As the dog days of summer wind down and the secondary transfer window comes to a close, MInnesota United enters the second half of the 2021 season having completed 17 of their 34 league matches. It is a good opportunity to reflect how MNUFC has evolved in the wake of a successful 2020 campaign that ended just minutes shy of their first-ever MLS Cup appearance.
Although the Loons entered their first ever Western Conference Final on a club-record 10-game unbeaten streak in which they conceded just 5 goals in nearly 1,000 minutes, all while improving their goals scored per game for the 4th consecutive year, it was ultimately 3 goals in 18 minutes that ended their 2020 season that night in Seattle. Despite the unfortunate ending, the season also finished with the Loons as the only team in MLS to make two semi-final appearances, only heightening the expectations for the club heading into 2021.
Minnesota’s offseason acquisitions saw their roster reinforced in multiple key positions. The club first signed Wil Trapp as an MLS-veteran defensive midfielder with previous USMNT experience, despite later bringing back Ozzie Alonso on a one-year deal. Defensive midfield reinforcement was needed as the 35-year-old missed over a third of the 2020 season due to injury. The addition of Trapp saw Alonso move primarily to a substitution role and spot-starter as Trapp ranks 1st amongst all Loons in minutes played so far this year.
The club then signed Argentinian striker Ramón Ábila on a season-long loan from Boca Juniors as negotiations failed to secure the transfer of Luis Amarilla. Acquiring the 31-year-old just months after groin surgery was a gamble but also potentially reduced his budget charge below the Designated Player (DP) threshold, acquiring him with the use of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). As the team’s highest-paid player and current leader in goals per 90, the idea was for Ábila to be the attacking focal-point for a team that was forced to play Robin Lod in a false-nine role during their 2020 playoff run.
Whether due to or despite the lethargic start to the 2021 season that saw MNUFC open with 4 consecutive losses and just 3 goals scored, the primary transfer window was used to further boost a struggling attack. First was the addition of Adrien Hunou from Stade Rennais in France as the club’s third DP for a reported $3.6 million transfer fee, enabled by loaning former-DP Thomás Chacón to Liverpool F.C. in his native country of Uruguay. They subsequently signed Franco Fragapane to a 4-year contract from Club Atlético Talleres in Argentina using TAM, seen as a direct replacement for Kevin Molino who departed as a free-agent.
Despite the additions of Ábila, Hunou, and Fragapane in attack, Minnesota has seen their goals per game plummet from 1.71 in 2020 to just 1.24 in 2021. While this scoring rate trails that of both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the preferred front four of Fragapane, Lod, Reynoso and Hunou have played just 139 minutes together so far this year. Mid-season signings, international tournaments, and injuries have yielded 15 unique lineups over 17 games this year, where the second half of the season will provide an opportunity to find a stable starting eleven and improve performances as a result.
Despite changes within the roster, the Loons attacking structure has remained largely identical from last season. The formation operates with Reynoso as a central attacking midfielder while flanked by inverted wingers, allowing for the fullbacks to overlap on the wings. This system has seen a slight shift in attacking direction towards the right side of the field, likely due to Hassani Dotson initially being played out-of-position on the left after the departure of Molino and prior to the arrival of Fragapane.
The Loons have also seen a slight uptick in possession, from 47.3% in 2020 to 50.5% in 2021, coupled with an impressive ability to move the ball into the attacking third of the field. The table below shows how the Loons have increased their touches in the final third, passes into the final third, passes into the penalty area, and key passes when compared to the 2020 season. MNUFC’s league rank for each metric is shown in parentheses.
MNUFC Presence in Attacking Third
|Touches in ATT 1/3 per 90||173.0 (7th)||190.9 (3rd)|
|Passes into ATT 1/3 per 90||29.9 (14th)||34.9 (4th)|
|Passes into Penalty Area per 90||7.3 (17th)||8.18 (10th)|
|Key Passes per 90||9.7 (8th)||10.9 (4th)|
Their increased presence in the attacking third of the field has also led to an increase in shots and Shot-Creating Actions (SCA).
