By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell
After a hot-tempered clash in Dallas, Minnesota returned home for a midweek matchup against the Colorado Rapids who have been running cool toward the bottom of the table. Coming away with three points was crucial for the Loons who, sitting in third ahead of kickoff, needed every gain possible on an MLS match night heavy with playoff contenders.
The gap between the 3rd and 11th ranked teams was not so obvious in the first half though. Adrian Heath’s 4-2-3-1 was a little different from Saturday’s, with 8 of the weekend’s starters beginning on the bench, including wingers Miguel Ibarra and Ethan Finlay. Mason Toye was out of the 18 altogether due to his red card infraction. Angelo Rodriguez reclaimed his role up top, but wasn’t nearly as visible in the first half as Darwin Quintero behind him.
Together with attacking wingers Robin Lod and Kevin Molino, Quintero made runs that signaled a refreshing departure from the cross-and-pray tactic that has dominated the Loons’ attack recently. The change paid off in terms of shots and possession, with the Loons tallying 16 (6 on target) to the Rapids’ 5 with 62% of the possession. Unfortunately, nearly every ball the Loons managed to deliver to a threatening area was given away cheaply allowing the Rapids to make a number of counterattacks, short-lived though they were.
“The bottom line is, as I said to the players, what are we trying to do here? We’re trying to score a goal,” reflected head coach Adrian Heath. “To score a goal you have to get up the pitch, you have to run towards the goal. It’s not enough just to keep the ball in the mid-third. People have to run without the ball, people have to run forward. If we do that, we’re pretty good. When we play in our own half, we’re not as good.”
United had one of those “pretty good” moments late in the first half, just minutes after a horrible one. When defender Chase Gasper – who spent more time in the Colorado’s 18 than his attacking teammates – was taken down just inside the penalty area in the 37’, Quintero stepped up for the penalty. It was soft and low, an easy attempt for Clint Irwin to read and block. But “El Scientifico” redeemed himself two minutes later, beating the ‘keeper and his centerback to a beautiful ball from Molino which he tapped to the far post, well out of reach for Irwin who had come far off his line to cut the angle.
Irwin would face five more shots before the half, blocking two from Molino and Rodriguez while three others narrowly missed the frame. The score was 1-0 at the break and would remain there through the final whistle. But it’s not as if no one was trying.
The Loons came out for the second half with a slightly more motivated attack. And so did the visitors. That’s when Minnesota started sending a few quick crosses into the goal area, hoping for a connection that would double their lead. But there was a glaring absence at the front of the attack. A striker. And this has nothing to do with Toye’s absence.
Rodriguez has seemingly been getting fitter as the season goes on, showing a few more bursts of speed and prowess between the bouts of lead feet and hobbled movement, the attributes that earned him DP status. All too often though, his presence is forgotten as the ball soars over or past him and the midfield fills space ahead of him. Rodriguez wasn’t signed to be the lurking striker; he’s used more for hold-up play, but that only works when his teammates can get him the ball.
When Abu Danladi – the Loons’ perennial rookie due to recurrent injuries since his SuperDraft selection in 2017 – replaced the DP in the 71st minute, United’s attack saw a few more sparks. A few balls found Danladi camped out in front of the net, jockeying with the last defenders and eyeing the keeper. He had a header in the 78th minute that careened off the crossbar and out. In the 90th minute, he nutmegged Abubakar but the spinning shot was parried away by a diving Irwin. Late in stoppage time, he attempted to flick the ball around two defenders but deflected his own shot out of danger.
This is all well and good. As Heath said, “the kid got in the right spot so if he continues to get in the right spots, eventually one will go for him and hopefully his confidence will come.” Heath has expressed similar sentiments since Danladi’s rookie year. If his confidence depends on a few goals, he needs minutes somewhere that he can get those goals. And this squad needs someone who is already there.
With reinforcements coming for the midfield (Thomás Chacón’s arrival is imminent and Wilfried Moimbé will work into the squad as fitness allows), questions remain about the center forward position. Minutes for rookies and veterans are welcome, but dependable scoring is vital, especially in the heat of a playoff race that will likely come down to goal differential.
Unlike the typical Minnesota team, the Loons have the guts to close out a tight game. But if United really wants to set itself apart – from the locals and from the other playoff contenders – they need to score.
Featured image: Bridget McDowell
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