It speaks to the incredible expectations pinned on Minnesota United this year that they can finish the Spring Season in one of the four playoff spots (if the season ended today) and be considered an abject failure. No other team in the modern NASL has had a bar set as high as this year’s Loons, including the high-spending Cosmos who raked in the Spring title on the strength of an unbeaten opening set.
Was that expectation fair? The demand, unspoken but undeniable, was that United would win the Spring, with any other result being unacceptable. The Loons were good enough to do it themselves, but there also seemed to be a dearth of meaningful contenders to oppose them. The Cosmos were certainly the highest bidder, and many anticipated a shootout between the two clubs. But New York opened with only five goals in five games, including draws against middling Indy and Atlanta, and it was clear that the team was an imperfect one. The Rowdies looked able but inconsistent for most of the spring. The Scorpions felt like pretenders to the throne they occupied. So the belief in April was not only that the Loons seemed best-suited to hoist the trophy, but that few other teams were strong enough to challenge.
Instead, the Loons were slow returning north for the spring, and even when they arrived, they had trouble sitting on eggs long enough to get them to hatch. Below is a recap of the good and the bad of the first half of the year with a brief glimpse of what questions lay ahead in the fall.
What Just Happened?
The team was molasses out of the gate, though many games reflected here deserve some anti-panic caveats. The world was spinning for Loons fans when the team opened draw-loss, but it’s important to reflect that in those two games the team only allowed one goal in two road games, including a match against a substantial opponent (TBR) in what was almost a brand new home for them. Of more concern was the sputtering offense in those games. The thinking among some fans and analysts heading into the season was that our offense was terrific and our defense was sound if not incredible, and the team could paper over any defensive issues with waves of goals. When that didn’t happen, the team was left questioning its identity.
The next two draws were more disturbing. Against a Scorpions team that looked soul-deadeningly inadequate, United conceded NASL’s goal of the year, then earned back the lead only to let it slip away by the end. The Edmonton draw followed an opposite script: Minnesota pounced quickly (as the Eddies had a habit of allowing this spring), only to hand back the lead on a platter of poor defending, then finally scratching together a draw on the back of an undeserved penalty.
Then a beautiful thing happened. With the team at home against Atlanta, desperate for any spark, a duck flew in and landed on the pitch, and decided to hang out while a soccer match unfolded around her. It was a goofy little thing, not unprecedented, but more prescient given the unofficial team name “the Loons.” Minnesota won its first game, parody twitter accounts and t-shirts were made in homage to the duck, and hope was born. Minnesota steamrolled Indy away the following week before returning home to a rainy Jacksonville game and, to the delight of all, to the reappearance of the duck. The winged harbinger of good luck hung around for one more week with the Cosmos, a draw that should have been a win, and never showed for the closing home game of the Spring Season, a loss which was the most disheartening of all and validated the spiritual significance of the bird.
The team had a +4 goal differential between the first and last sighting of the duck, and a -2 goal differential outside of that window, with 10 of their 14 points won during that time. Sometimes correlation does not imply causation. Sometimes you just need to shut your mouth and leave room for your totem spirit to speak to your team.
The biggest theme of the Spring Season for United? Five times the Loons gave back a lead in the spring, four of those times coming after the 75th minute (and in one instance, they conceded the equalizer and the winner after within two minutes of each other). Those four late giveaways alone pulled nine points out of United’s total, which would have been enough for a handy win of the Spring title. Now it’s dangerous to play that game: everyone looks good through the lens of “what if,” and it’s unrealistic to expect a team to never give back points. But it does highlight two important ideas. First, problems conceding late are a full blown trend at this point and whether it’s conditioning, focus, more tactical substitutions, or any other issue, it needs to be addressed. Second, not many teams in NASL even had the opportunity to give back so many points. United is still a good team and puts itself in position to win almost every game. The players and fans should remember this with optimism as the Fall Season approaches.
One big question to open the year was how Minnesota would juggle its two big name strikers. In 2014 Christian Ramirez reduced goalkeepers to blackened scorch marks and a wisp of smoke in torching his way to 20 goals. But with Pablo Campos returning from the injury that gave Ramirez his opportunity in 2014, it was unclear how the team would position both strikers on the field or who would take the lead as the main scoring threat.
On opening day it was Ramirez alone, positioned atop a 4-1-4-1 that included new midfielders Jonny Steele and Ibson as well as 2014 stalwarts Miguel Ibarra and Daniel Mendes. But after two lackluster games, Campos and Ramirez were starting alongside each other in an attempt to ignite the stagnant offense. Before long, it was Campos alone up top and a few wins started piling up. Campos is an imperfect striker; he lacks the pace of his alternative and is accused of going down easy when he can’t get to a ball. But some goals have come for Campos, and they simply haven’t for Ramirez yet. It will be interesting to see if coach Lagos finds a strategy to bring Ramirez more minutes in the hopes that he finds his 2014 form.
Due to injury and performance, the midfield remained a game of musical chairs throughout the spring.
Ibson suffered an early injury but has since reemerged. Jamie Watson seemed to earn his way into the starting lineup until tearing his ACL. Steele was inconsistent at best and seemed apathetic at times, then ultimately played himself off the field for good with a malaise-inducing Open Cup performance. Kalif Alhassan started on the bench but has come on to be a more consistent presence than most others. Mendes has been middling and has lacked the linkage necessary to be truly effective. Finally, Aaron Pitchkolan and Greg Jordan have been used often in more defensive positions within the midfield and have delivered adequate-to-pretty good work. The one constant presence in the midfield has been Miguel Ibarra, who has played his last game for United and will be moving on to Leon in Mexico during the break.