MNUFC Shot Creation
|Shots per 90||13.4 (8th)||14.8 (4th)|
|SCA per 90||21.4 (8th)||23.8 (3rd)|
This all begs the question, if MNUFC is increasingly able to get into the attacking third and generate shot-creating opportunities, how come they have managed just 1.24 goals per game in 2021? The short answer: they are just not finishing the chances they have created.
The table below shows how MNUFC has struggled to consistently direct the chances they have created on target, all while significantly converting less of those opportunities than expected. A goals minus expected goals (G – xG) metric of -5.2 means they have scored approximately 5 goals less than expected given the location and quality of chances they have created. If you are not directing quality chances on target or finishing them at a reasonable rate, a reduction in attacking output would be expected.
|% of Shots in 6-Yard-Box||6% (18th)||5% (21st)|
|% of Shots on Target||35.5% (14th)||26.6% (27th)|
|Goals - Expected Goals||3.1 (9th)||-5.2 (23rd)|
The issue also seems to be systemic as there are no one or two players who individually make up most of the G – xG of -5.2, as Brent Kallman, Chase Gasper, and Robin Lod are the only Loons who has posted a positive G – xG so far this season. While the lack of finishing is spread throughout the team, the chances are still primarily derived from Reynoso’s creativity. He ranks 2nd in key passes, 2nd in shot-creating actions, 3rd in progressive passes, and 5th in passes into the penalty area throughout all of MLS (per 90 for players over 500 minutes played), but also ninth-to-last at 676th with an A – xA of -1.8. Again, the chances are being created but not finished.
As the Loons advance into these attacking segments of play, they can often become one-dimensional and rely too much on Reynoso’s creativity. In addition to the metrics above, he also ranks 1st in attempted dribbles and 3rd in progressive carries throughout MLS. Part of the solution will be for others to dribble at defenses with more success and consistency. The Loons successfully completed dribbles 60.1% of the time in 2020 which was good for top-5 in MLS during their playoff run but have only completed 53.4% of their dribbles in 2021, good for 24th in MLS. Being able to eliminate defenders 1v1 in high leverage situations would be one way to disorganize defenses, enabling higher quality opportunities for Reynoso and the rest of the attack.
It has been in central midfield where the largest structural changes have occurred, with the midfield pairing of Ján Greguš and Ozzie Alonso largely being replaced by Wil Trapp and Hassani Dotson in 2021. Past seasons saw Greguš as a box-to-box midfielder who ranked top-20 amongst all MLS players in progressive passes in both 2019 and 2020, paired alongside a more conventional defensive midfielder in Alonso. So far this season, Trapp has been the primary progressor of the ball for the Loons in central midfield, ranking 18th throughout MLS in progressive passes. This has coincided with the Dotson being a more defensive-minded midfielder, ranking 1st in defensive pressures, 2nd in tackles in the attacking third of the field, and 6th in tackles in the middle third of the field throughout all of MLS.
It seems these responsibilities in central midfield have essentially flipped this season, rather using Trapp as a mean to connect the defense to the attack as a defensive midfielder, while Dotson applies defensive pressure further up-field in an advanced box-to-box midfielder role. It has been a different look for the Loons, but this balance has largely stabilized the central areas during a period where Greguš’ absence at the Euros has resulted in only 1 defeat in their last 13 matches.
Defensively, MNUFC have been average and are neither outperforming nor underperforming expectations. They have conceded 21 goals with an xGA of 21.6 so far in 2021, conceding the same number of goals as expected given the location and quality of chances they have allowed. It has been largely sufficient from the defense given Bakaye Dibassy missed the first 7 games due to injury, along with more recent absences from Michael Boxall and Romain Métanire.
