Aug 25, 2018; Kansas City, KS, USA; Sporting KC defender Graham Zusi (8) battles for the ball with Minnesota United FC forward Angelo Rodriguez (9) during the first half at Children's Mercy Park. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota United’s players and staff offered postgame remarks suggesting a small moral victory could be taken from its 2-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City.
“There are levels of performance that you accept even when you lose games,” MNUFC coach Adrian Heath said. “Tonight was one of those nights. We had the best chances. It is the oldest saying in football that goals change games. They scored at really important times. That was the disappointment because I don’t think they had to work hard enough for their two goals.”
“We can take some positives away from this game that we were more disciplined and we stayed more to the plan,” added centerback Brent Kallman.
With Darwin Quintero absent due to a calf strain and facing second-place Kansas City at Sporting Park, the Loons’ odds were long heading into the game. And there is some truth to the suggestion Minnesota put in a stronger showing than it had in previous trips to Kansas City.
However, each successive defeat sees the playoffs move further from the Loons’ grasp, and moral victories may not be enough to placate its fan base for much longer — though a new soccer-specific stadium set to open in 2019 will surely support ticket sales next season.
Past assurances from the front office that MNUFC’s entrance into MLS via a two-year residence at TCF Bank Stadium was not a soft-launch were given. A concerted effort has been made to support those assurances with the fairly regular offering of moral victories. Meanwhile, on-field results in terms of points-per-game have only improved by a tenth of a point, and Minnesota is on pace to miss the postseason again.
Looking at its most-recent defeat, here are three takeaways of note for the Loons.
Loons’ lack of movement
A pair of sequences illustrated now much Minnesota missed the movement and workrate of its dangerman, Quintero.
Around the 22nd minute, organized defending by Kansas City forced Minnesota to pass back, out of the attacking third, in order to maintain possession. Twice the ball was circulated to Calvo, and twice the Costa Rican put his arms up as no Loons were moving to get open in front of him.
Calvo has rightly come in for a fair amount of criticism this season, but technical ability and vision, especially relative to the average MLS centerback, are not weaknesses of his. Heath’s move from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2 has allowed Calvo to get involved with the Loons’ attack further up the field, producing key passes that have lead directly to goals. But with a static attack in front of him for much of the night, the Loons were too easy to mark, and Calvo’s range of passing was neutralized.
Later, in 59th minute, Ángelo Rodríguez made an impressive run through Kansas City’s midfield, beating two defenders off the dribble, but was then forced to shoot from distance, straight into the arms of Tim Melia. Rodríguez’s first instinct after the tame effort was to chide rookie Mason Toye for not making a run to either threaten goal himself or draw a defender away from the space into which Rodríguez had moved.
Minnesota was able to find more success attacking late, but that came once Kansas City was content to sit back in defense of a two-goal lead, and Heath had introduced a pair of pacy attackers — Abu Danladi and Romario Ibarra —to run at tired Sporting legs.
Minnesota finishing key
“It is the oldest saying in football that goals change games,” said Heath. “They scored at really important times. That was the disappointment because I don’t think they had to work hard enough for their two goals.
“We could not score when we had our opportunities, which was the disappointment. To keep the momentum for us in the game we need to take those opportunities when they arise.”
Bemoaning his side’s lack of precision, Heath was able to point to a number of scoring opportunities that went wanting.
Two of those opportunities fell to 19-year-old rookie Mason Toye. In the first half, Michael Boxall headed on a corner for Toye to half-volley but a quick leg from Melia intervened. In the second, a cross from Rodríguez curled just over the head of Ibson, allowing Toye to have a go in-stride, but the resulting shot flew well high of the crossbar.
Late in the game, Ibson struck the crossbar, and Danladi, Romario, and Rodríguez all forced saves from Melia.
Heath is correct in that there was a goal or two for the taking on Saturday night, but it can also be pointed out that Danladi’s nine career MLS goals lead the quintet of players mentioned above.
It highlights the risk MNUFC took when trading away Christian Ramirez, as the Loons will need to find production from a trio of forwards looking to establish themselves as consistent MLS goalscorers. This isn’t to say that one or more won’t find their scoring boots, but even a short drought might be enough to finish off what playoff hopes the Loons have for 2018.
Defender Eric Miller was forced to exit the game in the 33rd minute with a yet-to-be disclosed leg injury, and was replaced by Jérôme Thiesson, The latter, recently recovered from a leg injury of his own, made his first league appearance since May 20 and had not featured in the Loons’ previous 13 contests.
Pressed into duty early, the Swiss defender was called upon to put in an 60-minute shift at wingback.
“It’s always nice to get players fit. It’s been a really frustrating year for [Thiesson]. Obviously, he was blowing a little bit at the end. He’s only had three or four days training with us. He’ll be better for that and now we’ve got a good chance in the next two weeks to get a lot of work in, not only for him but for two or three others,” said Heath.
Thiesson’s return to fitness comes at an opportune time. While Minnesota has a couple weeks until it faces D.C. United, it remains to be seen if Miller will be available for selection. Additionally, captain Francisco Calvo will be suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
Absent Calvo against FC Dallas a week prior due to Calvo being sent off against LAFC, Heath opted for a back three of Brent Kallman, Michael Boxall and Tyrone Mears, flanked by the wingback pairing of Miller and Ibarra.
With Thiesson back in the fold, Heath is free to deputize Mears — or if healthy, Miller — to move inside and play as one of the outside backs in a three-man back line against D.C. United. Wyatt Omsberg would be another option, but Heath hasn’t placed much trust in the centerback, with the rookie having logged just 173 minutes this season. The Dartmouth alumni is currently on loan with the USL’s Tulsa Roughnecks, albeit with a recall clause.