1. In another wonderful bit of reporting Andy Greder tucked the departure of MNUFC’s Senior Director of Sports Science Damian Roden into his mid-week wrap-up. Roden’s time with Minnesota United was quite short, having only been hired this past off-season as part of a department restructuring following the departure of Stacey Hardin. And it is easy, as the team was again reduced on Wednesday to a starting XI dictated more by necessity than tactical plan and carried a dangerously short four field-player bench, to feel this season being derailed by a series of injuries that are not being properly tended. At the same time, it is important to recognize that we, as fans and consumers of sport as entertainment, are often inheritors of practices of investment and entitlement that lead us to forget that most players are, at a very basic level, simply hoping to do something great in what are often very short and precarious careers. Wins and losses matter, but players matter more. In that sense, the recent run of poor form, just as much as the previous run of good but unconvincing results, might be more about the team as a club than the standings. The injury crisis, the lack of roster flexibility and depth, the absence of any developmental program, could be taken together as an indication of the failure of the 3Year Plan. Certainly, the recent contract extensions for Michael Boxall, Hassani Dotson, and Chase Gasper, as well as last year’s extension of Romain Métanire’s, point to a commitment to players and roster construction, although it’s not clear what to make of the fact that Adrian Heath’s extension was the first to be completed. But now it is starting to seem that, in the transition after the promotion into MLS, there was a very narrow focus on the business infrastructure of the organization - when CEO Chris Wright announced that he was leaving the team he was most often praised for building a stadium to attract national team and all-star games and establishing sponsorship contacts within the Twin Cities business community - to the detriment of other parts of the club. Certainly, a professional sports franchise needs strong financials, and the stadium and training facilities are more than business promotional assets, but a club also needs a deep and solid sporting infrastructure that goes beyond nice buildings, that is grounded in a commitment to players, as well as a tangible and material commitment to community, something beyond a good purpose statement and community partnerships.
2. Once again appearing for post-game comments looking quite dejected, Heath was “immensely disappointed.” “It was a comedy of errors at times, at the back,” he lamented. “I’m afraid it was a really poor night for quite a lot of our players…. Poor decision making with the ball. Poor decision making without the ball. When to go tight, when to drop off, when to clear your lines, when to put your foot through it, when to compose yourself and play.” All of which is right; it was, all around, a bad performance. It was also a poor decision to try out a road 4-2-3-1. In part, at least, because, with the players chosen to start in that formation, it often played more like a very gappy 4-2-4. And so, after an hour, Minnesota conceded the game, emptying its bench and switching to what looked like a 5-4-1. The tactical development of Sporting Kansas City in the first half was less resignation and, in a soccering, neutral sort of way, very fun to watch. Initially falling back into an incredibly compressed shape in the first five minutes of the game, a reactive retreat in the face of a very disciplined and energetic Loons press, Sporting simply, in a moment of collective will around the six minute mark, committed to an expansion of the field in the belief that they could. This commitment to their own style created acres of space and the first very easy goal of the night.
After working to expand the field for about 20 minutes Sporting began to focus on the right side of their attack, playing through Cameron Duke, Johnny Russell, and Graham Zusi. Which led, with a strong dose of optional marking of one of the league’s best offensive players this year, to a relatively easy second goal.
After that Kansas City took control of the game, keeping the field expanded and attacking down the right almost at will, as Minnesota was left mostly chasing empty space. Although not flashy and against a team that was lacking in any response or ideas, it was a master class in belief and the discipline and training to play a tactic and style to an easy win.
3. Among other things, the very gappy 4-2-3-1 against Kansas City, following the loss to the Seattle Sounders, was a reminder of how fragile Minnesota’s midfield actually is. On the weekend, of course, we saw again how this team has been unable to figure out how to play Ozzie Alonso and Wil Trapp together in a pivot: in the first half, Trapp was almost non-existent, and in the second, after Jacori Hayes came on and the shape of the team changed, Dotson mostly disappeared as Trapp found space in the game. Mid-week was a reminder of how much Emanuel Reynoso does on the field. Although there are often complaints that he is playing too deep, that he is dropping too far back to get the ball, the space that Kansas City was able to exploit in the middle of the field was a reminder of how Reynoso’s deep play and the space that he covers is a requirement of the system. The game was, in an exaggerated form, a return to the very bifurcated teams of past seasons, when it often seemed that the offense and the defense were playing on two different fields. The midfield only now works through the individual play of Dotson, Reynoso, and Trapp, rather than the organizational discipline of the team. When those players are absent or having an off night, so too is any sort of connection or spacing in the team.