Tag Archives: Minnesota United FC

MNUFC Sends Some Signals Ahead of Expansion Draft

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

The third year of the Three Year Plan has passed and, while fans of Minnesota United have seen improvement during that time, what comes next is unclear. Of course, no one expects the club to announce its plans for everyone to hear, but a signal of direction can boost supporter morale and confidence. — Or do the opposite.

With one roster move during the MLS trade window and the protected list released ahead of Tuesday’s expansion draft, let’s take a look at the Loons’ TYP 2.0.

Signal One: Darwin Quintero

When MNUFC signed Darwin Quintero out of Liga MX’s Club America in 2018, big things were expected from him. The club’s first Designated Player was a creator, thus his nickname El Científico del Gol (Goal Scientist). And he took every opportunity he saw to make a goal. It served the Loons well in 2018 — Quintero notched 11 goals and 15 assists in 27 matches, including a hat-trick against Toronto which will live on in MNUFC lore for a long time:

But 2019 saw fewer fireworks from the high-paid Columbian DP (10 goals and 5 assists in 30 appearances) on the pitch and possibly more fireworks off the pitch — Heath benched DQ in the Open Cup final despite his role in getting the club there.

Last week, it was announced that MNUFC had completed a deal with Houston, sending Quintero and a third-round 2020 draft pick south in exchange for $600,000 in TAM and midfielder Marlon Hairston. While new coach Tab Ramos seeks to shore up his Dynamo attacking midfield, Adrian Heath seems to be focusing on youth (Hairston, 25, showed promise in Houston and Colorado but didn’t get much time to capitalize on it) and funds to build up his stagnant striking force.

And so…

Signal Two: A Locked-In Defense, An Attack Set for Adjustment

The list of players made available by Minnesota for the Expansion Draft came as no real surprise to anyone who had observed Heath’s unused sub lists. Miguel Ibarra and Brent Kallman have been on that list for quite some time already. Also not a surprise were those players whose options have already been declined: Carter Manley, Rasmus Schuller, Collin Martin, Wilfried, Moimbe-Tahrat, and Ally Hamis Ng’Anzi.

Wyatt Omsberg, Lawrence Olum, Bobby Shuttleworth, and Marlon Hairston, were not unexpected either — Between loans, bench roles and a lack of history, they are reasonable offseason transactions. The inclusion of Abu Danladi, Angelo Rodriguez and Ethan Finlay, however…

Finlay competed with Kevin Molino for the right wing role all season, but while Molino has a long playing history under Heath, Finlay appeared to be in better form. He would be worth more on the transfer market than the expansion draft, but it has been widely reported that he is set on a starting role (as his work rate deserves) and he has a shot at that with Nashville (more likely than Miami).

Danladi and Rodriguez are puzzling. These were two attackers who Heath was determined to fit into his lineup despite their accumulating injuries. Combined with the Quintero trade, it is obvious that the front office is ready for a change of tack. The attack is wide open.

Here is how the protected players line up in Heath’s favored 4-2-3-1:

Not all of these names are locked in. We can only assume that Robin Lod, Thomas Chacon, and Kevin Molino are set because of the energy and money invested in them. Mason Toye runs hot and cold in Heath’s lineups, but is more consistent than the unprotected strikers. Romario Ibarra is only on this list because Minnesota retained his rights in his loan to Pachuca. Aside from goalkeeper Vito Mannone (on loan for 2019 from Reading FC), any significant changes in the backfield would be somewhat surprising.

While each club can lose a maximum of one player in the expansion draft, knowing who Minnesota is willing to shop around for just $50,000 in TAM as compensation really sets the tone for expectations in the offseason.

Year One: Look for consistency and try to build an identity.

Year Two: Score more goals.

Year Three: Concede fewer goals.

Year Four…. Rinse and repeat?

Welcome to Three Year Plan, 2.0. Brace yourselves for a crazy offseason.

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

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Migration Questions Begin for MNUFC

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

After losing their first-round playoff match at Allianz Field on October 20, the Loons returned to the training ground in Blaine to regroup and refocus. The off season had officially arrived. And with it came roster news.

On Friday, United announced that it had declined to exercise contract options on five players: Rasmus Schuller, Collin Martin, Carter Manley, Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat and Ally Hamis Ng’anzi. To gain some insight into future plans, let’s run through the cuts, from the mild surprises to the inevitable.

Somewhat surprising

Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat: The left back was signed in July, shortly after Francisco Calvo was shipped to Chicago. The plan may well have been to slot the French national right into that vacant space but, in reality, Moimbe became the depth piece behind rookie Chase Gasper. After Moimbe’s acquisition, coach Adrian Heath talked him up as a skillful player the club could depend on to close out the latter half of the season. So why offload him as soon as the season ends? Well, he started just three matches and subbed on only once. So maybe it’s not that surprising after all.

Carter Manley: Minnesota’s 2018 SuperDraft pick played just nine games for the Loons over two seasons. However, Manley’s form was greatly improved with his loan to Forward Madison, United’s USL League One partner. When recalled for non-league matches, Manley showed well and appeared to be a serviceable depth piece for the Loons’ backline. It’s also obvious that he has a future elsewhere. “Carter played a major part in our quest for a championship this year,” said Daryl Shore, head coach of Forward Madison.

