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Three takeaways from Minnesota United’s loss to New England

Mar 30, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; Minnesota United midfielder Jan Gregus (8) takes a corner kick during the second half against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

A goal on either side of halftime was enough to carry the New England Revolution past visiting Minnesota United FC after the Loons turned in a lackluster second half Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

In that second half, a gap opened between MNUFC’s midfield and forwards, leading to turnovers which sprung New England counter attacks. Those counter attacks, in turn, pinned back the Loons’ wingers, and Miguel Ibarra and Ethan Finaly — the latter subbed off in the 75th minute — combined to touch the ball just 27 times over the game’s final 45 minutes.

“After we got the [first-half] equalizer, I thought we’d weathered the storm and the pressure that they were going to put onto us,” said MNUFC coach Adrian Heath. “And after that, I thought we were too passive. I don’t think we wanted to go and win the game enough. I didn’t think that we were going to lose it, I have to be honest. But we didn’t do enough to take the game to them, put them on the back foot enough. Our quality in their half wasn’t good enough in the second half. Too many nearly-good balls, nearly-good passes, but not enough.”

In Minnesota, excitement continues to build for Allianz Field’s debut on April 13. On the field, MNUFC’s momentum has stalled, and questions about just how good the Loons will be in 2019 remain.

Putting early road results in context

First came an offseason that saw MNUFC attempt to address the defensive woes that had plagued it over the past two years. Back-to-back wins on the road to open the 2019 campaign followed. Both welcome sights to fans in Minnesota, along with MLS adding a seventh playoff berth in each conference, raised hopes that MNUFC would take part in the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time.

Then came back-to-back defeats. MNUFC lost 3-2 to an LA Galaxy team missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romain Alessandrini. The Loons followed that performance by falling 2-1 to a New England side that had been publicly criticized by its head coach, Brad Friedel, and in besting Minnesota, earned its first victory of the season.

Five weeks into the 2019 season, the two teams Minnesota has beaten have combined to take a single point from eight games. Following those contests, MNUFC has failed in a pair of opportunities that seemed prime for MNUFC to pad its road record before debuting Allianz Field.

Before then, the Loons have one more game on the road. In recent years a pace-setter in the East, the New York Red Bulls head into next weekend with a 1-2-1 record. In as much as MNUFC will look to add to Red Bulls’ early struggles, that they’ve failed to take advantage of the bad form of their previous two opponents may well lead the Red Bulls to view the Loons as slump busters. But even if MNUFC drops a third straight, a total of six points from five away games isn’t terrible.

Last season, MLS teams collectively averaged about a point a game on the road. Looking only at the top seven teams from each conference, that average rose to roughly 1.2 points per game on the road — which is precisely what Minnesota’s average will be if it should drop all three points in Harrison, N.J. this Saturday. In that, the concern following MNUFC’s defeat to New England isn’t the number of points Minnesota will ultimately end up taking from its five-game road swing, but that it has yet to take a point from a team not dwelling near the bottom of the standings.

“The season has peaks and valleys,” said MNUFC center back Ike Opara. “We started off really well, had a blip in LA. Today we had a good opportunity to rectify the situation and I thought we were better in this game. The effort was there, we just weren’t intelligent with how we played from minute-one through minute-90. I think some of that is trying to gel as a new team, but I think we’ve got enough experience to know what these games call for.”

Getting to the spot

On April 29, 2018, following an Alejandro Fuenmayor handball inside Houston’s own penalty area, Darwin Qunitero converted from the penalty spot in the 40th minute. The goal brought the Loons level with the Houston Dynamo at 1-1. Minnesota won that game 2-1, and Quintero’s goal would encompass the entirety of penalty kicks awarded to MNUFC during MLS play last season.

That 2018 Minnesota side joined Vancouver (2011), Houston (2016), San Jose (2017) and Orlando City (2017) as the only teams to attempt a single PK over the course of a 34-game MLS campaign.

In a reversal of fortune, the Loons have been awarded a league-high three penalty kicks (tied with the Galaxy) through four games this season. And as on Saturday, when Michael Mancienne’s handball led to Minnesota’s first goal, the Loons first goals against Vancouver and San Jose also came from the spot.

MNUFC is presently on pace to receive 25 penalty kicks with a shade over 10-percent of its season in the books. That total would shatter the record of 14 set by Atlanta United last year. Since the league expanded to a 34-game regular season in 2011, the average MLS team has has received 5.26 penalties per season (2019 results pending), to put the Loons’ three 2019 PKs in context. With just two more penalties received, the Loons will equal their total of the five they were awarded across their first two seasons in MLS.

Whether a combination of good luck or the result of doing a better job of placing opposing defenses under pressure, the Loons can’t reasonably count on being awarded a penalty kick nearly every game, and will need to score more often from set pieces and open play.

Mar 30, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Revolution midfielder Brandon Bye (15) celebrates his winning goal during the second half against the Minnesota United at Gillette Stadium. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

Good Bye from Minneapolis

On Sunday, Brandon Bye dashed onto the end of a ball squared across the mouth of goal by Prior Lake, Minn.’s own Teal Bunbury. Stretching, Bye finished what would prove the decisive goal on the day and give the Revs a 2-1 victory.

Looking back two years prior, an internship brought Bye to Minneapolis in the summer of 2017, ahead of his senior year at Western Michigan. And where Minnesota United was then playing its home games in the City of Lakes, so too was the National Premier Soccer League’s Minneapolis City SC.

A year away from turning professional, Bye was looking for a team to play with over the summer. Minneapolis City was the lucky recipient of his interest. And while an injury limited Bye to a handful of games for the Crows, he drew notice immediately, turning in a man-of-the-match performance with a goal and an assist in his debut against the Sioux Falls Thunder.

“When [Bye] came to us, we weren’t really looking to add another player at that time,” said Minneapolis City sporting director Jon Bisswurm. “We had him out for a training session to give him a look. Within 10 minutes you could tell there was something special there that backed up all of the good things I had heard about him.

“He is very smart, physically gifted and is one of those players that will stop at nothing for personal and team success. So, it isn’t really a surprise he is where he is now.”

A 12-goal, seven-assist senior campaign at Western Michigan earned Bye MAC Player of the Year and First Team All-American honors, drawing the interest of MLS. But Bye’s exploits in the Upper Midwest weren’t enough to entice MNUFC during the 2018 SuperDraft.

Picking seventh with Bye still on the board, Manny Lagos and company selected Indiana’s Mason Toye with their first pick. Originally projected by pundits as a mid-to-late first-round pick, an impressive showing at the MLS combine ensured Bye wouldn’t fall any further. He was taken with the very next pick — eighth overall — by New England.

None of which is to necessarily say either team erred on draft day. Toye remains a talented prospect. Still just 20 years old, Toye raised eyebrows this preseason having added muscle to what was previously a lankier teenage frame. Meanwhile, Bye has emerged has a versatile player for the Revs, capable both at fullback and further forward on the wing. And he just scored a game-winner for the team that drafted him against one that passed him over.

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