As the personnel has changed from week to week, so too has the formation. After a weak start to the season, United shifted from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-2-2 with greater attacking focus. The goals came, but the new formation opened up space for opposing teams to get in behind and a couple of 2-2 draws ensued. Eventually United locked down a 4-2-3-1 formation with Campos at the top, and although the team has shown a habit of letting in late goals to give up leads, this is the formation that has consistently given them a lead to work with, so one might expect to see more of the attacking-minded lineup as the Fall Season.
There is much to say tactically about Minnesota that will follow in more depth in subsequent articles. However, I will end this review of Minnesota’s always-rotating lineup situation with a glance at our goalkeeping picture. After the offseason departure of Matt Van Oekel, Minnesota made big news by signing Sammy N’djock before the season began. Instantly, many believed Minnesota boasted the most gifted physical talent between the pipes in the league. N’djock plays what is commonly called a “sweeper keeper” role, essentially coming forward more frequently and more aggressively to support the backline. Tactically this made sense, as Minnesota frequently sends its right and left backs forward to support the attack; adding N’djock to aid the remaining two or three players in the back line adds manpower and allows the center backs to spread more widely to fill in the space left by the defender making an overlapping run.
The problem is that N’djock seemed frequently to do a little too much sweeping, not enough keeping. The goalkeeper found himself defending too far forward on a number of occasions early in the season, leaving an open net available to a clever chip or a simple layoff to another attacker. He wasn’t made to pay for his style in the first two games, although he put opportunities on the table for other teams. Then, against San Antonio, N’djock started too far forward and allowed a 65-yard free kick (you read that correctly) to find the net as he scrambled to return to goal. That goal more than anything else earned him his very own spot on the bench for the following match.
However, his backup, Mitch Hildebrandt, was generally mediocre as well, and Minnesota seemed to be in the worst type of position battle, one in which there are no winners. Eventually N’djock earned the lion’s share of time, and he tempered his style to a bit more conservative approach. Even as he appeared less terrifying, though, there still appear to be routine issues such as whether a defender should clear a ball or whether he will come out to claim it. There just is not enough communication between he and his backline, and that will be a big opportunity for the fall. In the final game of the Spring Season, Hildebrandt surprised by returning to the net, so the goalkeeper situation will be an important one to follow as the summer heats up.
2015 Spring Chicken Award
Minnesota United’s Spring Season MVP award, officially titled the 2015 Spring Chicken Award sponsored by Tyson, belongs to Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra was not perfect, but he was certainly the most consistent, dangerous at any moment, and put in a work rate in all parts of the field that went unmatched. Combine this with his emergence as a USMNT regular and the visibility this gives the team and the league, and he is a player that means more to the club on and off the field than any other. Saying goodbye to Ibarra will be a painful farewell.
The Highest High
By the time Minnesota had punched the clock after their 3-1 win over Indy, the team had to feel it was becoming the team they were supposed to be. After at least finally getting the win the previous week, Minnesota absolutely cruised against an overmatched Eleven. The final score didn’t even feel like a reflection of how well the team dominated, and with the goals coming from Alhassan, Justin Davis, and Juliano Vicentini (i.e., not the usual suspects) the team looked like it might not be so reliant on the triumvirate of Ramirez/Ibarra/Mendes to provide the goals this year.
The Louest Lou
With all respect to a Spring that included a fan favorite tearing his ACL, a Golden Boot holder benched, five leads given away in the last 25 minutes, the transfer of the team’s best player, a 65 yard goal conceded, a stadium deal the team has been unable to close on, and a dearth of craft beer availability at the home opener (!), the darkest moment for the team was an embarrassing loss to St. Louis FC on penalties in the U.S. Open Cup. With a barely deserved 1-0 lead, United ceded the equalizer in the 80th minute, the first of four consecutive games across all competitions in which United would hand over a lead after the 75th minute. By the end of an uninspired half hour of extra time, the Looney Tunes limped to a 3-1 loss in penalties (yes, 3-1, and no, penalties were not played out by two of the players’ girlfriends playing FIFA 15 for the first time). This was a game in which no one looked good. Much was made of the St. Louis announcers, who made no attempt to hide their partiality for their home side, and who made numerous hyperbolic statements and bad jokes. But they were the perfect announcers for this game, because they captured the essence of the obscene, carnivalesque fever dream that was delivered to fans that night.
The Fall of MN
A future in-depth Fall Season preview will slake your thirst just in time for play to resume. Here, I want to pose a few key questions the Loons need to handle in preparation for a better run at a spot in the Championship.
1. Who replaces Miguel Ibarra? A speedy winger, creativity on the ball, ability to make incisive runs, strong tracking back to defend. Either the team needs to drop serious bucks to bring in a known talent, or they need to adjust tactically to compensate for his absence. You cannot replace him just by putting in the backup.
2. How will United continue to juggle Ramirez and Campos? That Campos is the starting striker is beyond question at this point, but it is an issue that remains a contentious one. Ramirez has not been effective as a late sub, especially with how late coach Lagos traditionally implements his subs. Has Ramirez earned enough benefit of the doubt from last year’s campaign to warrant more minutes? Time will tell.
3. Who is the goalkeeper? Sammy N’djock seems to be the frontrunner here, but Hildebrandt starting the last game means the question is still up in the air at least to some extent. Combine this with a Cody Cropper sighting with Minnesota’s owner and team president, and speculation abounds.
4. What will Minnesota do to see games through? Does it take a mental readjustment? A tactical one? Will Minnesota park the bus after the 60th minute from now on? Will Lagos have his players running sprints for conditioning every day, every week? Or will Lagos himself be sharpening up his resume if the results continue?
5. Will the duck return? We may be able to answer that one. A representative from the team indicated on Reddit that the eggs hatched which the duck had been nurturing and the duck was gone.
Minnesota may need to thrive on the duck that lived inside of them, inside all of us, all along.