“{Manley] was a great addition to our team and we would welcome him back to Madison should he want to come back. I think the first step is to see if he gets picked up in the waiver draft by another MLS team. If he doesn’t, again he’d be welcomed back.”

Daryl Shore, head coach of Forward Madison FC

Inevitable

Rasmus Schuller: Schuller joined MNUFC in 2017, but didn’t see the pitch much until 2018 when he started 29 matches. His minutes waned as the season went on, a trend that continued into 2019. He hadn’t been shy about wanting to start fresh elsewhere – his resume is boosted by minutes with the Finnish National Team – and also has a year of conscripted military service looming ahead, so his exit was only a matter of time. The Finn had even cut his blond locks in preparation for duty before the playoff match:

Collin Martin: Another of the wing-heavy signings made by Minnesota in 2017, Martin has struggled for playing time with the Loons. His name came to the fore in 2018 when he came out ahead of the Pride match, becoming the only openly gay male athlete in the top five American pro leagues, but he didn’t even get an appearance in that match. Martin made only three appearances for the Loons this season, often going on loan to Madison and Hartford Athletic – at his own request. Martin may not have fit into the system Heath was working with, but the 24-year-old could make a long career in the lower divisions or with an MLS side looking for midfield mobility. If all else fails, he is a fantastic spokesperson:

Question mark?

Ally Hamis Ng’anzi: With a lower-division partner, MNUFC had the freedom to sign a player or two who could train and develop elsewhere, but be available for recall in a pinch. Enter Ally Hamis Ng’anzi, an 18-year-old Tanzanian international. Billed as a “box-to-box midfielder,” Ng’anzi was raw, but scouts leaned on his Africa Cup of Nations resume as a sign of potential. Unfortunately, Ng’anzi struggled to break into the 18 in Madison and questions are now – rightly so – being asked of that scouting process. According to coach Shore, “Ally had a tough time with the transition, being a young player. It’s sometimes difficult for players due to the culture change, the style of play, and the other adjustments that are needed.”

What comes next?

Heath & Co have locked down a spine, with centerbacks Ike Opara and Michael Boxall, defensive mid Osvaldo Alsonso and attacking mid Robin Lod, forming the basis of the favored Starting XI. The club also seems invested in the development of rookies Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson. The backfield needs depth, but that does not have to come with a high price tag and can easily fall into place once the other pieces are arranged.

With Thomás Chacón being groomed for a future front three, the next attacking player decision will signal the path toward that future. Will Abu Danladi get another chance or does Mason Toye get the keys and a sidekick in Angelo Rodriguez? Or do they invest in a tested, fit goal-scorer? That position may (should) decide who stays in the attacking midfield. Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra are still question marks for 2020, but both have shouldered that role in some sense, at some point with the Loons.

One thing is certain: It’s going to be a loony off season.

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

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A New Era Dawns for MN United FC

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

While its quality on the pitch was not all that Minnesota United’s fans hoped to see in its first MLS Cup playoff match, the Loons put on a show on Sunday that helped the fans celebrate a new era in Minnesota soccer. Of course, the fans put on quite a show themselves.

For thine is the Wonderwall

The Dark Clouds’ pre-match meetup at Black Hart of St Paul, just two blocks from Allianz Field, is always full of a mix of nervous energy and excitement. As old and new friends caught up and traded predictions, filled up on cheap beer and warmed their voices for 90 minutes of singing, they also paid their respects to some of the pillars of Minnesota soccer.

Behind the main bar at Black Hart is an eclectic collection of art. Portraits of Buzz Lagos (legendary Minnesota Thunder coach) and Brianna Scurry (the USWNT goalkeeper is a Minnesota native) are flanked by prayer candles with the faces of two former Loons players, Jérôme Thiesson and Ibson, pasted over the saints’. An altar of living saints.

Sunday evening’s pep talk from DC board members concluded with a prayer to these legends, these ‘saints’ of Minnesota soccer. David Zeller shared the prayer in its entirety* on Twitter:

Our Ibson who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Thiesson come, thy will be done on earth as Scurry saves it. Give us this day our daily Lagos and forgive us our back passes, as we forgive those who hand pass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Unkel**. For thine is the Wonderwall, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Go Loons.

*MLSFemale editors have omitted an add-on line to the prayer. You all have Twitter anyway.

**There would be no deliverance from Unkel this night.

Dawn of the Dethloon

Wonderwall’s tifo committee had to shelf a number of tifo ideas this season due to the loss of a temporary build space and unforeseen deployment issues in the new stadium. But with a new space secured toward the end of the season, the committee could actually plan ahead. In the short span between the regular season finale and Sunday’s playoff match, volunteers built six tifo panels, totaling 7,200 square feet.

“We started our call for volunteers the week before our final game of the regular season. At that point we were long odds to miss hosting a playoff game,” explained committee chair David Martin. “I had ordered fabric about a month prior, knowing this possibility was on the horizon and that it takes weeks to get my fabric from Germany. We also had been working on these design in the background since the beginning of the season, and so we were able to pull it out of the file and execute it much more quickly than if we’d started a new concept from scratch.”

