Carl Carpenter (@C_Carpenter14)
Making the step up from the NASL into Major League Soccer can be extremely difficult (commiserations Cincinnati fans), and Minnesota’s first two seasons in MLS are an excellent example of this. Defensively, the Loons struggled to keep the ball out of the net consistently (statistically they have the worst defense in the league in 2017, and tied for third worst in 2018). Initially, Adrian Heath’s insistence on playing a high-risk and high-reward brand of soccer was seen as extremely foolhardy considering the construction of his roster, and his history of “brand over results” which ultimately cost him his job at Orlando City.
Heading into the 2019 season, few would have disagreed that this was a make-or-break year for Heath and Minnesota United. However, the club have exceeded these expectations thus far. They currently find themselves in fourth place in the stacked Western Conference, blending together the attacking style (third highest scorers in the league) with an increased steel at the back. Adrian Heath’s philosophy on how to play the game is finally paying off thanks to smart business in the transfer market, and their ability to fit into a system.
Setting The Scene
Looking at the stylistic preferences of Adrian Heath, ASA writer Kevin Minkus highlighted the defensive issues that his Orlando City team had in this article and compared them with the problems Minnesota had in 2017. Kevin’s piece details how poor Heath’s teams have been in regards to getting pressure on the ball in their own final third. At the time of the article getting published, a horrible 30% of opponent’s passes were completed within 10 yards of their own goal. By the end of the inaugural 2017 campaign, their xGD sat at -26.4. The only reason they outperformed (if you can call if that) these numbers is largely thanks to Christian Ramirez and a decent attacking output compared to their fellow cellar dwellers in the table. To further display how poor they were in stopping goals going in, they ranked the worst in the Western Conference, both home and away, in xGA (28 and 35.2 respectably) in 2017 and 2018. To put it simply: Minnesota United were on pace at one stage to be the worst team in league history, all thanks to their leaky defense. Fortunately for Heath, his former team Orlando City spared them this inauspicious record conceding a stunning 74 goals in 2018.
2018 was more of the same, albeit with some minor improvements in the underlying numbers. This was to be expected as Minnesota continued to flesh out a roster to be better equipped for the demands of the league. They halved their xGD numbers, and saw a nine point improvement in American Soccer Analysis’ expected points totals. However, they conceded one more goal (71) than they had in 2017, and made only an insignificant jump up the table from tenth in the Western Conference to ninth. Call it bad luck, but on the pitch Adrian Heath’s style seemingly put them in a bad situation time after time.
Minnesota On The Pitch
A lot has been mentioned about Adrian Heath and Minnesota’s insistence on playing gung-ho football. But what did that look like before this season? Since his Orlando City days, the English manager has been insistent on a particular style of play, but struggled to find a system in which to best exploit it. In 2017, the Loons commonly employed a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2, and a 4-3-3 to some levels throughout the course of the year. Perhaps it was roster construction, but it wouldn’t be until the mid-point of 2018 where Heath found some continuity playing the 4-2-3-1 system he used often in his Orlando days. This heavily utilized their strength in wide positions, but issues still remained.
Miguel Ibarra, Ethan Finlay, and Kevin Molino have all found significant minutes playing the #7 and #11 roles for Heath, and have been surprisingly productive with these minutes. Similarly, Minnesota United have always had a man they could rely on to score goals. In 2017, it was Christian Ramirez. In the summer of 2018, they unexpectedly traded him to LAFC and signed Darwin Quintero to replace him. Quintero had no issues shouldering that mantle, scoring 17 and assisting 17 in 45 appearances so far. Considering the mess that happened match after match behind them, their output was worthy of some recognition.
Individually and collectively, Minnesota were a mess at the back. Ask any Loons supporter what they thought of Vadim Demidov, and the look on their face will till you everything you need to know about the early days of Minnesota defending. In his system, Heath places a heavy emphasis on fullbacks and central defenders who contribute heavily both in and out of possession. Instead of tailoring the onus on attacking play, Minnesota consistently left themselves exposed. In 2017, they allowed 13.1 shots per game. The next year? 12.9. Regardless of what people thought about the play of goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, it’s nigh on impossible to look good when you’re consistently under pressure (as highlighted by their inability to keep the ball out of the final third).
In midfield, the club’s double pivot was the Brazilian stalwart Ibson, and a number of other players (Sam Cronin primarily in 2017, and Rasmus Schüller the next year). Ibson was involved in 14.7% of all the touches the Loons put together in 2017 and 2018, as well as 23.2% of all attacking moves. Ibson was vital in Minnesota progressing the ball forward into the attacking third and providing service for Christian Ramirez and eventually Darwin Quintero. Ibson and his supporting cast were good in possession, and Minnesota’s midfield was the main reason why the team outperformed their lower-ranking peers in regards to attacking output.
