What Are They All About? Minnesota United FC
A rough start. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost their first match of the 2018 season, dropping a 4-3 result against Sporting Kansas City in what was one of the most exciting matches of the round. Chicago seemed sluggish from the very beginning, allowing a Sporting tally in just the ninth minute, and were punished once again at the stroke of half time, entering the locker room down by two goals. A miraculous twelve-minute spell between the seventieth and eighty-second minute saw the Fire score three goals in what appeared to be a comeback of epic proportions. However, SKC struck twice more in the final seven minutes of the match on the back of a capitulation of equally epic proportions. Although one result does not make or break a season, Chicago certainly did not get off to the start that this third year of the Rodriguez/Paunovic regime had planned.
Head coach Veljko Paunovic and his charges all had various ideas of who was to blame, but the overall sentiment around the club was one of a lack of chemistry as the squad transitioned into a new system. That, and the fact that the mental strength to see out the match simply wasn’t there are two clear points of improvement that will have been stressed this week in training. Luckily, both of those aspects should get better with time, particularly as the midfield trio of Schweinsteiger, McCarty, and Tchani gel into a more cohesive unit. If Chicago is indeed to play a more possession based style of play, those three will need to have more spatial awareness of who goes where and when throughout various spells of the match, especially if the club continues to lack a true playmaker. There is no time to dwell on dropped points or the lows of the match as the Fire fly to Minnesota for their first ever MLS clash in the Twin Cities.
There is perhaps no better remedy to a slow start than playing what is undoubtedly the worst expansion side in league history. Minnesota United FC finished their maiden voyage in MLS with just thirty-six points, and shipped a total of seventy goals, the highest ever goals against tally in the league’s history. A spell of three wins in their last seven matches somewhat salvaged a season that may have otherwise found them at the bottom of the league, but by most standards, their transition from the NASL was nothing short of disastrous.
Everything from their 5-1 thrashing by Portland in their inaugural match (the worst ever loss by an expansion side in their debut match) to the bizarre mistakes made by the front office in terms of personnel choices (perhaps most notably, the signing of Vadim Demidov to a $550,00 guaranteed contract and then playing him in just three matches) contribute to them getting off on the wrong foot. However, Minnesota did manage to beat Chicago at Toyota Park (their first ever away victory in MLS) and the end of the season brought a promise to be active in the trade window. This is certainly a new look Loons side and last year’s catastrophic debut cannot necessarily be indicative of the season to come. As both teams attempt to situate themselves in the MLS landscape, let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Minnesota Form Guide: W-L
Previous Result: A 2-1 away victory over Orlando City.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Lampson; Thiesson, Calvo, Boxall, Mears; Ibson, Schuller; Nicholson, Molino, Finlay; Ramirez
Strengths: Given the way that Minnesota’s season finished in 2018, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they are on an upswing. Succeeding in your expansion year is not common and they’ll be happy to turn over a new leaf. Given that they went into a stadium known as a fortress and left with three points this past weekend, they’ll also be on a bit of a high. Let’s see where they might thrive against Chicago.
Hometown Hero: There is no doubt that expansion sides often struggle to solidify an identity. Yes, Minnesota’s leap up from the NASL came with a well established and die-hard fan base, but on the field, making the jump to MLS comes with some bumps in terms of establishing what kind of a club you want to be. The Loons took a major step forward in the department last August when they signed Duluth, Minnesota native Ethan Finlay. After spending his entire career in Columbus, which included a series of deep play off runs, Finlay’s leadership, ability on the ball, and home town status convinced Heath to splash a massive amount of Garber bucks on the versatile midfielder. With just two months left of the season after he was acquired, there was not much time for him to impress, but this season is another story. After notching two goals against Orlando, Finlay seems to have set high hopes for having a career year. At just twenty-seven, he could be the central building block for this Minnesota United side as they navigate the next few years and he will certainly play a pivotal role in this fixture.
Uff-Da: Another key factor in this match could be the venue. As the Loons await their own soccer specific stadium in the heart of the city, TCF Bank Stadium is serving them well in terms of results. They are undefeated in their last four home matches, a streak which allowed them to avoid the Wooden Spoon last season, and the match has been announced as an official sell out (of the lower bowl). Although the weather report indicates a high of fifty degrees at kick-off, the wind factor of a very open venue, the hype around their first home match of the season, and Chicago’s less than stellar road form might end up turning the tide for the hosts.
Experience and a Physical Presence: You knew that the first item on Adrian Heath’s winter shopping list would be an improved back line and he wasted no time in securing a few key defensive players, the most notable of which was Tyrone Mears. Added via the re-entry draft after an outstanding season with Atlanta United, he was deemed surplus by Tata Martino, likely due to his age and Atlanta favoring a more attacking wing back option. Heath wasted no time snapping him up. After winning MLS Cup with the Sounders in 2016, Mears has the pedigree that the Loons are looking for. Although he is thirty-five, his physical ability seems to indicate he will be in MLS for at least another two or three seasons and the lack of speed that Chicago exhibits on the wings could play right into the Englishman’s feet. His fifteen successful defensive interventions were key in leaving Orlando with all three points and we have no doubt he’ll be a difference maker in this match.
Weaknesses: It certainly isn’t difficult to find weaknesses in a side like Minnesota. We will attempt to give their offseason moves the benefit of the doubt where we can, but let’s see where they might struggle on Saturday.
They Love Lamp: After allowing seventy goals last season, one would think that upgrading at that position would be a priority for Adrian Heath. However, instead of splashing TAM or a DP slot on a foreign keeper, or even GAM for an MLS veteran to replace Bobby Shuttleworth, the Loons acquired Matt Lampson from Chicago. The trade that also included 100k in the TAM, 75k in GAM, and the 15th overall Super Draft pick in a package, paved the way for the arrival of Jon Bakero with the fifth pick of the draft. Suspect positioning, poor pass completion, and a lack of communication/trust with the backline plagued Lampson’s time with the Fire and Minnesota’s first match of the season showed that those aspects of his game have not dissipated. The writing should have been on the wall when Gregg Berhalter—one of the most astute judges of talent in the league—allowed Lampson to move to Chicago by declining his option in 2016, but he’s been given yet another chance by Adrian Heath. If Chicago can channel any of their scrimmage form from last season, the ball should find its way into Lampson’s net frequently in this one.
Missing Pieces: As if a thin and unproven squad weren’t bad enough, Minnesota currently finds itself amidst a spell where two of its biggest threats are sidelined. An ACL tear for midfield engine Kevin Molino will keep the Trinidadian out for the remainder of the season, just one year after he recovered from an ACL tear in his other knee. While losing any player is disastrous, Molino’s seven goals and nine assists from last year (on a team that struggled to perform in general) is particularly devastating.
The other likely missing piece for Saturday’s encounter is Abu Danladi who came off injured after just half an hour against San Jose. The hamstring strain kept him out against Orlando and as of Wednesday he had not yet returned to full training. With just Danladi and Ramirez as out-and- out forwards with professional minutes under their belt, Heath should be hesitant to rush the number nine back too early. His ability as a striker (two tallies against Chicago last season) will surely be missed by the Loons.
Prediction: Both of these teams seem incomplete, both in terms of rosters and in terms of implementing tactics. As squad chemistry grows and the respective GMs continue to maneuver the transfer window, both clubs will take a much different shape than is currently visible. For now, Minnesota will look to start its home form off on the right foot and Chicago simply cannot afford to be two fixtures into the season without any points to show for it. Minnesota United 2-2 Chicago Fire.