunou simply ran himself out of the play while Fragapane and Emanuel Reynoso made their runs to the same spot. Lod, leading the attack, took only what he was given trying to react rather than dictate the opportunity, eventually stumbling into nothing. It seemed, again, like the four had never played together before. No one knew who was in charge and where the others were going. The team has placed a lot of emphasis on Hunou’s fitness and lack of playing time before he arrived, Lod’s fitness and Euro’s absence, and Reynoso’s injuries and the chippy defensive treatment he receives. All of which may be true. But it’s getting hard to be satisfied with those explanations for that kind of play.