In fact this design may never have seen the light of day if not for the home playoff game. A number of issues (funding, build space, deployment complications at the new stadium, etc) saw the committee complete just three of five planned tifos.

“I thought this idea was dead,” said its designer, Scott Demeranville. “It was David who suggested we go back to the idea, but we thought it was going to be for the last home game of the season against LAFC. Practical issues delayed it further.”

Martin estimated that committee members and volunteers put in roughly 500 work hours to compete the display in a record time of five days, despite limited access to the build space during the work week.

Demeranville sketched the original design, a skeletal loon based on the red-eyed bird of MNUFC’s crest. “The Dethloon is very much in the same spirit as the Dark Clouds name where on the surface it looks dark and intimidating, but it’s actually kind of tongue-in-cheek,” he explained. “It’s a little bit of a parody of soccer supporters who take themselves too seriously. Hence the spelling.”

“It means a lot to me see how much work everyone puts into building and deploying a tifo,” continued Demeranville. “It’s a huge honor to be able to design something that so many people put their time and effort into making a reality. Even though it was fairly boring practical issues that matched this design up with this game, it turned out to be a perfect match.”

We’re just happy to be here

The tifo displayed at Minnesota’s inaugural MLS match — that snowy day when the Loons were routed by fellow expansion club Atlanta United at TCF Bank Stadium — was not just a jab at the other United; it was a plea to never forget, or disregard, earlier chapters of this soccer story. “True unity has history.” From the Kicks to the Strikers, the Thunder to the Stars, the NASL Loons to the MLS Loons… Minnesota soccer fans have seen all the highs and lows.

After two horrific years, the Loons showed vast improvement. In Year Three, the Loons made it to the US Open Cup Final and hosted a first round playoff match. Some fans may scoff when reminded of a traveling fan’s sign, at the club’s first MLS match in Portland, which read “We’re just happy to be here.” No one wanted to hold up such a sign during the loss in Seattle which nearly ended Minnesota’s 2019 MLS Cup dreams. And certainly no one was going to say that to Ted Unkel on Sunday night.

But the evening was full of reminders that Minnesota had finally made it. A halftime light show set to Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination,” highlighting the Allianz Field building process and moments from the 2019 season. Video of Loons players visiting patients at Gillette Children’s Hospital. A pre-match concert by the Shredders as the club’s crest was carved from a block of ice. And, of course, the tifo.

Hosting this playoff match wasn’t the very beginning, but in a way it was the culmination of the beginning. The whole season was the culmination of a chapter, but it was still only an early chapter in a long book that is still being written. Things are always darkest before the dawn, but things aren’t so dark anymore. The sun has crept over the horizon, and it’s beautiful now.

Martin concluded, “Maybe the tifo fit the moment better than we planned.”

Featured image: Tim McLaughlin

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

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MNUFC Shares the Points and the Fun with LAFC

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

Plenty of results that have gone in favor of Minnesota United FC would have asterisks next to them if OptaJack tracked all the caveats. United’s win against LAFC at Banc of California Stadium on September 1 was such a result — Mason Toye scored two early goals while a Vela-less L.A. could not finish a single opportunity. Sunday’s rematch at Allianz Field held no such caveats.

While Adrian Heath chose to rest midfielders Kevin Molino and Ozzie Alonso ahead of the season finale in Seattle and was forced to make do without rookie defender Chase Gasper (red card), the rest of his favored Starting XI returned to the pitch for the home finale. And they did so against Carlos Vela and two other DPs: Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez. (You can read Araceli Villanueva’s story about Rodriguez’s club debut in the Supporters Shield match here.) In that light, a draw was just what the doctor ordered.

One Goal Apiece

“[In the] second half, [we] played to the game plan, stuck to the plan that we spoke about all week and it actually looked like we might get something out of the game,” Heath said. “[We] kept playing into their own hands in the first half, trying to play short, play intricate passes out and that’s what they want. Anything that goes square, goes back, they press it and they’re very good at it.”

Heath pulled Toye at the half and replaced him with Angelo Rodriguez, his first appearance in weeks: “In the second half, Angelo was in really good spots. We got it into him and we had what? Three of the best chances of the night? That was the plan in the first half.”

Rodriguez did not score, though he had chances. Instead, an unsurprising Vela goal in minute 70 was followed by a beautiful set piece (!) header from Michael Boxall. “It’s something that we work on in training,” said the defender. “And, just, we know the timing off Jan [Gregus] with his run up, and when he puts his hand up and down. I mean, I’m not sure if they [the LA defenders] even moved. So I think that’s the most open I’ve ever been and might ever be in the box.”

Welcome to our home

Around 100 LAFC supporters made the trip to Minnesota. A weekend of sightseeing, brewery-hopping and meet-ups with Minnesota’s SGs (the Dark Clouds and True North Elite) preceded Sunday night’s match.

