BY: JON MARTHALER
Who are Minnesota United? The team has been in MLS for a season and a third or so, now, and is working to build an identity as a club. To their credit, you can sort of see what they’re trying to do, that head coach Adrian Heath is trying to get his preferred attacking style into place. But it can be hard to see that desired identity when it’s being regularly overshadowed by defensive errors.
Saturday’s game against San Jose was one of the stranger games in recent memory. The Earthquakes earned a penalty in the first minute, scored in the second minute, and then did nothing of note for more than an hour. Christian Ramirez got Minnesota untracked with an astonishing goal off a terrible Quakes turnover, and the next 40 or so minutes were maybe the best Minnesota has looked so far in MLS.
San Jose would attempt to attack, someone in the Minnesota midfield would poke the ball loose, the ball would find its way to Darwin Quintero or Miguel Ibarra, and the two would lead the Earthquakes defenders on a merry chase. Quintero in particular was seemingly equipped with a turbo button that no one else on the field possessed; he appeared to be moving exactly twice as quickly as the fastest San Jose defender.
And then ageless Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski found an inch of space, found Danny Hoesen, and United trailed 2-1. Throw in a Francisco Calvo handball in the box a few minutes later, earning Wondo a goal from the penalty spot, and it all turned into a 3-1 loss for Minnesota.
The previous Wednesday’s loss at Los Angeles FC wasn’t much better, but at least it was mostly explicable. Facing an injury crisis at striker, manager Adrian Heath tried playing Quintero there, in the hopes that he and Ibarra could somehow string together a counter-attack and steal a goal. The two combined to hit the post in the first half, but that was about all the shorthanded strike force could muster.
Maybe the most appropriate moment was midway through the first half, when a United defender broke up a LAFC attack and launched a ball forward at Quintero to try to relieve the pressure. The ball sailed over his head; the diminutive striker gestured at the ground, as if to say, “Play it down here, friend; I’m the shortest person in this entire stadium.” It was a pretty good summary of the team’s offensive disconnection. And the defense stayed true to form: LAFC took advantage of two glaring errors and won 2-0.
Against San Jose, you could see what United really wants to do, and it begins and ends with the triumvirate of Quintero, Ramirez, and Ibarra. The three are the basis for anything good that Minnesota can do with the ball, and between Ramirez’s positioning and movement, Quintero’s creative wizardry, and Ibarra’s tireless running, they will cause problems for any defense that they can attack at speed. (Alexi Gomez, on the left wing, is only a couple of games into his MLS career, and does not yet look comfortable as part of the attack.)
Quintero, the team’s first big-money signing, so far seems to be living up to the price the Loons paid for him. The club has searched for someone to fill the attacking playmaker role; Kevin Molino (out for the year with a knee injury) seemed to fit better on the wing, as did Ibarra. Quintero, meanwhile, is capable of creating offense in any situation, and if he has the ball at his feet while his defender is moving backwards, he seems more or less unstoppable. He’s the creative attacker that United has always wanted. The team could do worse than to build an identity around him.
Pressing teams in the midfield, turning the ball over, and causing havoc as an opposing defense begins to retreat – that’s the identity the Loons want. You can feel the team straining for it. But the identity that Minnesota has is something totally different, and I fear that right now its identity is its struggling defense.
United set a league record for goals against in its first MLS season, and the club is barely on pace to improve that defensive record this year. Almost every game in 2018 has seen the Loons allow at least two goals that featured terrible defensive errors. That yearned-for offensive identity won’t matter much if the defense is still collapsing. At this point in the franchise’s young history, the Loons are better known for being defensively derelict than anything; it’ll take Quintero a few more games to erase people’s memories of Vadim Demidov.
The franchise has always taken issue with any suggestion that the first two MLS years of the club is some kind of “soft launch,” a few seasons to struggle while preparing for the triumphant move to Allianz Field in St. Paul for next season. But while expansion teams like Atlanta and Los Angeles FC are already contenders, Minnesota is still struggling to get itself together, especially defensively. It’s not the identity that United wants, but right now, it’s the identity the team has.