However, Minnesota’s issue was what their midfield did without the ball. Ibson was a holdover from the team’s years in the NASL and already in the twilight of his career. His experience served him well in possession, but his legs couldn’t put in the hard yards required when Minnesota lost control of the ball. In his two MLS seasons the Brazilian was dribbled past 1.8 times per 90 minutes. For a club whose strategy involves pushing the fullbacks up high and stretching the pitch, this inability to defend transitional movements cost them dearly. Minnesota conceded more shots on target against (391) than any other club in 2017 and 2019.
New Players, Same Old Formula
Minnesota look almost unrecognizable from the hodge-podge they were in 2017 and 2018. So, what have they gotten right? Simply put, they’ve added smart and experienced MLS veterans to bolster their spine. Ike Opara has long been one of the standout defenders in Major League Soccer, and at 30 years old is in his peak playing age too. Playing alongside Matt Besler in Kansas City, Opara was a huge reason why Sporting have been consistently excellent under Peter Vermes. For example, while Minnesota were practically throwing the ball into their net in 2017, Opara and SKC allowed only 0.79 goals per game and an xG per game of 0.93, the best in the league. Regardless of the system, placing an individual talent like Opara in your defense only serves to improve it.
Osvaldo Alonso was also signed off of waivers from Seattle to strengthen the midfield. In seasons past, Minnesota had relied heavily on Ibson and his creative qualities but lacked any steel in the midfield as a result. Alonso sits firmly in both of these categories. Despite his age, the Cuban powerhouse still managed to cover much of the pitch. Historically one of the league’s most consistently accurate passers, Alonso still offers a lot on the other side of the ball. While has numbers may have dropped off towards the end of his Seattle tenure, his move to Minnesota seems to have given him new life. Alonso has outperformed ASA’s xPassing model (currently distributing the ball at an impressive 92.0% compared to a predicted 87.1%), meaning he has completed 52 passes over what was expected of him.
The presence of Alonso protecting the the middle of the pitch has made them a much more difficult team to exploit. When he drops into the defensive line alongside Ike Opara and Michael Boxall, it gives license and freedom for Minnesota’s vertical and wide play on the flanks. The fullbacks in the shape of former Maryland Terrapins player Chase Gasper, and NCAA draftee Hassani Dotson, are aggressive at getting forward and contributing to the team in the opposition’s third. In season’s past, transitional moments have the team’s Achilles heel. Having the extra body to plug holes and put out fires has a long needed adjustment.
Minnesota addressed their need for a second midfield fulcrum with the signing of Slovakian midfielder Jan Gregus, and the two have dovetailed beautifully. Gregus possesses excellent delivery from set plays, and in open play is incredibly secure, sitting around the top 90th percentile in ASA’s definition of ball security (pass attempts per miscontrol or dispossession). This serves two purposes: it helps Minnesota cycle possession to create chances, and also minimizes the situations in which they have to defend/are countered against. Speaking to local news outlets in Minnesota, Heath emphasized this: “I think the most important thing is our ball retention and ball circulation… when you move the ball quickly and people are making runs off the ball, that is when it becomes difficult for them.” While Minnesota’s numbers in regards to the average verticality of passes (only sitting at 4.3 yards for Alonso and 2.1 for Gregus) won’t win any rewards, having a midfield which can simultaneously protect defensively and give a platform for Minnesota to bomb forward has been vital.
Attacking has never really been Minnesota’s issue. They may not be scoring goals in droves as impressively as LAFC, but this year’s roster improvements have definitely helped them in front of goal, as shown by the numbers below. There have been remarkable improvements in both their goal difference per match, expected goals for, expected goals against, and importantly points per match.
The goals of Darwin Quintero remain vital should they want to make a deep run in the play-offs, but Angelo Rodriguez has proved a solid contributor as well, and the wide options are as dangerous as ever. Mason Toye, despite playing less than three full matches in the league has chipped in with four goals. While that kind of scoring pace isn’t exactly sustainable over a longer time period, Toye is showing himself to be capable of being a productive striker, and having someone like that on the bench or waiting in the wings to fill in for any injuries is a luxury many MLS teams would love to have.
Even during the morass that was Minnesota United’s first two MLS seasons, there were occasional sparks of life that gave supporters hope, and analysts the slightest of pauses. That Minnesota have been able to turn things around so well this season is a testament to their front office and Adrian Heath being able to identify their weaknesses and correctly identify personnel that would help mitigate them. Adrian Heath still has his critics, and whether or not these changes are sustainable remain to be seen. However, other MLS club’s executives (I’m looking at you, Cincinnati) could learn a lot about how to compete in the league and doing so by staying within the club’s means.