The start of Minnesota United’s first MLS campaign was awful, allowing a record amount of goals in the first two matches. Since then, with one hiccup in New England, United has started to show they are able to compete at an MLS-level.
United most recently went down to Texas, twice, and held the potent Dallas attack to just two goals and managed to come back from 2-0 down in Houston and get a draw. Five points out of the first seven games looks a whole world better than what the team did, or didn’t do, in its first two games. In honor of those five points ahead are two areas where the team has gone wrong and three areas that have gone right in the first seven games.
The most glaring mistake in the transfer market has been defender Vadim Demidov, who was named the team’s captain, was awful in the first two games of the season. Demidov was caught out of position numerous times on counter attacks and committing two poor plays that were ruled penalties. The defender has been benched for NASL holdover Brent Kallman — more on him later — and has dropped down the pecking order so far that he didn’t travel with the squad the past two weeks to Dallas and Houston. Demidov already may be on his way back to Norway according to Jeff Rueter. The other defensive transfer was Francisco Calvo, from Saprissa, who has been decent in most games but made a mistake that led to the opening goal in Colorado and kept Houston’s Elis onside for their second goal. Calvo hasn’t been awful and has actually partnered well with Kallman but has made a few more errors than a player who starts for their National squad should make.
While Goalkeeper John Alvbage wasn’t entirely to blame, the Swedish keeper did allow ten goals before he went off with injury in game two. The most glaring mistake in those first two matches was allowing Fenendo Adi to easily dribble around him for Portland’s fourth goal. Alvbage did make his return in the Houston match and had a good performance as he helped the squad keep their first clean half in the MLS.
Another transfer, though just a one-year loan, who hasn’t really made a mark so far is Bashkim Kadrii. He was brought in as an attacking talent and has generally occupied the left wing position. Kadrii had appeared in every game, starting four of them, until the Houston game when he was an unused sub. The winger didn’t really make a mark on the offense and was benched for the Houston match with coach Adrian Heath stating he felt he hadn’t gotten enough out of him in Dallas. Kadrii was replaced in Houston by Rasmus Schuller, acquired from BK Hacken, he only lasted 43 minutes before being taken off due to injury. Schuller had average to below-average games to start the season before not being available in New England. After the Revs game Schuller was on the bench for the next two games, coming on as a sub only one of those games. Like Kadrii he just hasn’t done enough to make a name for himself or impress much.
The only bright side to the transfer activity has been Swiss right-back Jerome Thiesson. Aside from a poor debut against Atlanta, in which the only Minnesotans to have a good day were the fans and the weather, Thiesson has been a solid placement in the back field. He mainly occupies the right side of the field pushing higher up the field to widen the field when Minnesota is in possession. Thiesson’s role pushing up and sitting wide means he puts in crosses and that’s led to his one assist so far when he crossed into Christian Ramirez who headed in the net past Tim Howard in Colorado.
The defense would have been an easy and obvious one here. Instead we’ll look at the possession ability of Minnesota. Currently they sit dead middle of the league in 11th place with 49.5% possession. FC Dallas sits bottom on 43.7% and NYCFC sit top with 58.3% possession. But both are in the top four of their conferences, showing exactly how important the stat is overall.
Here’s where United gets in trouble: When they try to keep the ball, they’ve gotten dispossessed of the ball the third-highest rate in the league. Getting the ball taken away so often is concerning for a team full of midfield and attacking talent that should be able to keep the ball well enough. United complete a league average amount of passes, 77% according to whoscored.com. They get in trouble when they lose the ball and have to get back and cover a counter attack, which is where Atlanta and Portland keyed in on early in the season. Mistakes in trying to control the ball have killed this team all season. If those mistakes are going to continue to happen the defense needs to be better at not getting caught out of position. Minnesota only catch teams offside about 1.3 times per game and have allowed 24 goals, meaning they’re losing possession too often in their own half and their defense just doesn’t have enough time to react.
Where United has failed in the transfer market, they’ve succeeded in their trades. The trade for Kevin Molino is still one of the biggest trades in league history but so far it’s paid off for United, as he’s been the leading creator for the side assisting on three goals and scoring three of his own. The high price tag that team had to pay to acquire Molino means there’s a lot more expected of the midfielder, but so far he’s produced. Molino has been potent coming off the right side and crossing into either Christian Ramirez or Johan Venegas. Speaking of Venegas, he’s been pretty solid in behind the forward as an attacking midfielder (2 goals, 1 assist). He started the Portland match up top in the forward position but didn’t really look comfortable until Christian Ramirez came on and Venegas moved back into the central attacking midfielder position.
Venegas’ two goals this season were pretty identical plays that started with Molino cutting in from the right with ball to the goalline. Molino’s run drew the defenders to him, clearing out space for Venegas to enter to receive the cross from Molino, which led to the fourth goal against Salt Lake and the second goal in Houston.
Needing goalkeeping depth, and already having plenty of depth in the attack, United traded for Bobby Shuttleworth, who started a majority of New England’s games since 2013. Shuttleworth started the season as the number two behind signing John Alvbage, but has been called on for the past couple games due to Alvbage’s injury. Shuttleworth, beside one horrendous team outing in New England, has kept the goals to two per game. Now, Shuttleworth went off due to injury in the most game in Houston so we’ll have to see if he returns to the number one slot upon recovery.
The fact that Christian Ramirez is sitting one goal shy of being tied for first place in the Golden Boot race shouldn’t shock anyone who’s watched United play the past three seasons. It’s still amazing, though, the quickness with which the 26-year-old has adapted to MLS-level play. In terms of goals per 90 minutes, Ramirez is off to a blistering .83 g/90, which, if he did that last year would have tied him with NYRB’s Bradley Wright-Phillips, who led the league in scoring. His goals this season are pure poacher’s goals. A blast from distance where he finds himself inexplicably left unguarded in Portland, a running header in Colorado, a pair of goals against RSL which saw him score one from a horrible mistake by goalkeeper Nick Rimando, and a header in Houston off a corner. All goals where he doesn’t have the ball for long at all but he’s found an open pocket in the defence and got the ball into the net. Ramirez has made the jump from the NASL to MLS look astoundingly easy. A play we’ve started to see more in the recent games is Molino cross the ball low and fast across the box and Christian Ramirez run onto at the back post. It hasn’t hit yet but if those two keep at it that play will become deadly with Molino’s crossing and Ramirez’s ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Another guy who’s flourished while making the jump from the NASL is Minnesotan Brent Kallman. After Demidov’s benching, Kallman stepped in and hasn’t looked back. He’s even earned a bench spot on the MLS Team of the Week. Kallman has been a steady presence on the back line since getting the start and has made very few errors and has rarely been caught out of position. The 6-foot-2 defender even used his frame in New England match to get his first MLS goal.
Defense is one of the positions that usually peaks in ability later in a player’s career. Kallman, at 26, still has plenty of time on the clock to get better and better. In the four games Kallman and Calvo have manned the center defense, United have allowed two goals a game, which is still too many, but is a lot better than the five-plus a game anytime Demidov was in.