What Are They All About? Minnesota United FC
Out of the running. This past weekend the Chicago Fire suffered their first home defeat of the season, losing 3-1 against Toronto FC. Perhaps more significant than the shattering of their eleven-match unbeaten streak at Toyota Park was the emphatic way in which TFC ended Chicago’s Supporter Shield chances. The Fire are now closer to seventh than they are to first and the harsh reality that they may have been punching above their weight fell upon players and supporters alike as Jair Marrufo blew the final whistle. Chicago has made great strides this season and missing out on the post-season is nearly impossible at this stage, but there are still glaring questions to be asked of this Fire side.
Many of the shortcomings that were present in March–squad depth, tactical decisions, the lack of a play maker, and the congestion of like-minded players in midfield–are still present in late August and the lack of attention afforded to those issues is seemingly worse than the issues themselves. More importantly, the consistency of Chicago being unable to compete against teams around them in the standings has virtually guaranteed their playoff stay will be a short one. They have nine matches to remedy their woes and they’ll begin this crucial period by hosting Minnesota on Saturday (7:30 CT on CSN Chicago Plus).
Although the two sides have met in preseasons past, with Minnesota as an NASL side, the expansion club will be visiting the Windy City for the first time in MLS play. Their maiden voyage has not gone as planned by any stretch of the imagination as they currently sit in last place of the Western Conference and are competing with DC United for the Wooden Spoon. There are glimmers of hope in the squad and Adrian Heath has shown he can weather the expansion storm in the past, but on paper this is a fixture which Chicago will see as an opportunity to bounce back from a poor spell. Will Minnesota play the part that has been written for them, or will an ad-lib performance frustrate Chicago further? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Minnesota Form Guide (last five league matches): L-L-W-L-D
Previous Result: A 2-1 away loss against Seattle.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Shuttleworth; Calvo, Kallman, Boxall, Thiesson; Ibson, Cronin; Nicholson, Molino, Finlay; Danladi
Strengths: If we’re being honest this segment of the preview could almost be omitted. This Minnesota side is absolutely atrocious. A fervent fan base that was largely responsible for their side’s expansion into MLS has not been rewarded with due diligence on the part of their front office. The Dark Cloud’s passion off the pitch has not been mirrored on it but we’ll try to dig up some strengths anyway. Let’s see where Minnesota might succeed on Saturday.
The Speed of a Loon: Although their namesake does it on water and the team does it on turf, Minnesota has one of the fastest counterattacks in the league. The explosiveness of Kevin Molino, the ability that newly acquired Ethan Finlay has to run all day long, and the sprinting capacity of Abu Danladi is scary for any back line to face. With Matt Polster, Brandon Vincent, and Joao Meira still questionable for Saturday’s encounter, Patrick Doody, Drew Connor, and Christian Dean are not adequate replacements for the speed of the missing outside back or the positioning ability of the veteran center back. If Minnesota can get a few opportunities to break into the open field then Chicago could be in trouble.
Perhaps Minnesota’s best performance of the season, their win over DC earlier this month showcased their threat on the counter. All four of the Loons’ goals came on the break with Sam Cronin and Ibson being tasked with winning the ball back high up the field before sending Molino, Danladi, or Ramirez the other way in transition. Utilizing one or two passes at most, Minnesota was able to produce two vs. two or three vs. two situations against DC in an instant. Although the Fire possess more quality than Ben Olsen’s men, the threat is clearly there and they may need to be more cautious on the wings than they may like.
Mr. Twin Cities: Although Christian Ramirez was born in Southern California there will likely be a monument of him in Minnesota upon his retirement from the game. His eleven goals and one assist have been a bright spot on an otherwise dull season for the Loons and would warrant his inclusion in most MLS starting elevens. A unique blend of height, speed, and clinical finishing ability has seen him carry this Minnesota side on his shoulders since signing for them in 2014. He featured in the NASL’s best eleven three consecutive times and earned the Golden Boot on two occasions before being re-signed to the MLS iteration of the Loons. His acclamation to a bigger stage didn’t take much time at all as he notched the first ever MLS goal in Minnesota’s history on opening day of the season.
His consistency is something else that must be applauded with Ramirez featuring in one hundred and seventeen of the Minnesota’s last one hundred and nineteen fixtures across all competitions. In that long spell Ramirez has rarely gone more than two matches at a time without notching a tally. Although Ramirez pulled his hamstring in the match against DC, a month of recovery should see him healthy enough to see some minutes on Saturday after he began training in full on Monday. Needless to say, Minnesota’s front office will be eager to have him extend his contract with the Loons as they enter the next phase of their development.
