Minnesota United fans were optimistic heading into the 2021 season. Their first appearances in a US Open Cup Final and the MLS Playoffs in 2019 was followed by an impressive 2020 season that ended with them as the only team to make two semi-final appearances. The expectations were high and the Loons were considered a pre-season favorite by some, even notching a top-5 spot in the MLS pre-season power rankings. The season then kicked off and they proceeded to lose 4 consecutive matches to open the campaign.
While the results ultimately failed to meet expectations, there were still reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2022 season. The underlying numbers were still bullish on the Loons. They tallied the 3rd-best xG and 4th-best xGA in the Western Conference in 2021, while American Soccer Analysis had the Loons with the 6th-most expected points throughout all of MLS. The Loons started the season poorly and finished the season on a dispiriting note but were largely good over the course of the season despite their lack of finishing, illustrated by an egregious G-xG of -10.2.
So, if the Gass Theorem is valid and a DP attacker enters his 2nd MLS season the same time as another DP attacker returns for his 2nd season, all while joining an MVP-level DP attacking midfielder with a manager entering the season in a contract-year, all is good… right?
Well first off, the Loons central midfield was thinned in the offseason with the departures of both Ozzie Alonso and Ján Greguš. The good news was that Wil Trapp was already being phased in to replace Alonso in 2021, as was Hassani Dotson for Greguš. The departure of Greguš also opened a DP slot that could have been used to further strengthen the MNUFC spine with a DP striker, DP attacking midfielder, and now potentially a DP box-to-box midfielder. Instead, the front office decided to use the open DP slot on the return of Luis Amarilla, now the 2nd DP striker on the roster, for a team who rarely uses a 2-striker formation.
That identity has not changed so far this season with Adrian Heath using the 4-2-3-1 all but once this season, while the two DP strikers have respectively accumulated 9% and 64% of the total available minutes through 16 games. That is a puzzling allocation of resources in a league like MLS, especially considering the 1.06 goals per game so far in 2022 is lower than any other season in MNUFC history.
So, what is going on?
The Loons attacking identity is still heavily reliant on progressing the attack through Reynoso. 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. The metrics below compares Reynoso’s creative contributions from the 2021 season and the first half of the 2022 season. Reynoso’s league-wide rank amongst all MLS players with 500 minutes played is shown in parentheses.
Reynoso 2021 vs. 2022
|Touches in the ATT 1/3
|Shot Creating Actions per 90
|Progressive Passes per 90
|Attempted Dribbles per 90
|Key Passes per 90
|Passes into the Penalty Area per 90
These are still high-level numbers, to be clear. What it shows is that despite Reynoso putting up these numbers on a consistent basis, there is no other reliable source for chance creation. It shows there is no plan B.
The injury to Romain Métanire has further compounded the attacking issues through his absence at the fullback position. Gone are the days where you get 10-15 progressive carries and passes per game from the right back position, now reduced to 5-6 per game due to the recurring hamstring injuries that have kept him sidelined. That is all with next to no attacking support from midfield, with Kervin Arriaga and Wil Trapp combining for a total of 0.3 xA so far this season.
The result is a one-man show with a #9 who is often being played out of position because one DP striker outputs a sub-par 0.30 xG/90 and the other DP striker can’t get on the field, while the fullbacks provide only modest attacking support, all with little help from the double pivot in midfield. It hasn’t been ideal.
As a result, it is not surprising there has been a dramatic drop-off in both shots and shot-creating actions so far in 2022. MNUFC’s league-wide rank for each metric is shown in parentheses.
MNUFC Shot Creation
|Shots per 90
|SCA per 90
A reduction in shots does not necessarily mean a reduction in goals if you are able to out-perform your xG, except MNUFC has not done that either. The lack of finishing is not quite to the extent it was in 2021, sitting at -2.9 through 16 games. This metric has largely gone negative due to the finishing of Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Franco Fragapane, respectively scoring 1.9 and 2.3 less goals than expected based on the quality and location of their shots so far this season.
