Is Minnesota Really The Worst Defensive Team In MLS History? / by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Let me say, first and foremost, I have a fondness for the underdog or down and out. My first true love, the Seattle Mariners, have the longest tenured playoff drought in Major League Baseball. They've missed out on 15 straight seasons of postseason play much due to their own ineptitude.

So I don’t write this to demean what is happening in MLS to Minnesota, as the expansion club is taking body shots both on and off the field with the tremendously rough start they’ve faced over the last month.

After their third loss in four games, all with opponents posting five or more goals, most pundits are ready to declare the Loons on the path to having the worst MLS season of all-time. These types of narratives aren’t really anything new for the start of any particular sports season. Especially when they’re so blatant and obvious.

But before we jump straight to “the worst team ever”. I think it would be wise to exercise some caution and compare the first four games of Minnesota United to the first four games of the most recent expansion sides since 2011 (basically when our data starts) and compare how difficult they had it coming out of the gate.

Year201120112012201520152017
TeamPortland TimbersVancouver WhitecapsMontreal ImpactNew York CityOrlando CityMinnesota United
Shots For495958504344
Shots Against525259563449
xG For2.996.144.185.192.773.96
xG Against4.645.525.515.112.847.32
xGoal Difference-1.650.62-1.330.08-0.07-3.36

The first thing I notice is that Minnesota is much worse defensively than either the 2011 Whitecaps or 2012 Impact, which were both great examples of bad defenses. What makes matters worse is that with our expected goals model we don’t give the three penalties collected by their opponents over their first four games much weight (only 0.15 each).

Not only has the defense been bad... it’s not even given up the most shots. They’re just giving up shots in HUGE spots. This isn’t just bad. It’s epically bad. So let’s just compare them against the team that currently holds the record for which they’re going to draw the most comparisons for the rest of the season...Chivas USA circa 2011.

I mean--we could also compare them to 2013 Chivas USA or DC United as both had worst goal differentials. But the reality is that Minnesota is probably (maybe?) better than either of those teams on the attacking end....again, probably.

During Chivas’ first four games in 2011 they accrued 3.68 expected goals against and managed to create 3.77 expected goals for. Yes, they actually... weren’t an all-time terrible team. Surprise! They allowed a bunch of goals but ultimately they weren’t as terrible as they seemed on the surface.

However, the real ultimate team low for expected goals was another familiar squad... 2013’s Toronto FC. In their first four games they allowed 5.35 expected goals against while only managing 2.64 expected goals for.

I would love to stick up for Minnesota and say “hey, they’re not as bad as they look” and start some great 80’s remix montage where they work really hard and come back to make the playoffs after everyone else counted them out.

...buttttttttttt

There is no team, expansion or otherwise, at any point in MLS history that has started off this poorly.

But, this wouldn’t be one of my articles if somewhere there weren’t a small shred of hope that I left behind in the most well-meaning way and cruel way possible.

Paul Tenorio wrote about some of the various opportunities to change the formation and Kevin McCauley went a bit into the formation change that Heath delivered in the second half this past weekend against New England.

The point and intention of anything done would be to stop allowing so many high leverage opportunities. It’s not like their opponents are taking tons of shots or finding any more shots than they get against any other team, but they are allowing so much more penetration and access to those high leverage spots that the chances are just much better.

A formation change would hopefully change that accessibility of the 18 yard box and while it could increase the number of shots that should be a solid trade off that anyone would be willing to make at this point.

Additionally, looking and comparing to the other “historically” bad teams, Minnesota still has a competent attack. Between Christian Ramirez and Kevin Molino they’re going to continue to create dangerous opportunities (seriously, Molino is soooo underrated by ya’ll).

I still believe that Minnesota can find ways to win through their attack. I would kick Austin Berry out of bed or a few other MLS/USL/NASL options that could be available as they’re going to have to go shopping at some point... and sooner rather than later.

The narrative that Minnesota is historically bad isn’t just a narrative. It’s true. But they still have some pieces that are interesting and a team that is still coming together. If they can add a defensive midfielder to help shield the defense and a not terribad centerback that can pick-up runners and close down space, they may still crawl out of this eyesore.

That being said, Minnesota is building something and throwing quick cash at the problem could only serve to create a bigger problem next year if they overpay for a marginal upgrade and lose some of their TAM/GAM. Especially when you consider that their best case scenario is being interesting through the rest of the year, which they still may be anyways, all in an effort to avoid being historically bad.