Expos capo Valeria Tapia said, “We met up with some True North people and they joined us in the chants and shared some drinks with us. Sunday morning we met up at Surly [Brewing] to eat and drink before our march to the stadium. It was a blast singing on the way to the stadium on the rail.”

The party continued after the final whistle, with a couple dozen LA fans joining the Dark Clouds at Black Hart of St Paul, just two blocks from Allianz. Post-match karaoke is better with new friends and the pastime gets a special post-Loons slot at Black Hart, but went later than usual thanks to the visitors’ energy. They led the bar in singing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me,” and the ubiquitous “Sweet Caroline,” to name just a few.

“Everybody that I knew that was there enjoyed their time there,” Tapia said. “Overall the experience was amazing and I can’t wait to go back. Everybody was so nice and welcoming.”

From welcoming to #SayShh

With a playoff berth clinched on Wednesday night, Sunday evening’s home finale acted as a pep rally of sorts. MN United CEO Chris Wright took to the pitch during halftime to thank fans for their support before messages from the players appeared on the video board — standard Fan Appreciate Night fare. But a video that played pregame somewhat overshadowed that message:

If you’re wondering, “Who is this guy telling me to shush?”: That’s Sean “Slug” Daley, half of the Minneapolis-based rap duo called Atmosphere. The rapper, and co-founder of Rhymesayers Entertainment, is a soccer fan and has been spotted at a number of United games this season. His song ‘Say Shh’ is a celebration of Minnesota/Midwest pride so Daley, and this song in particular, are logical choices to front the campaign. Yet Minnesota Soccer Twitter blew up when it launched. Why?

A poll of MNUFC supporters, garnering 125 votes, found a mix of people who were either enjoyed the song and were indifferent to the message or were indifferent to the song and unsure of the message.

The poll ended fairly level — compared to initial votes. ‘Petty, grudge match’ held a 50% share of the first 50 responses. The grudge goes back to Heath’s repeated references to the pundits at what he likes to call “MLS dot com” — That would be the folks at MLS Soccer dot com, whose weekly power rankings and early season predictions often criticize Heath’s tactics and squad selection. The club’s insistence on continuing to call out the critics (for — criticizing?) is what irks some supporters:

It’s fine. Slug is great. But, we are not the team that nobody wanted. We haven’t been that team for 7 years. It seems manufactured. The team, supporters, press and league are all in love with each other. The only ones who feel unwanted are the front office and coach. Thin skin?

@bill_mcguire (the fan, not the owner)

It leans to heavily on Slug, and not the absolute accomplishment of the players battling to get into The Playoffs. Love the song, but the campaign falls on its face.

@ecdcmnufc

Now, tossing the criticism back to the pundits is nothing new. When Grant Wahl predicted that MNUFC wouldn’t surpass five wins in its first MLS season, he was proven wrong. And the fans let him know it:

While a scarf held up by fans is a level or two below an organized marketing campaign by a franchise, one can’t expect that a seemingly negative statement won’t be used in the same way positive statements are. United made a hype video for the first match at Allianz Field that followed a similar format (albeit without a local celebrity lending voice to the cause):

But the issue cited most by fans is that #SayShh puts too much focus on the pundits and Slug, rather than on the players who did the work and the supporters who were cheering for them all along.

Oddly enough, CEO Chris Wright’s former employer produced such a video, spotlighting the fans, community and players. For a different league, in a different sport — one which is not known for such a close connection to its community.

MN United FC did not take that track. The supporters are taking on that role, to keep that dialogue open with the pundits and commentators, to stand up for their club without standing off. They were there all along while the players proved themselves.***

The Loons close the season in Seattle on Sunday. Decision Day results will determine if Allianz Field gets to host a first round playoff match.

COYL

*** Always with the asterisks.

Featured image: Bridget McDowell

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

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Loons Highlights With All The Feels

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

While the month is ending on a good note for the Loons, with an exhilarating mid-week win clinching the club’s first MLS postseason appearance, September has truly been a mixed bag for Minnesota United. As the Loons prepare for their final regular season appearance at Allianz Field, let’s review the emotions and results of the past month.

Confusion in Houston: 2-0 loss

United commemorated 9/11 in Houston, with what should have been the first episode of Batman vs. Superman. Fresh off of the international break, Loons fans expected to see Miguel ‘Batman’ Ibarra suit up against best friend, and former teammate, Christian ‘Superman’ Ramirez for the first time since the latter’s midseason departure in 2018. Instead, Ibarra viewed the match from the stands with Ramirez’s wife and daughter while Adrian Heath’s favored international stars took on the Dynamo with tired legs.