Although defensive injuries could have urged Adrian Heath to return to a more pragmatic structure, he doubled down on a more aggressive pressing system. While MNUFC is not quite as frenetic as New York Red Bulls or LAFC with their pressing overall, they do rank just behind both at 3rd in total pressures per 90. A large majority of these pressures also occur higher up-field as they rank 16th in pressures in the defensive third per 90. The table below shows how this aggressive defensive system has trended over the past few seasons.
MNUFC Defensive Pressures
What is somewhat problematic is their ability to successfully win duels and convert turnovers into high quality opportunities against a disorganized defense. Despite ranking 3rd in total pressures per 90, they rank dead-last at 27th in percentage of successful duels (per MLS). It can leave the defense exposed when unsuccessfully applying pressure higher up-field, demonstrated by Austin’s lone goal in a 1-0 defeat at home back in May.
This is a concept that teams tried to punish the Loons for in 2020 as well. The photo below shows over-represented passes from MNUFC opponents in 2020, illustrating the types of passes that a team significantly allowed more than the league on average. With Heath’s attacking system reliant on Métanire’s ability to get forward on the overlap, opponents attempted to expose the space in-behind with long diagonal passes. This has not troubled the Loons so far in 2021, whereas the primary defensive flaw has been individual mistakes.
Behind the defensive line, one of the biggest questions heading into 2021 was who the starting goalkeeper would be, Dayne St. Clair or Tyler Miller? While the two split starts during the pre-season, the decision was made to ride the hot hand from 2020 and stick with the Canadian international. After 28’ into the season opener in Seattle, it looked like a pretty good decision.
St. Clair the Patron Saint of pic.twitter.com/4rUYJFmIpZ— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) April 17, 2021
Then just 4 games and 4 losses later, including home losses to Real Salt Lake and expansion newcomer Austin FC, the decision was made to revert to Tyler Miller. Whether due to performance or seeking veteran leadership from defense, the decision has resulted in 7 wins, 5 draws, and 1 loss since the change.
Last season, one of the more statistically noticeable differences between the two goalkeepers was their ability to distribute and pass out of the back. In what was presumably an off-season focus for Dayne St. Clair, he managed to essentially match the passing metrics of Miller in his 4 starts this year. The table below, with numbers provided by American Soccer Analysis, shows how their passing percentage, expected passing percentage, and passing distance compares from the 2020 season to this year.
MNUFC Goalkeeper Distribution
|Player||Season||Passes||Pass %||xPass %||Distance|
|Player||Season||Passes||Pass %||xPass %||Distance|
|Dayne St. Clair||2020||496||53%||57%||44.58|
|Dayne St. Clair||2021||115||65%||67%||37.11|
While Miller’s passing has slightly regressed so far in 2021, he has impressed with his primary job responsibility: shot stopping. Whereas St. Clair’s PSxG – GA of +2.2 in 2020 was 6th best among MLS goalkeepers, Miller has managed +1.8 so far in 2021, both across 13 matches. The comparison between their save percentage and PSxG – GA from 2020 and 2021 is shown in the table below.
MNUFC Shot Stopping
|Dayne St. Clair||2020||1170||78%||2.2|
|Dayne St. Clair||2021||360||50%||-1.8|
NOTE: PSxG – GA is perhaps the most frequently-used statistic to analyze goalkeeper performance, as it is the cumulative xG for all shots on target minus goals allowed. A positive PSxG – GA value indicates that a goalkeeper has saved more goals than expected, and conversely, a negative value indicates that a goalkeeper has conceded more goals than expected.
In short, MNUFC’s tactical tendencies in attack and defense have been ambitious so far this season. They have both possessed in the attacking third like SKC and have applied pressure in defense like LAFC. If they can consistently finish chances and pressure opponents with more success, they may end up as a “good and lucky” team that is still being talked about in early-December.
Either way, we will be here to support and report along the way.
NOTE: All statistics and data are provided by StatsBomb, via fbref.com, unless otherwise noted.
C’mon You Loons!