I’d Like to Keep My Job, Please: As we enter the final stretch of the season the league is beginning to witness a sense of desperation among some of its players. A yearly occurrence that the Fire have been all too familiar with in recent seasons is eerily creeping into Minnesota’s ranks–many of the players on the roster will now be playing for their contracts. Expansion sides tend to have a lot of turnover as teams try to navigate the strange waters of establishing themselves in their market.
Recent examples include the Timbers with seventeen departures after their first year, Montreal with nineteen, NYCFC with sixteen, and Orlando who saw twenty-four players leave after their disastrous first campaign. The truth is that many of these Minnesota players will not be here next season and they will need to fight ferociously to show that they can contribute something to their current team or to the league in these final weeks. We’ve seen it before, desperation can be a dangerous tool and Chicago cannot underestimate a wounded opponent. Additionally, some of the bizarre personnel choices and tactics that Paunovic has employed over the last three matches could provide Minnesota with a window of opportunity.
Weaknesses: In contrast to the above column, this section could be formatted as a book if we so chose. Nothing has gone to plan for Minnesota on or off the field in this expansion year and MLS is certainly scratching their heads as to why they thought the franchise was ready to join the big time. Constant delays in construction of a soccer specific stadium, underwhelming performances in front of miniscule crowds on a terrible turf field, and questionable acquisitions are hindering what looked to be a promising project. Let’s take brief a look at where they might struggle on Saturday.
There’s Nothing Wrong with USL: Aside from Adrian Heath’s experience with an under-performing expansion side, we’re not sure what qualifies him to still be coaching in MLS. Although he showed a unique ability to succeed in USL with the Austin Aztex and Orlando City prior to their expansion, his work in MLS has not really produced results. He has won just thirty-two of his one hundred and one MLS matches and has often been criticized for tinkering too much. Minnesota has lined up with seven different back lines this season and has toyed with four different line ups in that time as well. Although Heath has publicly stated that he believes this summer window helped him to address many of Minnesota’s needs, we think their struggles are bound to continue until they get a front office and coaching staff that match the ambitions of the supporters. Ultimately, we wouldn’t be surprised if Heath ended up back in the USL at some point in the near future.
Record Setting: The formula to success for MLS expansion sides seems to involve solid defensive units. If you look at teams like the 2009 Seattle Sounders or the 1998 Chicago side, the ability to withstand seasoned goal scorers pays dividends. Somehow, Minnesota did not get that memo. As it stands, after twenty-four matches Minnesota have conceded fifty-one goals. They have ten matches left to break Chivas USA’s of conceding sixty-seven goals in a thirty-four-match season. They haven’t added proven MLS veterans on their back line, Bobby Shuttleworth has accrued a lot of league minutes but has a less than spectacular career save percentage, and for all the attacking that the front four do they are lazy when it comes to a high press.
Heath seemingly realized this early on (not early enough, though) and acquired Marc Burch and Sam Cronin from Colorado in April. The pair have added some stability to the side but cannot carry the team defensively on their own and Burch will likely miss this fixture with a hernia. If there was any opponent Chicago could choose to face during a bounce back game it would certainly be Minnesota. Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam will have a unique opportunity to re-ignite their partnership in this one.
Loons Don’t like to Migrate: Time and time again MLS has shown that if a team can earn points on the road, they can set themselves up for success in the league. It is perhaps no surprise then that Minnesota’s spot at the bottom of the table comes on the back of an inability to get results away from home. The Loons have yet to win on their travels this season and have earned a mere two points from ten road matches–the worst such total in the league. Although Chicago may have lost to TFC this past weekend, their impressive home form will likely resume against this poor Minnesota side.
Loons Don’t like to Nest Either: While their away form has been awful, their recent home form hasn’t been much better. Prior to their recent loss against Seattle, Minnesota played five consecutive home matches and accrued just four points from the spell. They seem to be entering this encounter completely dejected and demoralized.
Prediction: Chicago 3-0 Minnesota. The Fire will earn a victory here not simply because they are the better team or because Minnesota is struggling but because they have no other choice. Anything but three points in this one and Chicago will continue a much unwanted downward spiral. Nemanja Nikolic scores a hat trick to throw his name back in the ring for the Golden Boot.