- Raising a chant of “We like Ike” in the third minute of the game the Wonderwall offered a moment of recognition that the club failed to provide on game night. Not quite a Sam Cronin level goodbye, the limited acknowledgement of the end of Ike Opara’s tenure with the team would have been disappointing if not so in character for the club. One of the greatest defenders in MLS history whose play in 2019 helped bring Minnesota United to a level of respectability it was sorely lacking, Opara deserved more than a tweet, a press release, and a quiet shuffling out the door. Yet since making the move to MLS, MNUFC has often felt a bit transient, with players continually cycling through the system while the team, the technical staff, both sides of the front office, and the supporters never quite felt grounded, as one. Part of that dissonance, that feeling of continual dislocation, comes from a roster management that has been, at best, baffling. And so it is fitting that a week after it was unceremoniously announced that Opara had been bought out it has been reported that Ramón Ábila will be waived. The million dollar forward, acquired on loan from Boca Juniors, made ten appearances for the Loons, once in the starting XI, netting two goals. Similar to the continual attribution of Robin Lod’s first season difficulties to his transition to MLS, Ábila’s failure to find a place on the team has often been attributed to a lack of fitness, an attempt, it seems, to place the blame for his shortcomings on his own professionalism, or lack thereof, displacing any of the team’s responsibility, in his case for it just being a bad signing. Even as his fitness should have been known before any deal was made, it is still hard to imagine where an in form Ábila would have fit in this team. In this sense, one of the most pressing tasks for the soon to be announced new CEO will be to help this club find an identity, one that not only respects the club’s history and is responsible to its community, but can also give them a singular purpose through which to manage its team.
- Tyler Miller was, again, amazing in goal. Conceding well under a goal a game and boasting a top five in the league save percentage of 76.1% with six clean sheets on the season he is, by every defensive measure, one of the top keepers in MLS. And although there ought to be worry and a feeling of irresponsibility as the club is not doing enough to develop Dayne St. Clair, Miller has clearly earned the number one spot. But as we have seen all season, the distribution remains a work in progress, with a passing percentage at 57.5% and long passing at a mere 31.7%. Against some quite zealous praise, it is, at the moment, his distribution keeping him from being an elite all-star caliber keeper.
- After missing the end of the 2019 and the opening of the 2020 seasons serving a PED suspension and then spending a long stretch of 2020 on loan, it seemed that, by the beginning of this season, the game had passed Brent Kallman by. He was, in pace and touch and vision, a half-step behind. Yet with head coach Adrian Heath losing faith in Jukka Raitala during Bakaye Dibassy’s absence, a lack of faith that now continues into Michael Boxall’s extended injured spell, Kallman has stepped up, becoming an exemplary Heath-type Loon: mostly hitting his mark when needed, he has the stubborn athleticism to recover when he doesn’t, a stubborn athleticism that also covers for a lack of creativity and innovation in play. He is, in this sense, much like Ethan Finlay and Chase Gasper. With this, Heath’s post-game analysis is consistent with his praise of Finlay, Gasper, and Kallman. The win over Houston was, Heath said, an “incredible effort. Desire to win. Sometimes you grind it out more than you play it out, and I thought we ground it out really well today.” This is an analysis that we have heard before, coming from a fundamental belief by Heath in will and effort to determine games. A belief that, to be fair, gets results. But it is also a belief that might be, for the first time, a problem for these Loons: with a healthy Franco Fragapane, Niko Hansen, Robin Lod, an in form Romain Métanire, and Emanuel Reynoso this team might be good enough to win in ways other than by simply grinding. A bit of beauty and joy might also now be possible. Heath has, from day one in Minnesota, always erred on the side of the conservative, gone for effort over beauty, for grinding over joy. Can this team be a bit of both? Which all might be just a long way of wondering: with the potential to be both a grinder and a joy can Hassani Dotson find another level? Now that he has been given a chance to play does he have a bit of freedom and inspiration in him?
Three things: #MINvHOU
Greatness and grinding and a question of what is possible