It didn’t go well. Fielding a 4-3-3 to compensate for the absence of an injured Darwin Quintero, the Loons struggled to find anything resembling a rhythm. Mason Toye and Thomas Chacón were not able to connect with anything resembling chemistry up top and the midfield struggled to string together any threatening passes. Ethan Finlay, playing on Toye’s right, was the only noticeable attacking mid, both for his box-to-box runs and a couple spectacular misses toward goal. And so, it was only fair that Ramirez be the one to put the last nail in that road trip coffin:

Salt Lake Rejuvenation: 3-1 win

Darwin Quintero made a strong and healthy return to the Starting XI when Minnesota hosted Real Salt Lake on September 15. The Loons were down early on a Albert Rusnak goal in the 17th minute, but just minutes later, Quintero humiliated the RSL defense, leveling the score and giving us a perfect illustration of Nick Rimando’s legacy against Minnesota attackers:

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando watches helplessly as Quintero scores the first of three goals against him during his final MLS appearance in Minnesota. Courtesy of MNUFC

The Loons pulled ahead early in the second half, with an equally beautiful brace from Quintero. A final goal from Ethan Finlay in the 81st minute sealed the result and allowed MNUFC to bounce back up to second in the west. Amazingly, they pulled it off with just 38% of the possession and fewer than 400 passes — a testament to the system and chemistry in that night’s lineup.

Frustration in the Portland Forest: 0-0 draw

Did anyone really want to win last Sunday? Did either team, other than the goalkeepers, know a playoff berth was at stake? Despite a flurry of shots, a bevy of saves and much cursing (and worshiping) of the crossbar gods, United’s trip to Portland was a non-starter. Vito Mannone had words with a handful of teammates who he felt had left him an unfair amount of work, but he managed to keep the clean sheet.

“I’m trying to think of a really, really classic save. I think he save the ones he should’ve saved but we needed him,” said Heath. “When you go on the road at places like this, you know your goalkeeper is always going to have to play well and I thought he did.”

Meanwhile, this writer stepped away from the screen mid-match to do something unprecedented — unpack from a weekend trip within hours of getting home. And she missed nothing, other than a Mason Toye embellishment foul (which prompted his second disciplinary fine within a week) and a few expected saves from Mannone.

Friendly Rivalry Exalted: 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City

On a night when a win would seal a playoff berth, Minnesota faced perhaps their most comfortable opponent — the ever-present Sporting Kansas City. Minnesota even cranked up the Nice Factor by serving tater tot hot dish in the press box. Obviously, the officials were not given a helping of this northern comfort food:

There was no VAR call for this questionable seventh minute goal and the remaining 38 minutes of the half could only be described as flustered. The Loons weren’t able to cancel out Barath’s questionable goal until late in the second half. Captain Ozzie Alonso found himself on the end of a set piece rebound and fired off a shot nearly identical to his goal on opening night:

For the remaining 20 minutes, it appeared both teams may be dropping two points that night. The frustration came roaring back for fans and players alike. But then, just as stoppage time was announced, United’s Rookie of the Year contender sealed the deal. It just took a little help from Barath (of all people).

Hassani Dotson’s shot took a deflection of the Kansas City defender and found its way past Tim Melia. And chaos ensued.

Three points. Playoffs. Euphoria and validation. Was that the biggest goal in Dotson’s career?

“Yeah, I would say so. It was the game winner but the credit goes to the team and all the effort that everyone in the organization has put in for us to get here.”

But it is not over yet.

“Let’s go on and see if we can win this game against LAFC,” said Heath. “I know nobody gives us a chance, but it’d be nice to beat them on Sunday and that’ll be three times we’ve beaten them out of four.”

And so, we go again.

COYL

Featured image: Bridget McDowell

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

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Loons Shock LAFC, Earn Shutout On the Road

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

Minnesota United FC is no stranger to playing spoiler in the waning weeks of the MLS season. However, the Loons have never gained much for themselves by doing so. On Sunday, that all changed with the upset of the season, giving the Loons – and the entire western conference – a leg up in the race for second place.

Los Angeles Football Club was undefeated at home going into Sunday evening’s meeting and had only lost one league match there since joining the league in 2018. Minnesota fans were not expecting much from the matchup, hoping for a draw at best or, barring that, as few goals conceded as possible.

When yet another roster and formation shakeup was revealed, everyone would have settled for anything above humiliation. So when Mason Toye, left to roam the final third alone in a strangely fluid 3-5-2, knocked in not one, but two (!) goals before the 30 minute mark, all hell broke loose on Twitter.

In theory, Heath’s formation seemed an odd way to handle the threat of an attacking team, but in practice it proved to be an effective weapon.

While Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, and Brent Kallman (returning to the XI after a long bench spell) set up as a center-back trio, two additional defenders tracked back each time LA approached the area, parking the bus from the first minute and effectively neutralizing a Vela-free offense.

The Black-and-Gold played a similar game, sending most of the 4-3-3 role players forward in an effort to thwart Minnesota’s traditionally leaky defense by crowding the box. More men pressing means more gaps can be exploited, but the Black-and-Blue bus did its job and, in their rare missteps, Vito Mannone came up clutch to deny many LA opportunities.

