In previous postgame press conferences, Minnesota United Head Coach Adrian Heath has praised his team after losses and issued criticism following victories, based on the underlying performance.
But when MNUFC notched its first win since July 22 during the weekend, a 3-2 result over the Portland Timbers, Heath strayed from that habit. He was candid about focusing on having earned three points, and not the two second-half goals his team conceded after going into halftime up three-nil.
The result was a welcome reprieve from a five-game road trip that saw the Loons collect just two points and effectively ended MNUFC’s postseason hopes for 2018.
Amid that context, the talking points following the game came with a wide focus — themes from the season as a whole, how the Loons would line up against New York City FC in a week’s time, and what the club could get out of its final five games this year.
Loons ask for consistency from referees
After a number of games this season, Heath and his players have expressed their frustration with referees in measured fashion, careful to avoid any disciplinary action for offering too harsh a critique. A common complaint has been the consistency of officiating, based on a view that the balance of calls — contrary to the popular adage — has not evened itself out over the course of the season.
Following his team’s March 15 draw at Salt Lake, Heath turned his focus on VAR after a review disallowed a late Miguel Ibarra goal that would have put the Loons ahead with only a few minutes remaining.
“Everybody says these things even themselves out, so we have plenty to come in the next six or seven games,” said Heath. “Every time there is a VAR decision we don’t seem to get any benefit from it. It is supposed to be clear and obvious. They have watched it again four times in the dressing room and nobody can tell.”
This past Saturday, the protection offered to his team’s star attacker — Darwin Quintero — weighed on Heath’s mind.
“I watch every game in the MLS, and I watch every No. 10 in the league. The Giovincos, and Almirons, whoever it is, who are top players — you get near them, it’s a foul,” Heath said. “[Quintero] very rarely gets anything. Very rarely. And it’s happened now every week. Regularly. And it’s not one guy doing it, it’s consistently different people. And they know [Quintero]’s quality, and if we can all see it, I’m sure the officials should be able to see it.”
Center back Michael Boxall echoed his coach’s thoughts on Quintero’s treatment. The New Zealand international used the red card issued to Loons defensive midfielder Fernando Bob as a point of reference, with referee Dave Gantar having ruled that a meeting between Bob’s elbow and Diego Valeri’s face warranted a sending off for the former.
“I saw when Darwin [Quintero] gets an elbow in the head. I think that’s more of a red card than what Fernando did,” said Boxall. “So, I think, you’d like if the ref kept the same standard throughout, that would be nice.”
Two midfielders suspended
In addition to the suspension resulting from Bob’s red card, fellow Brazilian midfielder Maximiano will also miss Saturday’s game against New York City FC due to yellow-card accumulation.
The pairing — both naturally cast as holding midfielders — has shown promise. A lack of steel in the middle had prompted Heath to use three central midfielders for a good portion of the season, but with both Maximiano and Bob match fit, Heath was able to return to a two-man center midfield for the past two games.
Loons winger Romario Ibarra sung the duo’s praises Saturday evening.
“I think it’s very important for a team to have midfielders of the quality of Fernando Bob and Maximiano. They’re very technical, take the ball away from the opposition a lot and play into the forwards frequently, too,” Ibarra said. “They’re two very important players who help Darwin and I play better.”
In addition to the service provided to the Loons’ attack, and the counters initiated, Bob and Maximiano’s defensive contributions also drew rave reviews from teammates.
“I think they’ve been fantastic the way they get around the pitch and screen in front of us,” offered Boxall. “And then, especially Fernando, he is so comfortable on the ball, he can get us out of pressure in so many situations. That helps us massively.”
With both set to miss out on this weekend’s game, Heath will be forced to return to the starting XI a pair of midfielders recently displaced.
“One door closes, it opens for somebody else,” said Heath. “One or two people that have been knocking on my door, telling me they should be in the team, next week they’ll get to show me.”
Heath’s tinkering with the composition of his midfield this season — at least as it pertains to Saturday’s game — may wind up a strength. The trio of Ibson, Rasmus Schüller and Collen Warner have started a combined 60 games in 2018, and 23-year-old Collin Martin has made 11 appearances, giving Heath capable options with which to fill his central midfield against NYCFC.
Building toward 2019 by winning now
While not mathematically eliminated from the postseason, Minnesota’s odds are long enough that sincere mentions of the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs have all but disappeared from the lips of players and staff. With the team turning its attention to the 2019 season, the Loons’ feel the best way to set themselves up for success next season is to finish the current one on a good run.
Heath described his current roster as a “work in progress,” noting it isn’t yet where he’d like it to eventually be. Nonetheless, he reiterated his expectation to fight for whatever points his team could secure over their final five games.
“We’re certainly not giving up on it. We’re going to keep playing,” Heath stated. “Somebody said to me in the week that ‘you’ve got nothing to play with.’ Our players have got everything to play with, especially the ones that want to be here next year.”
It will be interesting to see if Heath rotates his squad over the coming month to audition members of Minnesota’s current roster for its 2019 version, or if the Englishman sticks with his first-choice XI in an attempt to build momentum he can carry into next season.