ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the final whistle blew on Minnesota United FC’s 1-1 draw with Orlando City SC, Minnesota’s attack was tied for fourth in Major League Soccer and second in the Western Conference with 44 goals scored. But it hasn’t been easy going as of late on the offensive side of the ball for the Loons, who have been held to one goal or less in six of their last seven league contests.
Saturday, at a sold-out Allianz Field, Minnesota held nearly all of the run of play in the first half, outshooting Orlando 15-3 in the process. Head coach Adrian Heath — having described facing his former employer as something “personal” — was animated from the earliest minutes. Up on his toes, Heath shouted and gestured to his players from the very edge of his technical area. But no amount of encouragement and direction was able to produce a goal in the opening 45 minutes.
The Loons drew occasional gasps of excitement from supporters. A 29th-minute cutback from Ethan Finlay set up Darwin Quintero with a wide angle in front of goal, but the Colombian’s effort was ripped directly at keeper Brian Rowe. In the 42nd minute, left back Chase Gasper swung in a lovely, low cross between the Lions’ back line and Rowe, but neither a sprawling Abu Danladi nor a diving Ethan Finlay could reach a foot to it.
As the night wore on, searching crosses failed to find teammates and long-range efforts produced groans of frustration from the home crowd as they sailed high and into the stands. And the searching crosses aren’t a recent development.
“It’s not the first game where we’ve had 20-plus crosses and had really no goals actually off of it,” Finlay said.
In the last seven league games, Minnesota has tallied 20-plus crosses in four games and 30-plus crosses twice.
On July 27, Minnesota sent in 37 crosses during a 0-0 draw against visiting Vancouver. Against Orlando, it played 31 crosses in a 1-1 draw at home. Together, those games can be seen as four points dropped. And both opponents followed the same gameplan, defending from a low block and daring Minnesota to beat them from out wide.
“I thought that once we were in the final third, they were content to sit back,” midfielder Hassani Dotson said of Orlando City. “I mean, they’ve got big guys in there, and they’re like, ‘OK, whip it in and see. If you guys score, you score.'”
Minnesota did eventually get on the scoresheet via Danladi’s second goal of 2019. But it took a long throw-in, a rebound and centerback Ike Opara playing out of position. Trailing in added time, Opara had thrown himself forward to provide another option on attack.
“You just try to put numbers in on them — you know, cause a little chaos,” Opara said. “As a defender, when you start getting numbers from the attacking team in the box it’s difficult, whether it be clearances or line-of-sight. Just look at the goal we scored. Just sheer numbers in the box.”
But rare was it that Minnesota brought numbers into the box in spite of initiating most attacks from the flanks. Central midfielders Dotson and Ján Greguš, both possessing powerful and accurate shots, took six on the night and only one from anywhere near Orlando’s penalty area. Quintero, the team’s highest paid player, deployed in his preferred central attacking role, was largely absent from Zone 14 (the tactical area just in front of the opposition’s 18-yard-box) while he drifted wide and deep in search of the ball. Multiple cutbacks rolled harmlessly through Orlando’s penalty area, looking for a trailing run that no Minnesota player wound up making.
Winger Ethan Finlay noted postgame that Minnesota’s intent is to work the ball as deep as possible, and if the opposition concedes space out wide, the Loons are likely to to take it. But Finlay acknowledged he and his teammates were too predictable against Orlando.
“We have to have a little bit of variation,” said Finlay, noting how well 6-foot-2 Robin Jansson and 6-foot-4 Lamine Sané defended the box for Orlando. “We have to try to break the other team down by a bit of one-two passing in some of those zones right in front of the 18. We probably didn’t have enough combination play in those spots, where we were playing balls in and getting guys running in off that.”
Finlay also raised his hand after a tough draw and noted he made a couple decisions with the ball he wished he could take back.
Heath, in contrast, defended his team’s approach, seeking issue primarily with its execution.
“You’ve got to work the final third, always, no matter who you are,” Heath said. “Manchester City, who everybody thinks plays the best football in Europe, score more goals with crosses than anybody. We haven’t had enough quality in the final third today.”
In Heath’s eyes, Minnesota’s inability to convert sustained pressure into goals had a variety of causes.
“Well, unlucky, good save, bad finishing, a mixture of everything, I think,” he said. “If the final ball was a better choice, at times — It’s a disappointment. I’m disappointed that we haven’t got the three points.”
Vancouver and Orlando provided a blueprint for slowing down what has at times this season been a very potent Loons attack. It now falls to the Loons to sharpen what has been blunted.
“We work at it,” Heath said. “Work about where we put the ball, where we make the runs, a little bit of everything. We’ll work on it because it’s part of our game that’s letting us down at this moment in time. We continually are getting the ball in the final third, in good spots and not getting enough out of it.”
Finlay, too, said he and his teammates needed to “go back to the drawing board” after an off night.
“You know, we have a great belief in ourselves,” Finlay said. “This locker room is very close and we’re as disappointed as anyone in ourselves and as a group, because we know we can score goals and we know we can be a dominant team offensively. Tonight we didn’t show that.”