With so many players thrown forward, Mason Toye and Darwin Quintero were free to instantly turn every counterattack into a one-on-one or one-on-two. While Quintero opened up a lot of space and drew attention away from Toye, extra touches and a few weak passes resulted in more turnovers than shots. Thankfully, they didn’t need many:

With just five shots and possession of the ball for only 23 percent of the match, Minnesota managed to seal the deal. LAFC can tout Vela’s absence as an issue, but without the star striker they still managed 23 shots, 8 on target. Adama Diomande tallied 4 shots, 1 on target, and Adrien Perez tallied 2, both through traffic and on target. Toye’s 2 shots for 2 goals made the difference, thanks to this man:

Whether the win is a result of the performance of Toye and/or Mannone, Heath’s roster/formation change, the absence of Vela, a healthy dose of luck, or any combination of such factors, when it comes down to season stats and the conference table, just two things matter: the W and the scoreline. But surprises are nice:

“I thought our discipline was absolutely magnificent and we knew they were going man for man at the back when they were attacking and Mason’s quick, people don’t realize how quick he is, and we realized we would get opportunities on the break and, I have to say, I didn’t expect the two goals and certainly not the second one. I thought the first one was a magnificent finish but I think the second took everybody by surprise, even the keeper.”

– Head coach Adrian Heath

Actually, not everybody was surprised.

“It didn’t surprise me at all,” said Toye. “I work really hard every day in training and I’ve been doing it for as long as I’ve been here. So, I think that I’ve put in the work and I think that it’s just showing the fruits of my labor here. […] I’ve been working really hard to get myself into these opportunites.”

The Loons still have a lot of work to do to keep themselves above the red line, not least of which is their turn to host LAFC at Allianz Field at the end of the month. That match, however, is not on Minnesota’s radar yet. “We’re looking at each game and not going too [far] ahead,” Toye explained. “Houston is next. It’s one game at a time and we’ll get to LAFC and adjust.”

With international call-ups spelling absences for the 9/11 meeting with Dynamo in Houston, and possibly for the following weekend’s meeting with Real Salt Lake, the squad will be using a weekend friendly against CF Pachuca (the Liga MX side where Romario Ibarra is on loan) as a tune-up.

Toye and rookie midfielder Hassani Dotson will be with the USMNT U-23s for a September 9 friendly. Jan Gregus (Slovakia), Kevin Molino (Trinidad and Tobago), Robin Lod and Rasmus Schuller (Finland) have all been called up as well, as FIFA gears up for World Cup qualifiers.

Never a boring day in the West. Or in the North, for that matter.

COYL

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

Oh, Darwin Quintero – Will He Ever Throw It Back to You?

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

The US Open Cup Final was a winnable game (as winnable as any big game played by a Minnesota team can be – take that however you wish). Adrian Heath’s favored lineup was well rested, new acquisitions eligible for selection, and the opponent a known quantity. The Loons needed only to keep their shape and begin the match on the front foot. They did neither of those things.

The players can hardly be faulted. They were on the back foot from the moment the Starting XI and formation had been decided. The two most puzzling factors for fans? The omission of Darwin Quintero and the switch to a 4-3-3.

Darwin Quintero

Minnesota could not have made it to the final without Darwin Quintero. He earned the 2019 USOC Golden Boot, scoring at least once in every round played en route to the final. He stood alone atop the table with 6. Four players were tied runners-up with 4 goals, including Quintero’s fellow DP Angelo Rodriguez and Atlanta’s Brandon Vazquez. So why leave him on the bench in the final?

If there were any doubts as to whether he was worth the DP money when he joined the club in March of 2018, Darwin Quintero quickly quieted them, notching 11 goals and 12 assists through 27 appearances. His sophomore season has been less impressive, with 6 goals and 5 assists being overshadowed by countless missed opportunities in his 18 appearances.

Ironically, the same supporters who had yelled for Quintero to be taken off the field in league matches (Overheard in the Wonderwall: “He doesn’t know how to strike the ball,” “His first touch is s–t!,” “What the f— is he doing out there?!”) were the first to decry his omission from the Starting XI in Atlanta. *You could swap Angelo Rodriguez for Quintero as the subject of this paragraph and those points would still ring true, but his omission from the 18 was more understandable given recent injuries.*

Coming to the fore of Minnesota Soccer Twitter once again is #HeathOut. Heath had carefully managed Quintero’s minutes in a tight league schedule leading up to the final. Why bother to do that with a player you plan to sit? Longtime fan-favorite Miguel Ibarra got the same treatment, a painful move given his history with the club and the implications of the match.

Quintero and Ibarra, observing the first half in Atlanta. Image: ESPN+ broadcast

Ibarra has been struggling in 2019 as well, with a single goal in 17 appearances. But his biggest impact has always been off of the score sheet, his work rate up and down the pitch never going unnoticed. Have Quintero and Ibarra played themselves right out of Heath’s favor, ‘dropped themselves’ as Heath is wont to say, by not being the flashy difference makers they once were?

Mason Toye and the 4-3-3

Minnesota’s first- and second-year rookies have been holding their own this season next to the veterans. After a short, but fruitful, loan spell with USL-affiliate Forward Madison SC, Mason Toye is showing promise with the first team. Despite a red card-earning show of poor sportsmanship in early August, the sophomore striker has made an impact, credited with 4 goals and 3 assists in just 10 appearances. Toye also scored the winning goal in the USOC semifinal against Portland Timbers. Was this enough to earn the start in the final? Possibly.

