By Ian L. (@the18thdoc)
Minnesota United entered the league in 2017 to very low expectations and still barely managed to meet them. While occasional flashes of quality may rightly gives fans hope for 2018, more still needs to be done if they’re to be considered a serious contender in the Western conference.
2017 in Review
“Well, that didn't wind up being as bad as we thought it was going to be” is about as lukewarm a review that one could proffer, but it certainly fits. While I certainly don’t think many people would have given Minnesota any chance at making the postseason in their first year of Major League Soccer, the Loons sure gave us all a pretty big scare by opening the campaign conceding 20 goals in their first five matches. Minnesota’s inauspicious start led to many people wondering if they were going to be not just the regular amount of bad, but historically bad, like worse than Chivas bad.
It would be easy (considering the apocalyptically bad start to the season) to feel good and optimistic going forward. After all, Minnesota finished above three teams in the league and won a few great matches while looking positively competent! Let’s just check the underlying numbers real quick and…
So. Yeah. The numbers are definitely not great. Of particular concern, obviously, are these defensive numbers which were the worst we've seen from a team in quite a long time. Minnesota gave up 67 goals last season and the ASA model expected them to allow about 66 (we exclude own-goals). This would suggest that Minnesota can’t really blame any particular brand of misfortune in the back this season, and also that unless improvements are made, they can expect to spend another season leaking chances.
Now, those defensive issues shouldn’t be surprising, but I was more than a little taken aback to see just how poor their offensive numbers were as well. While tallying 45 goals put them ahead of five other clubs (including offensive powerhouses like Orlando, DC, and Colorado) their underlying total season xG of 38.4 was the third worst in MLS and their 338 shots (175 within the penalty area) managed to only best the Colorado Rapids.
So what do the Loons need to improve next season? Well, basically everything. Honestly, all but a handful of players could be easily improved upon. Let’s take a look at their offseason so far.
There haven't been any earth shattering departures thus far. Sub-par defenders Jermaine Taylor and Justin Davis are gone, and of all those leaving only Johan Venegas logged more than 1000 minutes in 2017. Given Minnesota’s glut of wide players at the end of last season, it’s hardly surprising to see him deemed surplus to requirements.
Unfortunately for Loons fans, there haven't been many additions, either. They traded for Harrison Heath, who is Adrian Heath’s son so that explains that. Attacking midfield signing Frantz Pangop is a little bit of a mystery at this point, and it’s difficult to see where the Cameroonian fits in, though he may line up behind Ramirez in the midfield or swing over to the wing. The second Cameroonian signing of the offseason, they added Bertrand Owundi Eko’o as a further attempt to bolster the defense. They took Tyrone Mears in the re-entry draft, who is probably on the tail end of his career but was a useful cog in a 2016 MLS Cup winning Seattle side and put in a lot of minutes for Atlanta in 2017. Mears is probably a step up over Minnesota’s current fullbacks and I’d be surprised if he doesn't starting on opening kick.
It’s hard to put blame on Bobby Shuttleworth for last year’s defensive failings, but they added 'keeper Matt Lampson, who has shown himself to be a very capable backup talented enough to push for the starting job. All in all, MInnesota picked up a couple of decent pieces without even bending the bank, but they’re going to need to make a few more moves if they want to stay out of the cellar in 2018.
This is where the most improvement is needed, and Minnesota have made some effort to address that. Francisco Calvo was far from perfect last season, but has shown enough flashes that I wouldn't be surprised if Heath considered him to be the centerback around which the backline is built. Brent Kallman has been serviceable, but I think most fans would be rightly disappointed if another option wasn’t brought in. Jerome Thiesson possibly loses the starting spot to Mears, but with former Burnley man approaching 35 years of age I think there will be opportunities for Thiesson throughout the season as he could probably challenge Burch for minutes at left back as well. Bertrand Owundi Eko’o has a name that’s a lot of fun to type and also experience at both center and left back. Expect to see him rotate around a bit in preseason to see where exactly he fits in best.
Man, there’s a lot going on here. Minnesota have done a good job shedding a few of their superfluous wingers. That leaves Heath with Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay, Miguel Ibarra, Sam Nicholson, and Danladi (in a pinch) as wide options. I”ll hold my hand up and admit to scoffing at the price that was paid for a struggling Finlay, but he did very well for his new side and will rightly be first choice on the right going into 2018. As for the left, that’s a bit of an unknown at this point. Fans will be rooting for Ibarra to make that position his own next season, but he’ll face healthy competition from Nicholson.
Now, here’s where we don’t quite have resolution on next year’s team. It’s been no secret that Minnesota are courting a shiny new #10. If they can capture a quality player there, you’ll probably see Molino shift out left where he is at his most dangerous. This would once again leave Minnesota a little roster bloated with wingers, but nothing that can’t be carried for another season.
In the middle of the park you’ve got Sam Cronin, Colin Warner, and Ibson. Ideally you’ll be using Cronin and Ibson here again, with Ibson’s age (turning 35 around the all star break) being the only question mark. Ibson started last season on the bench, but quickly became one of Minnesota’s most important players. I’m not going to sit here and act like Ibson wasn’t prone to wander a bit and that doing such a thing didn’t occasionally leave his team vulnerable, but for somebody rumored to be old, he was certainly active last season (look at the graphic above!). He was second in the league for touches (93.82 p90), third in the league for tackles (110), and third in the league for recoveries (256). If Minnesota can add a productive CAM while keeping Molino and Ibson at or around last year’s levels of production, the Loons might be alright in the middle of the park.
Two words. Christian Ramirez. A lot of people were wondering if Superman could make the jump from NASL to MLS and he answered the critics with a resounding “yep”. The American tallied a club leading 14 goals while adding 3 assists. If there is any cause for concern, it’s a peek at his xG of 9.99 which shows he scored about 33% more than expected and that kind of return might be difficult to replicate next season. That being said, if Minnesota sign a talented #10, Ramirez is going to be getting a lot of service, especially with Molino and Finlay working from the wings.
Backing up Mr. Ramirez is our 2017 Rookie of the Year runner up (and he probably should have won it if we’re being honest) Abu Danladi. Danladi battled a few injuries last season but still managed to tally 8 times which is no small feat for a MLS rookie. Danladi is still young and his xG + xA p96 of 0.36 isn’t anything to write home about, but apparently it’s just about worth enough to write it in a blog post. Striker is one position that Minnesota should feel good about. Drafting Mason Toye, who was highly coveted in this year’s Superdraft, provides even more cover for the future. Good job on having good forwards Minnesota Loons.
Hmm.... I mean, they aren’t going to win the league are they? I’m pretty confident ruling that out. Can they make the playoffs? That’s a much tougher question. They were only 10 points off that pace last season and San Jose made it with a -21 goal differential so I don’t think you can say never. Still, last year was a particularly underwhelming Western Conference, the other teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs have also improved, and LAFC already looks reasonably strong on paper. It’s going to be a tough ask for the Loons, but in a league where you can get Zlatan Ibrahimovic for TAM, nothing is impossible. I think a postseason berth would be a wildly successful second season for them.
That’s the ceiling. What’s the floor? Well it’s the actual floor. Western Conference teams that were already a lot better than Minnesota have improved, and teams that were unusually poor last season have taken a lot of steps in the offseason to keep that from happening again. If Minnesota start the season with as leaky of a boat as they did last year, the sea won’t be nearly as forgiving this time around and they’ll sink without a trace.