What a year 2021 could have been for Minnesota United. As the only team to make two semi-final appearances in 2020, the expectations heading into the season were sky high. From the outset, there was no motivational bulletin material to be found on MLS dot com. The Loons were considered by some to be a pre-season favorite and notched a top-5 spot in the infamous MLS pre-season power rankings. The renowned underdogs had suddenly turned favorites. How did this all lead to a dreadful 3-1 loss on the road in the first round of the MLS playoffs? Let’s dig in to find out.
The Loons navigated their 2020 playoff run by eviscerating teams on the counterattack with a fluid attacking line of Kevin Molino, Emmanuel Reynoso, and Ethan Finlay behind Robin Lod as a free-roaming false 9. With the departure of Molino to free agency and Lod not being a long-term solution as the starting #9, the Loons off-season focus was on filling these attacking positions.
The initial solution was to sign 31-year-old Argentinian striker Ramón Ábila on a season-long loan just months after groin surgery, while waiting to fill Molino’s position on the wing. This led to 3 different starting #9’s through the first 4 games, along with Hassani Dotson playing out of position on the LW, resulting in 4 consecutive losses with a -7 goal differential to start the season. Those sky high pre-season expectations vanished about as quickly as they appeared.
This prompted the use of the primary transfer window to aid the 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, and whose guaranteed compensation of $2.59M per year set an all-time franchise record. They then subsequently signed Franco Fragapane to a 4-year contract from Club Atlético Talleres in Argentina using TAM, rounding out an attacking lineup suited for Adrien Heath’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Heath stuck with the 4-2-3-1 formation at a 70% rate in 2021, with the 4-3-3 as the primary alternative. While the formation and general structure of the team stayed the same, the continuity of the lineup rarely did. Mid-season signings, international tournaments and injuries yielded an unusually high number of unique lineups throughout the year, which didn’t see the primary transfer window acquisitions of Hunou and Fragapane playing regularly with Reynoso and Lod until about a month remaining in the season. Behind them in central midfield was also a bit of a revolving door, with Trapp regularly switching between Ján Greguš, Hassani Dotson, and Ozzie Alonso as his midfield partner.
Despite the lineup volatility, the Loons attacking identity was heavily reliant on progressing the attack through Reynoso. The image below shows that Reynoso had the highest usage of any player in MLS through the end of September.
Here's a look at the highest "usage" players in MLS - usage measured by taking the final action of a possession. pic.twitter.com/zMX7PCnxYQ— Paul Harvey (@Thundering165) September 28, 2021
With such reliance on Reynoso, it’s ultimately up to him to pull the strings in attack and provide opportunities for the attackers around him, which he did in abundance in 2021. The metrics below show Reynoso’s ranking amongst all MLS players with over 1,000 minutes played.
- 2nd in Shot Creating Actions per 90
- 2nd in Progressive Passes per 90
- 2nd in Attempted Dribbles per 90
- 3rd in Key Passes per 90
- 6th in Passes into the Penalty Area per 90
This production gave MNUFC an impressive ability to move the ball into the attacking third of the field in 2021. The table below shows how MNUFC has increased their touches in the final third, passes into the final third, passes into the penalty area, and key passes when compared to a successful 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)||189.5 (2nd)|
|Passes into ATT 1/3 per 90||29.9 (14th)||34.4 (2nd)|
|Passes into Penalty Area per 90||7.3 (17th)||8.68 (7th)|
|Key Passes per 90||9.7 (8th)||10.7 (5th)|
Their increased presence in the attacking third of the field also led to an increase in expected goals, shots, and Shot-Creating Actions (SCA).
MNUFC Shot Creation
|xG per 90||1.42 (12th)||1.51 (6th)|
|Shots per 90||13.4 (8th)||14.9 (3rd)|
|SCA per 90||21.4 (8th)||23.3 (4th)|
So if MNUFC was a top-5 MLS team in their ability to progress the attack into the final third and generate shots, how come their goals per game decreased from 1.57 in 2020 to just 1.21 in 2021? Well, they clearly struggled to put the ball in the back of the net.
