Like many teams in MLS, Minnesota United has struggled with injuries this year. Most prominent, of course, have been the extended absences of Michael Boxall, Bakaye Dibassy, Franco Fragapane, Niko Hansen, Robin Lod, and Ike Opara. With the major disruptions in 2020 and the irregularities of this season, it has been hard for clubs and players to maintain the habits and rhythms of training required of professional athletes. As Adrian Heath noted after this weekend’s game, “[t]he last 18 months, two years have been strange for everybody. Every coach I speak to. Going back to the pandemic and down to the bubble.... The schedules are not what they used to be. We have breaks. Then we have a Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday. And it’s not been easy, for sure. Not just for us. For every team in the league as well.” For MNUFC in particular, though, the strangeness of these schedules and the many injury absences have highlighted the importance of developmental systems and club depth, or rather, in this case, their absence. Without the depth that a proper club would provide, Heath can, at the moment, only look to the schedule, recognizing that the team will have a weekend off between playing Houston on Saturday and heading back to Seattle on September 11. “[H]opefully,” he suggested, “with the fortnight break, Fragapane and Robin Lod and everybody [can get] fit and healthy, we can regroup and go from there.” But hope is for a future that may or may not happen, so what do we know after the game just played?
1. With the current list of injuries, which now also includes a still recovering Jacori Hayes and a not quite fit Ján Greguš, the starting XI could be seen as a bit forced. But Ozzie Alonso and Wil Trapp as a double pivot and Hassani Dotson on the left of a 4-2-3-1 does not work. It has not worked yet this season and it did not work on the afternoon. Especially playing against ten. Ozzie is at his best as a defensive midfielder. Trapp has taken over the role of a deep playmaking midfielder. They both want to play deep and centrally, and so together become, at best, redundant. At worst, they allow the space for Gadi Kinda’s 9th minute opportunity. Dotson, meanwhile, remaining out of position, had a decent game if you isolate those moments when he drifted centrally, especially in the second half as Chase Gasper pushed further forward. But on the left he looked exhausted and frustrated. Dotson seems to have the talent and intelligence to have already been developed into an anchor in the middle of the field. That he has not is as much an indictment of the development program of the club as is the lack of available players in the midst of an injury crisis.
2. Playing 11 against 10 for much of the game in San Jose was a bit of a one-off, and so it was probably important to not try to take too much, aside from disappointment, from the night. But now, after a second 70 minutes of 11 vs. 10 without being able to find a winner, things are a bit clearer. Like his team on Saturday afternoon, Heath began the post-game press conference exhausted and out of ideas.
Live with Adrian Heath, the postgame press conference. https://t.co/l9FJX8N4kW— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) August 21, 2021
A few questions into the press conference, though, and fiery Thin Skinned Inchy returned when Heath was asked if he thought the team was aggressive enough: “You don’t think we were?” Heath quickly retorted. “I do. I do know. 23 shots. How many corners? Efforts in the box? That’s aggressive. Yeah. We’ve just spoke about that.” Which might be true, but in none of that prior speaking was an idea offered on how his team could score. One of the benefits of being up a player is that it gives a team a chance to dictate play without hesitation. They can get organized and play the way they want to play. It also gives us, as viewers and fans, a chance to see what a team is capable of. And what this team is capable of, it seems, is individual moments of quality, as Heath likes to say. This was clear last year as well, as Minnesota made their wonderful playoff run through the brilliance of Kevin Molino and Emanuel Reynoso. During the ESPN broadcast Taylor Twellman noted, in a backhanded way, the limit of the team’s reliance on Reynoso when he suggested that, after the red card, Reynoso would be free to find space and take over the game. What we saw instead was the extent to which this team depends on Reynoso to create space with the ball at his feet. Dotson was, at times, able to break down SKC’s defense when he drifted centrally, and the Loons seemed to move into spaces that were opened when Kansas City stretched itself out in search of a stolen goal, which they should have gotten from Khiry Shelton. Which is to say, Minnesota can still counter-attack. But in a repeat of the San Jose game, there was no discernible tactical attempt to open up and break down Kansas City’s defense. Individual players can make all the right runs, can make all the right passes, can do brilliant things with the ball at their feet, but if the team is not working together to control the space of the game all that individual quality will come to very little.
3. After the Vancouver game, when a late penalty cost Minnesota two points on the road, Ethan Finlay suggested that these things happen in sports. “We move on,” he said. “Hopefully we get one we shouldn’t get down the road.” After failing to pick up points with a man-advantage in back-to-back games can we now say that the Vancouver ledger has been balanced?