Heath left his favored back four (lined left to right: Gasper, Boxall, Opara and Metanire) intact, but sent Gregus, Alonso and Dotson out as a midfield trio and put Lod and Molino on either side of Toye. Heath had adopted this formation previously in desperate moments (in cases of injury or other absences), but never with these eleven players, who were only just beginning to build chemistry in the favored system.

The midfield shape limited the squad’s wing play, an essential piece of the club’s midfield transitions, and the Loons appeared lost through the first half, struggling to maintain any semblance of order when moving in either direction. Up front, Lod and Molino struggled to create chances on the rare occasions when the midfield successfully won them the ball. Toye was left wandering alone into the final third, flirting with an offside call, but failing to get behind the Atlanta defense.

With a history of odd tactical decisions made to prove a point to his players, it is quite possible that Heath’s late announcement of the Starting XI (Players were not told until Tuesday morning whether they would play that evening.) and the implementation of the 4-3-3 was meant to send a message.

By selecting a 4-3-3, Quintero and Ibarra’s positions were effectively eliminated. Had the Loons managed to win, Heath’s message to Quintero (in a contract year) and Ibarra (his market value likely at its peak) would have been loud and clear: We’ve won with you, but we can win without you. The man from Manchester may be taking Minnesota’s passive-aggressiveness to another level.

Playoff implications

The two main goals of Minnesota’s Three Year Plan were to win the Lamar Hunt trophy and make the playoffs. With that first opportunity squandered, all eyes turn to the playoffs. As of Saturday morning, United sits at 5th in the West, just 5 points ahead of Portland who sit just below the playoff line in 8th with a match in hand. With such a tight race, United needs every point it can get from a tough September schedule, beginning on the road at LAFC.

Quintero helps Ibarra celebrate his goal against LAFC on July 22, 2018, which MNUFC won, 5-1.. Image: MNUFC Twitter

The Open Cup Final was a bad time to experiment with formation and lineup, but doing so in the final weeks of the season? That could be catastrophic. With his defense set (lacking in depth, but serviceable) Heath needs to utilize every attacking tool in his arsenal. Quintero and Toye, despite their flaws, have been clutch in key moments. Ibarra, Molino, Finlay, Rodriguez; they’ve all been difference makers, on the scoresheet or off.

Minnesota United has everything it needs to make a run in the playoffs. Heath just needs to acknowledge that and let it happen. The biggest phase of the Three Year Plan begins now and the league is watching. And the only thing guaranteed for the Loons in September is that there will be more surprises from the gaffer.

COYL

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

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MNUFC’s Three-Year Plan Gets More Puzzling with Open Cup Loss

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

Imagine spending more than two years searching for and fitting together all the edge and corner pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Halfway through that third year you still need one or two more pieces, but the frame is coming together. More and more people have been asking you what the final picture is, but you either can’t or won’t tell them, saying only that the little pictures change the game. You’re gathering little clusters here and there, snapshots you can piece together and show off at big gatherings. You’ve given them glimpses, little hints about the final product, especially one particular section. 

Then one night, with everyone watching and waiting anxiously to see a completed section of your puzzle – the part they have been eyeing for the better part of a year – you approach the table, hesitate for a moment with your hands over that beautifully progressing section and… You shove it to the side and start fumbling with loose pieces in the opposite corner while a whole party of of supporters and skeptics looks on.

That is what Adrian Heath did with his United squad on Tuesday.

An Open Cup Final berth was billed as a cornerstone to Heath’s Three Year Plan from the outset in 2017. Open Cup and playoffs, Open Cup and playoffs, Open Cup and playoffs: The buzz words used by Heath & Co as they settled into each MLS season. The third time was the charm for an Open Cup berth and fans – even the most fervent pessimists – could not be faulted for going into the final in Atlanta expecting to see a lineup and formation akin to those laid out for the preceding matches.

Heath has stuck to his favored 4-2-3-1 to start nearly every match in 2019, reverting to a 4-3-3 only when absences dictated it and even then, only for short periods of time. He also held back his favored starters for two important league matches, presumably resting them for the final. So when MNUFC posted a 4-3-3 and a Starting XI that was largely untested in that shape, well – The only thing we know to expect is a surprise and this was no different.

Rookies Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson have performed well for the last couple months, often appearing mature beyond their years, especially when played alongside veterans like Michael Boxall, Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso. Mason Toye, despite disciplinary issues, has reaped the rewards of having a USL affiliate nearby, finally breaking out of his second-year rookie slump; and newcomer Robin Lod has shown promise in his very short time here, when slotted in for short periods with perennial starters who needed someone to light a fire under their feet. 

Despite all of that, expecting these players to hold off and break down a hot-running Atlanta side, in an unfriendly environment (Say what you will about the NFL, but they got one thing right in setting single-elimination style finals at neutral sites.), was incredibly unfair, especially given the blood, sweat and tears they gave to get there.