The table below shows how MNUFC struggled to direct these chances on target while significantly converting less of those opportunities than expected. A goals minus expected goals (G – xG) metric of -10.2 means they scored approximately 10 less goals than expected given the location and quality of chances they created. Over half of that underperformance (-5.4) came from the 1-1 draw at Dallas, 2-2 draw at home to San Jose, and 0-0 draw at home to Sporting Kansas City. It’s not hard to imagine a 3rd consecutive home playoff game at Allianz Field in 2021 had they been able to finish some of those opportunities.
|% of Shots on Target||35.5% (14th)||27.5% (27th)|
|Goals - Expected Goals||3.1 (9th)||-10.2 (26th)|
While Adrien Hunou finished 2021 tied for 738th (3rd to last) throughout all of MLS with a G-xG of -3.2, that only accounts for 31% of the team’s underperformance. The season ended with just 4 Loons posting a positive G-xG (Kallman, Lod, Alonso, and Trapp), while a total of 18 finished with a negative G-xG. Considering Hunou’s guaranteed compensation is twice that of Reynoso and Lod combined, time will tell if this is an anomaly, as was the case with Lod in 2019 heading into 2020.
Within central midfield, Will Trapp logged the most minutes of any Loon during the 2021 season, playing nearly 90% of all available minutes. His partner in central midfield was much less defined. The season began with Greguš as the midfield partner, however most of the midfield progressive passing responsibility was consumed by Trapp and ultimately didn’t provide enough in defense to enable central midfield balance. Once Greguš left for the Euro’s and was subsequently injured, his spot had been lost to Dotson who returned to the midfield after being played out of position on the left wing.
The Trapp-Dotson partnership provided a better balance that largely stabilized the midfield structure during a successful period in the summer months. Past seasons saw Greguš as a box-to-box midfielder who ranked top-20 amongst all MLS players in total progressive passes in both 2019 and 2020, paired alongside a more conventional defensive midfielder in Alonso. In contrast, this season saw Trapp as the primary ball progressor in central midfield, ranking 12th throughout MLS in total progressive passes in 2021. This coincided with Dotson as a more advanced defensive-minded midfielder, ranking 7th in total defensive pressures and T-8th in attacking third tackles throughout all of MLS. This stylistic difference between Greguš and Dotson is apparent in the passing and defensive metrics shown in the image below.
Defensively, MNUFC were fine but largely average in 2021, ranking 13th out of 27 teams with an xGA of 45.6. They neither outperformed nor underperformed expectations having conceded a total of 44 goals, roughly the same number as expected given the location and quality of chances they allowed. Given the injury absences of Bakaye Dibassy and Michael Boxall for a stretch of 7 and 8 games, respectively, in addition to the buyout of Ike Opara due to health concerns, the depth in defense proved serviceable when needed.
The Loons defensive identity was one where their defensive line of confrontation was pushed further up field. While not quite as frenetic as the New York Red Bulls or LAFC with their pressing overall, they did rank just behind both at 3rd in total pressures in 2021. The difference between this high-pressure version of the Loons and the low-block version of the 2019 Loons is noticeable in the table below.
MNUFC Defensive Pressures
|DEF Third||61.6 (2nd)||52.8 (8th)||53.1 (13th)|
|MID Third||67.2 (14th)||68.9 (6th)||73.0 (5th)|
|ATT Third||30.4 (20th)||32.4 (10th)||42.7 (4th)|
This trend in defensive identity is likely attributable to personnel, given a #9 who is willing to press (sorry Ángelo, Ramón, and Fanendo) alongside someone with Reynoso’s defensive effort, all in advance of a Trapp-Dotson midfield pairing. Although such a system attempts to disrupt an opponent’s build-up while also creating transition opportunities in advantageous attacking positions, it can leave your defense exposed if not successfully executed. In 2021, MNUFC ranked 25th out of 27 teams in duel percentage per MLS, after ranking 5th in 2020 and 7th in 2019. This may be a function of the system, and not a bug, considering 4 of the top 5 teams in percentage of pressures in the attacking third (NYRB, LAFC, MNUFC, and NYCFC) all rank in the bottom-6 of MLS in duel percentage. Should this continue to be their defensive identity throughout the 2022 season, it is an approach that may not only define their defensive success, but their attacking success as well.
While the performances in 2021 ultimately failed to meet the pre-season expectations, it wasn’t necessarily a bad year. Most would define it as a frustrating and perhaps unlucky year considering the potential and associated expectations. In what is a contract year for Adrian Heath in 2022, it will be up to him and the staff to fix the attack and reassert the club’s ambition going forward. They’ll have a chance to do so when MNUFC kicks off the 2022 season in Philadelphia in just under 2 months.
NOTE: All statistics and data are provided by StatsBomb, via fbref.com, unless otherwise noted.
C’mon You Loons!