MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — A number of times during a frustrating 2018 season, members of Minnesota United FC’s brass spoke about the improvement the club had made from its MLS debut a year prior. But due to the 12 games leading up to its season finale — during which MNUFC earned just eight points — the Loons were left with one last game to better 2017’s point total of 36.
Things started poorly for the Loons last Sunday in Columbus. A lightning delay in the 10th minute postponed the game for about an hour. Following the resumption of play, the Crew’s Gyasi Zardes gave the hosts the lead with his first goal of the night. Zardes then doubled the Crew’s lead in the 49th minute with his 18th goal of the season.
Trailing 2-0, Minnesota was staring at another 36-point campaign. However, it received a brace from an unlikely source. Not having scored all season, captain Francisco Calvo tallied goals in the 69th and 77th minutes. The first came from a nice bit of individual skill with the second being opportunistic.
If Minnesota could just hold on to the 2-2 scoreline for 13-plus minutes, it could lay claim to the small moral victory of a 37-point season. But in a season that frustrated staff, players and fans alike, it was not meant to be.
Zardes completed his hat trick in the 83rd minute with the game’s final goal, leaving the 2018 Loons level on points with their 2017 iteration.
Making optics worse, Houston managed a 3-2 win of its own on Decision Day, moving into ninth place in the Western Conference at Minnesota’s expense.
Front three lack chemistry
Head Coach Adrian Heath opted to have a look at a 4-3-3 formation instead of the 4-2-3-1 or the 3-5-2 he employed throughout most of the season. This pushed playmaker Darwin Quintero out wide, being used on the wing instead of as a No. 10 or second striker.
The idea was to use Ángelo Rodríguez as a target man and outlet for the attack, then link play with both Quintero and opposite winger Miguel Ibarra. Injury forced Rodríguez from the game just before halftime, but over the first 45 minutes, Quintero and Ibarra combined to take a single shot (which was blocked). The duo also completed just a single pass into Columbus’ 18-yard box — coming from Quintero to Ibarra — which lead to the aforementioned blocked shot.
For his own part, Rodríguez managed a layoff inside Columbus’ penalty area, along with pair of blocked shots. The second of the latter did follow a nice turn and run that forced Crew keeper Zack Steffen to come off his line and challenge Rodríguez’s effort, but it resulted in the ankle injury that forced Rodríguez from the game.
The Loons finished the first half without a shot on target.
A change in approach in the second half allowed Quintero to move back into the middle of the field and helped the Loons maintain possession in the attacking third, but it took Calvo adventuring forward from left back to produce the Loons’ two goals. The first did come from a free kick and was assisted by Quintero, and the second followed a failed attempt at a clearance from the Crew.
Heath points to mistakes
Following Minnesota’s 2-0 loss to Colorado in its 2018 home finale, Heath identified mistakes as a deciding factor.
“I can’t fault the effort to the guys to get back in it when we did,” Heath said. “But it’s the mistakes that we make that prove costly for us. It’s something that we have to irradiate, because it costs us dearly in most games.”
A week later against the Crew, Heath again praised his players’ efforts, but hinted toward their decision-making resulting in goals conceded.
“I think today, to be honest, the players have worked hard. I can’t criticize them, but sometimes working smarter is better than working hard.”
Highlighting mistakes in key moments of games has been a recurring theme in Heath’s press conferences, especially following defeats. With his team having conceded 70-plus goals for the second-straight season, it evidently isn’t an issue that Heath has been able to resolve with coaching. Whether that speaks to the ability of Heath and his staff, or the players at his disposal, is debatable.
Heath has at several points this season said the Loons are a couple players away from being a complete team.
“We are, I think, a nearly team at the minute,” he said. “We are nearly good at a lot of things. We have to make sure we are good next year. If that means changing players and bringing other players in then that is what we have to do.”
With the club looking to impress on all fronts as it opens Allianz Field next spring, and both CEO Chris Wright and Sporting Director Manny Lagos echoing Heath’s desire to strengthen the Loons’ roster this winter, the pressure on Heath to shore up the Loons’ defense will be omnipresent next season.
Loons face Player of the Week again
In recognition of his first career hat trick, Zardes was named MLS Player of the Week on Tuesday. In doing so, Zardes became the fourth player this season to earn the honor after facing Minnesota.
San Jose’s Danny Hoesen was 2018’s first recipient of the Player of the Week award following his brace against the Loons in the Quakes’ home opener on March 3. Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored a brace of his own in a 3-0 home win for the Red Bulls on March 24, was recognized on March 27. And then, after recording a goal and an assist against MNUFC on April 22, Sounders full back Alvas Powell earned the honor.
The Loons’ lone recipient this season was Quintero, following his hat trick against Toronto on July 4 in which the Colombian twice chipped Reds keeper Clint Irwin.