Within central midfield, the intended midfield partnership of Wil Trapp and Hassani Dotson ended prematurely this year with the unfortunate ACL tear that Dotson suffered in late-April. This has led to an apparent responsibility reversal in midfield again, where the more defensive-minded midfielder (#6) is again the one who applies more defensive pressure while ceding much of the progressive-passing responsibility to the more box-to-box midfielder (#8). This is usually how we’ve seen Heath set up his midfield in the past, with 2021 being the exception where Trapp was a progressive-passing #6 and Dotson applied the defensive pressure as box-to-box #8.
The table below shows how the balance between progressive passing and defensive pressure in central midfield has evolved since the 2020 season. The league-wide rank for each metric is shown in parentheses.
MNUFC CM Balance
|Progressive Passes per 90
|Defensive Pressures per 90
|Progressive Passes per 90
|Defensive Pressures per 90
Defensively, things aren’t looking much better. The Loons currently rank 25th out of 28 teams in MLS with 1.54 xGA/game. That is roughly equivalent to the 1.59 xGA/game the Loons conceded in 2018. The difference is that they’ve only conceded 1.19 GA/game so far in 2022 where they conceded 2.09 GA/game in 2018. Why such a difference between the goals conceded and expected goals conceded? It’s almost entirely because Dayne St. Clair has been doing stuff like this:
HOW?!— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 14, 2022
Spectacular save from Dayne St. Clair! pic.twitter.com/rGB5wh8e4G
FotMob’s post-shot model assigned Fernandez’s shot an xG value of 0.94, expecting that shot to end up in the back of the net 94% of the time given the location of the shot at goal. It is just one of numerous examples where St. Clair has bailed the Loons out this season.
Through the mid-way point of the 2022 season, St. Clair is currently T-2nd among all MLS goalkeepers in PSxG – GA with +4.1, saving roughly 4 goals more than expected in 14 appearances. Should his 0.29 PSxG – GA / 90 improve and surpass the equally great seasons of Brad Stuver and Sean Johnson, we would be looking at one of the best goalkeeping seasons in MLS history. Since 2018, the only goalkeeper to be above 0.30 PSxG – GA / 90 was Matt Turner in 2020 at 0.37. That is the same guy who is headed to Arsenal in the English Premier league on a $10M transfer fee and will potentially start for the USA at the 2022 FIFA World Cup this November. Don’t be surprised to see St. Clair in Qatar for Canada as well.
Why MNUFC is suspect in defense is more difficult to answer. To his credit, Adrian Heath has been willing to adjust his defensive style over the past few years. It has been a clear change from the compact defensive mid-block of 2019.
MNUFC Defensive Pressures
Nowhere was this high pressing style more evident than in 2021. The Loons applied the 3rd most pressures of any MLS team in 2021, just behind LAFC and the New York Red Bulls. Despite the woes of last season, they were a top-10 team since 2019 in terms of combined attacking third dominance with high defensive pressure.
This defensive press has continued into the 2022 season, although it has been somewhat refined into a mid-block shape rather than a full-field press. While this style can, in-theory, disrupt an opponent’s build-up while also creating transition opportunities in advantageous attacking positions, it can also leave you exposed.
Below are 2 examples of the MNUFC defense being caught in transition, forcing 2 saves not from St. Clair, but rather his left goal post.
How Heath and MNUFC look to improve in attack and defense might come in the form of reverting to the compact mid-block of a few years back, looking to restrict the opponent’s space while simultaneously opening the attacking space for Reynoso and company. It could also come in the form of acquiring some much-needed fullbacks and supplementing the central midfield / striker positions by either offloading Hunou, buying-down Amarilla from his DP status, or both.
Either way, it is not surprising to see MNUFC in 12th place considering they rank 12th in xG, 11th in xGA, and 11th in xGD in the Western Conference. It hasn’t been good so far this season but with Heath’s new 2-year contract extension, we can only hope they figure it out and head northeast on the good-lucky matrix.
NOTE: All statistics and data are provided by StatsBomb, via fbref.com, unless otherwise noted.
C’mon You Loons!