Minnesota United comes into its first mid-week game sitting last in both the western conference and the league, at 0-4 the worst start in their MLS history. Since a promising first 30 minutes in Seattle to open the season, when it looked like the Loons might continue the form of their 2020 playoff run, the team has been disappointing, only able to generate three goals off of 61 shots while allowing 10. Although there have been glimmers of hope throughout the early season, the losses have been quite comprehensive, with Minnesota being out-played and out-coached as a team while also playing mistake-prone and uninspired soccer individually.
Coach Adrian Heath hoped a change in formation might work, shifting to a 4-3-3 on the weekend against Colorado, abandoning his preferred 4-2-3-1 while keeping the starting XI mostly the same. It seemed to work, as Minnesota played an exciting opening 45 minutes of soccer, going into the half up by two goals. As the coach noted in his pre-game presser on Tuesday, “there was a lot of positives [against Colorado]. I actually said to the guys I think it might be the best we’ve played since I’ve been here in terms of the way we moved the ball in the first half.” But, in a repeat of the game in Seattle, the team came out of the half flat, Rapids coach Robin Fraser made some adjustments, Heath didn’t as he also got his substitutions wrong, and the game ended with another loss for Minnesota.
There was a time in American soccer when “go get ‘em boys,” was enough. Rarely producing pretty soccer, sheer grit and athleticism could win an MLS Cup and an occasional international match. But now the domestic game requires a more nuanced tactical analysis than “goals change games,” and unless Heath is able to provide something more and quickly his job will surely be in danger. As he himself recognized in his post-game comments in Colorado, “obviously, it’s a huge game for us on Wednesday. If we’re not aware of it, we should be. We’re at this stage now where we gotta start winning some games and getting some points on the board.”
While many in Minnesota are ready to hit the panic button and #heathout trends again, the situation in Vancouver looks quite different even as it’s not quite in Vancouver. Making a temporary home in Sandy, Utah and sharing Rio Tinto Stadium with Real Salt Lake, the Whitecaps are, like their fellow Canadians CF Montréal and Toronto FC, beginning the year in a partial quarantine bubble as they cannot regularly travel between Canada and the US. Even with that dislocation, the Whitecaps have found a bit of rhythm to open the season: with wins against Portland and Montréal, a tie against Toronto, and a loss to Colorado, Vancouver find themselves in fourth place in the West. This in spite of the fact that they aren’t playing exceptional soccer.
With only five goals on the season, and none scored during the run of play, manager Marc Dos Santos has Vancouver winning. In many ways the Whitecaps resemble the 2019 and 2020 Loons and so Heath’s scouting report sounds very familiar:
Vancouver is, “very very good in transition moments. They’ve got the big kid [Lucas] Cavallini who is very very good at receiving the first ball out. And then they get good runners, [Deiber] Caicedo and [Cristian] Dajome is really really quick. And alot of their best moments come in the counter attack in that transition moment.”
Add to this the exceptional goalkeeping of Maxime Crépeau and, on any given night, Vancouver has a chance.
So far this season Dos Santos has played a fairly consistent XI. But with this visit to Allianz Field also being their first mid-week game and the first of a three game road trip, he may choose to rotate his line-up, giving recently returned to fitness Leonard Owusu or offseason acquisition Bruno Gaspar or the youngster Ryan Raposo a start. Whatever Dos Santos chooses to do, the Whitecaps will certainly feel this is a chance to steal three points on the road from a struggling western conference opponent.
This midweek game will surely raise a number of questions for the Loons, especially on defense. With Bakaye Dibassy yet to return, unable to recover from an injury that Heath described as worse than originally thought and one that is taking longer to heal after a few setbacks, and the central pairing of Michael Boxall and Jukka Raitala not quite meshing, can the center of this defense hold? Especially as Ozzie Alonso, who has always been so important defensively, starts to show his age even on full rest? And can Chase Gasper find his form and Romain Métanire stay disciplined against a team that will be more than happy to allow both to drift up field?
For Heath, it seems, these are questions of will:
“If you look at it I think last year we were one of the better teams in the league defensively in terms of defending set pieces. And we’re not doing an awful lot different. I just don’t think we’ve been as competitive as we should be. I don’t think we’re getting to the first ball enough. I don’t think we’re getting to the second ball enough.”
But it might also be that the team isn’t doing enough differently. One more loss this early in the season and it may no longer be possible to just do the same and wait for reinforcements in Adrien Hunou and Franco Frangapane, or for Dibassy and Ike Opara to get healthy. This is starting to feel like a must win game for Heath.
Minnesota United FC
- Questionable: Nabi Kibunguchy (concussion)
- Out: Ike Opara, out (undisclosed), Bakaye Dibassy (left thigh), and Niko Hansen (left thigh)
- Questionable: Michael Baldisimo (right ankle) and Érik Godoy (right calf)
- Out: None