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Slow starts sinking Minnesota United

Apr 22, 2018; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC defender Roman Torres (29) and Minnesota United FC forward Abu Danladi (9) play for the ball during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight week, Minnesota United provided a Western Conference foe with its first win of the season. On April 14, the Portland Timbers secured a 3-2 victory over the Loons. Sunday, it was the Timbers’ Cascadia rivals who also scored three as the Seattle Sounders beat Minnesota 3-1.

Midfielder Gustav Svensson opened scoring in the 23rd minute with a rocket from outside the penalty area. Forward Will Bruin doubled Seattle’s lead two minutes later, side-footing a cross past Bobby Shuttleworth from close range.

A Christian Ramirez goal in the 66th minute returned a sense of urgency to the contest for its final half hour, but Seattle capitalized on a Minnesota turnover to put the game away at 3-1 via Jordy José Delem in stoppage time.

It marked the third time in three meetings Minnesota has lost to Seattle, and continued another troubling trend for the Loons.

First half follies

Just how much have the Loons struggled in the opening halves of games this season?

  • Minnesota’s only first-half goal was scored by Ethan Finlay in the 12th minute of its 2-1 win over Orlando City on March 10.
  • The Loons have been outscored 10-1 in first halves by their opponents.
  • Minnesota has trailed at halftime in five of seven games this season.
  • The Loons are 2-0-0 when tied at halftime this season and 0-5-0 when trailing.
  • Minnesota’s unofficial record in first halves this season is 0-5-2 (0.3 PPG).
  • Minnesota’s unofficial record in second halves this season is 4-1-2 (2.0 PPG).
  • The Loons are scoring 0.3 goals per 90 minutes in first halves.
  • The Loons are scoring 2.3 goals per 90 minutes in second halves.

MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath addressed the issue at length in his postgame comments Sunday afternoon and expressed his own frustration.

“We can’t speak about it enough, we can’t show people enough, and it’s the third or fourth time on the road that it’s happened and I feel like a broken record,” Heath said. “I said it last week, we can’t give teams a head start. We just can’t do it and I don’t know what the issue is. Because it’s not like we’re not warming up properly, it’s not like we don’t speak about it in the dressing room, but I will repeat what I said last week: We cannot give teams a three-goal or two-goal start and expect to win a game.”

Heath elaborated, detailing the impact chasing games late has had on his team.

“It’s all desperation football then, because you know if it goes to 3-nil the game is virtually over,” he said. “Every time you attack and you attack with numbers to try and get back in the game, you leave yourself vulnerable, so it’s a conundrum that we have to solve because I know that we can play. I’m not sure is we know at this moment in time how to win. And there’s a big difference between playing well and winning games.

“It has to be addressed. Now whether that’s the shape of the team, whether that’s personnel — but it can’t continue.”

Heath’s parting line on the subject bears watching, as the Englishman has deployed his charges near-exclusively in his favored 4-2-3-1 this season. It will be interesting to see if any players on the periphery of Minnesota’s starting XI are given chances at home against Houston this Saturday, and also if Heath elects to tinker with the Loons’ shape in search of a solution.

Forward rotation

The choice between Ramirez and Abu Danladi has been a binary one for Heath this season. The pair have been substituted for one another in five of seven games, and that number may have been higher had Danladi not picked up a minor injury in Minnesota’s season opener, causing him to miss the following two games.

In the two games Danladi missed — March 10 at Orlando and March 17 at home against Chicago — Heath still opted for like-for-like substitutions atop his 4-2-3-1, replacing Ramirez with rookie forward Mason Toye in the second halves of both contests.

In total, Minnesota’s three out-and-out forwards have spent 30 minutes on the pitch together, when both Danladi and Toye made substitute appearances as Minnesota trailed late against New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United.

No starting forward has gone the full 90 minutes in a competitive game for the Loons in 2018.

An underlying cause for the above could be goal production and efforts by Heath to give both Ramirez and Danladi chances to distinguish themselves. Last season, neither had a problem getting on the score sheet, with Ramirez tallying 14 goals in 30 total appearances and Danladi notching eight while starting only 15 games. 

When Ramirez headed in a cleverly-looped ball from Darwin Quintero in the 66th minute of Sunday’s tilt with the Sounders, it marked the first 2018 goal scored by a member of the Ramirez-Danladi-Toye trio.

Toye, taken seventh overall in this year’s SuperDraft, has shown promise but is still acclimating himself to the professional game. When choosing between Ramirez and Danladi, Heath has had to select from different skill sets.

Ramirez was a prolific goalscorer for the Loons in their North American Soccer League days, has shown he has the ability to score in MLS and has improved his hold-up play since coming to the first division. Danladi has game-changing pace and can threaten defenses in a way Ramirez cannot, but at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, he needs more space to be effective and has comparatively more difficulty dealing with physical defenders in tight spaces.

Against Seattle, Danladi’s play much of the first half kept to the center of the field, where 6-foot-4 Chad Marshall and 6-foot-2 Román Torres comfortably marshalled him. It wasn’t until a half hour into the game that Danladi looked to drag his larger markers wide and into the channels. Minnesota looked more dangerous for Ramirez’s introduction, as the forward gave the Loons a focal point for their attack in addition to finding the back of the net.

Western Conference woes

When traveling away from Minneapolis, the Loons have fared far better against Eastern Conference teams compared to Western Conference teams.

Minnesota’s 3-0 loss March 24 against the New York Red Bulls snapped a four-game winning streak on the road against Eastern Conference sides. Dating back to Aug. 26, 2017, the Loons had earned successive away victories against Chicago, Montreal, Atlanta and Orlando. Since joining MLS, Minnesota owns a 4-4-0 record in road games against Eastern opposition.

In road games against Western teams, however, Minnesota has a 1-13-2 record, with its lone victory a 3-2 win over Montreal on Sept. 26, 2017. The Loons have not managed a single point on the road against conference foes in six contests since and own a -26 goal differential since joining the league in 2017, conceding 43 goals in 16 games.

 

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