Although not the smash & grab of their 2019 visit to the Banc of California, Minnesota United will certainly feel good walking away with a mid-week point against LAFC. A sloppy-fun game between two evenly matched teams both in desperate need of a striker, the tie was not unfair even as it came by way of Hassani Dotson’s last gasp banger. As part of a tight stretch of games for both teams, the tie was especially indecisive, changing neither the standings nor the sense of potential for either team. So what did we learn on the night?
- Minnesota head coach Adrian Heath got it right. Not, at the moment, the most exciting option for this team, the 4-3-3 was an easy conservative choice as Dotson, Jacori Hayes, and Wil Trapp showed again that they should be the preferred midfield unit. Against an LAFC side that likes, with Eduard Atuesta, Latif Blessing, and now José Cifuentes, to press high and move quickly into attack Dotson, Hayes, and Trapp were able to maintain a measure of composure for Minnesota in the middle of the field, staying well organized in their pressing and defensive duties, closing space well as a unit and finding the safe and quick outlet in possession. And with Trapp as a single defensive midfielder, Dotson and Hayes were again allowed to roam freer and higher up the pitch. Even as LAFC’s front five were able, at times, to find the gaps in-between, they were never able to generate much momentum moving forward or pose a consistent threat. When LAFC did find those spaces the danger arose, as it has all season, largely from individual mistakes and a failure to close on defense. If the formation and most of the XI was an easy choice, Heath’s decisions up front were a bit harder to understand. Heath has often argued that the players pick the team, which is why it was quite surprising for Ethan Finlay to get the start. Niko Hansen has certainly done enough, it would seem, to have earned the starting spot on the right whenever Robin Lod is either unavailable or playing elsewhere. Finlay was not bad on the night, but he also didn’t add anything exceptional. We are left to wonder, in a bit of speculative armchair dreaming, what the younger legs of an in-form and in-rhythm Hansen would have added to the otherwise conservative 4-3-3.
- If Heath got it mostly right to start the game it seemed that LAFC head coach Bob Bradley hadn’t quite figure out how to replace the injured Eddie Segura. The 5/3 defensive formation for LAFC seemed incredibly confused in the first half. Bradley, as should be expected, was able to make the halftime adjustment, bringing in ex-Loon Raheem Edwards for Jesús Murillo and reconfiguring the back line in the process. But in that first half, when LAFC’s defense looked so vulnerable, it was hard not to think of Ramón Ábila, Adrien Hunou, and Mason Toye. After the match Heath was feeling something similar. “Even from the first half,” Heath said post-game, “I thought on the counter-attack, when we broke play up, we were one pass, one quality ball away from having good opportunities.” Minnesota was missing, in other words, the simplicity and directness of a goal-scoring forward, someone who, with one run, one touch, one opportunity can change a game. If Toye and Ábila are well-known types of Loons, the undeveloped and over-evaluated, we can only hope that Hunou is as well, maybe what we can call a Lodian type: a player who comes in with talent but takes some time to find their place on this team. And so in another bit of speculative armchair dreaming one wonders what this 4-3-3 would look like with the simple directness of a Toye or an in-form Hunou, or even a healthy Franco Fragapane.
- If Bradley was able to make the necessary adjustments, Heath’s substitutions in the second half again made little sense. Earlier in the season Heath suggested a kind of coaching philosophy: “Sometimes you can change it for changing sake. I know you American people have a fascination with substitutes. But, when things are going well I don’t think sometimes you should change it and disrupt the rhythm. Sometimes you do it for tactical reasons. Sometimes you do it to change the way the game is going. But, when you’re in the ascendancy... I didn’t see the point of making any changes.” After Wednesday’s game he offered this by way of explanation for his in-game decisions: “Robin has had a really bad swollen leg since the weekend and [Reynoso] has had a little problem as well. We didn’t want to get them in that situation where they were so fatigued that something serious might happen. It was precaution as much as anything. Juan [Agudelo] has been training really, really hard. Obviously, we pushed Hassani out because he can play out there. We tried to block the middle of the field and in the end we had Ján [Greguš] in there, we had Ozzie [Alonso] in there, we had Hassani in there. We had a lot of bodies in there at the end with Wil Trapp of course.” In theory this makes a good deal of sense. Except for two things. First, bringing on Greguš for Hayes is a quite direct like-for-like substitution without any reason, or at least any obvious reason. Maybe Heath saw something that we didn’t and yes, Greguš did get the assist on Dotson’s goal. But that assist was very hopeful and other than that it was hard to tell exactly how Greguš was changing the game in ways Hayes wouldn’t have. And second, we know because it has happened before that that Minnesota formation does not lock down games, for exactly the reason that Heath gave at the end of his explanation: “We tried to block the middle of the field and in the end we had Ján in there, we had Ozzie in there, we had Hassani in there. We had a lot of bodies in there at the end with Wil Trapp of course.” Filling a space with bodies without any organization is not a defensive strategy. It is simply the creation of chaos and opening the door to conceding. As they did and have done.