Midfield turnovers and final-third panic were, per usual, the Loons’ downfall in Atlanta. Opening the scoring with an own goal didn’t do much to settle the nerves of the defense (In all fairness to Gasper, that ball took an odd bounce and Minnesota veterans have been credited with even uglier own goals off of even poorer decisions.), but completing their own scoring opportunities could have wiped that moment clean from the Loons’ collective conscience. Had Minnesota managed to level the score and bounce back for the win, there is a good chance Man of the Match honors would still have gone to a player on the backline.

While Opara and Boxall (especially Boxall) took flack on Twitter for whiffing on some sitters that could have won the game, the defenders played their roles well in the second half, holding Atlanta goalless on one counter attack after another. Vito Mannone also came up huge, giving up only one goal to Atlanta (and one, of course, to Gasper) despite seeing too much of Josef Martinez.

What a juxtaposition this night was to the two teams’ first meeting back in 2017. On that bitterly cold and snowy afternoon, Minnesota’s defense couldn’t buy a break, losing their home opener 6-1. On Tuesday night, Minnesota lived and died by its defense, holding Atlanta to one goal and then having the best opportunities to score at the other end of the pitch.

While Heath shuffles the midfield and attack – a carousel of MLS rookies and veterans, internationals and hometown favorites – he would do well to leave the back four intact. And not let them beat themselves up for not doing the job on the other end of the pitch, too.

Featured image: MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

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MN United Celebrates Guts, Glory, But Few Goals

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

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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MNUFC Climb Their Way To US Open Cup FInal

Official Minnesota United FC Reporter

By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell 

Minnesota United hosted the Portland Timbers for not one, but two matches this week. The schedule could not have worked out better for the Oregonians who’ve always wanted to be temporary citizens of the Twin Cities. Sunday’s MLS action will be discussed at length in another article. For now the spotlight is on the Loons’ first US Open Cup semifinal appearance as an upper-tier club.

After toppling the Timbers 1-0 on a last minute penalty kick on Sunday, the only thing certain about Wednesday’s bout was that it would be a nail biter. These two clubs are pretty evenly matched in terms of lineup and formation. Sunday’s match was an end-to-end battle start to finish and just minutes into Wednesday’s action, there was a clear repeat ahead, despite a much changed attack.

While Portland held a slight edge on Sunday in terms of possession and forays into the final third, Minnesota took over that role on Wednesday. The Loons had made 4 runs into the Timbers’ 18 inside of 4 minutes and were able to shut down every counterattack before it could get dangerous. Of course, the deadlock was broken by a penalty kick. How else?

Darwin Quintero converted the penalty, called after his own free kick found a hand in Portland’s wall. Captain Ozzie Alonso was seen running 70 yards down the field to say something to Quintero before his attempt. When asked what the instruction was, head coach Adrian Heath quipped, “Probably, ‘score.'”

Fair enough.

Minnesota nearly made it into halftime with the lead, but Portland knocked in a stoppage time goal that left Heath wondering, “Where’s VAR when you need it, eh?” Brian Fernandez was potentially offside when he struck the ball from Jeremy Ebobisse, but it was not reviewed as VAR is not used in USOC play. One viewer captured this still frame which makes it doubtful a review would have been in Minnesota’s favor:

The second half was much the same as the first. The team’s traded shots, blocks, tackles, and fouls; Minnesota’s attacking players continued to struggle with their first touch; and the Wonderwall grew louder. Then, in the 64th minute, Mason Toye finally connected.

Toye and Kevin Molino have displayed great chemistry recently, often combining for great scoring chances. Molino dropped a beautiful ball right in front of Toye who beat Claude Dieina and Steven Clark to knock in the tiebreaker.

“Whenever Kevin gets the ball and has space and time, I’m just going to run and try to get myself into a good spot,” Toye said. He also said they did finishing drills together after practice this week: “That might have helped.”

Toye’s father was in attendance for what the striker called the most important goal of his career, his second match-winner scored in USOC play. Dad was probably biting his nails through the final 30 minutes while the Loons held off the Timbers who worked tirelessly for tying and winning goals. Despite their efforts, which ran well into the 5 minutes of added time, the Loons held on.

They will face fellow expansion side Atlanta United at Mercedes Benz Stadium on August 27. How does Heath feel about playing his club’s measuring stick?

“It’s nice for us, yeah,” he said, before adding another jab at ‘MLS dot com’: “The flags will be at half-mast in that building tonight, with Minnesota in the final.”

Jokes aside, Heath plows ahead. His squad faces two Western Conference foes over the next week (Dallas on Saturday, Colorado on Wednesday), important matches if Minnesota is to stay on top of the table.

By the time Minnesota lands in Atlanta, Lod will be more fit and the club’s first Young Designated Player, Thomas Chacon, should have his visa paperwork squared away. Whether Chacon will factor into the attack in Atlanta remains to be seen. That may depend on how the rest of the squad handles training and the intervening matches and on the Uraguayan’s fitness level.

The one thing fans can be sure of: This is a big year for Minnesota United. Year Three was billed as ‘THE’ Year and is shaping up as hoped. Playoff contention and the club’s first-ever US Open Cup final.

Over the next month, the Loons will definitively answer the question, “Who runs the North?”

COYL

Featured image: @MNUFC

Follow and chat with me on Twitter // @BCMcDowell

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale