Minnesota United has reached the midpoint of its MLS schedule, and at the halfway point, it’s hard to see how the Loons can be happy. Five of the team’s six wins have come at home, but the team is also a league-worst 1-7-0 on the road. Only Montreal has more losses than Minnesota’s ten, and the Loons – in ninth place in the West – have pulled off the dubious feat of losing to each of the three teams below them in the current standings (including losing twice to San Jose, which has – you guessed it – just those two wins all season).
That hasn’t stopped Minnesota from making optimistic noises. After the team’s 4-3 win over Toronto FC on Independence Day, coach Adrian Heath told reporters, “This team is capable of winning 13, 14 games in this league, I know it is.”
United currently sits four points back of the final playoff spot, which makes a playoff berth feel within reach, but a look at past years shows just how far Minnesota has to go. 46 points was the playoff cutoff in the Western Conference in each of the past two years. At the moment, Houston’s 1.38 points per game is sixth-best in the West – which over a full year works out to 47 points.
And so Minnesota, which currently has 19 points, will need 27 or 28 points to stay in contention. Even if they fulfill Heath’s prediction and win seven or eight more games this year, they’ll need to also get a few draws – presumably on the road – in order to sneak into the playoffs.
So how can they do that? I see three keys for the rest of the season.
1. Somewhere, somehow, find a true defensive midfielder. The Loons’ defending has been awful in a bunch of areas this year, but the worst has probably been their defending right on the edge of their penalty area. You can dive in here for much more on the topic, but the high-level summary is that the Loons give up more offense in that area, by far, than any other MLS team.
This comical defending was on display again on Wednesday, when the entire Loons team left Sebastian Giovinco alone in this area – Giovinco, who has scored seemingly dozens of goals for Toronto from that very spot. Of course, when the Loons left him alone, he scored again.
Everything Minnesota has tried hasn’t worked, in central midfield, ever since Sam Cronin went down with a brain injury. The combo of Ibson and Rasmus Schuller has been defensively wanting. Maximiano, on loan, can’t keep himself from getting a yellow card for more than about nine minutes at a time. Everyone else the Loons have tried in central midfield has been no better defensively. Can they get someone as a transfer? Can Francisco Calvo fill in as a true defensive midfielder? Something has to be done, and fast, or those 13-14 wins are a pipe dream.
2. Figure out a solution on the left wing. Eric Miller’s arrival at fullback helped shore up a weak spot for Minnesota United, but given that the Loons traded left winger Sam Nicholson to get him, it created another. Many people teased United for repeatedly acquiring wing players, seemingly while ignoring much of the rest of the squad, but if anything the Loons are now short. Nicholson was traded. Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay are out injured for the season. The rest of the Loons’ attackers have been injured or ineffective.
Since Nicholson’s departure, Minnesota has tried Peruvian loanee Alexi Gomez wide left, either as a pure winger in a 4-2-3-1, or – like on Wednesday against Toronto – as a wingback in a 3-5-2. Working with the three-headed attacking monster of Christian Ramirez, Darwin Quintero, and Miguel Ibarra, Gomez has been given plenty of chances. And in nine starts, he’s scored zero goals, set up zero goals, and generally looked like he was a step too slow to be effective.
As with defensive midfield, the options are a little thin. Abu Danladi and Mason Toye are both strikers, not wingers. Frantz Pangop is intriguing, but the Cameroonian hasn’t shown much more verve than Gomez. Calvo plays left wingback for Costa Rica, if United sticks with the 3-5-2, but it’s hard to see Heath trusting a back three of Michael Boxall, Brent Kallman, and rookie Wyatt Omsberg. If United is going to reach that win plateau, though, they have to figure out how to attack beyond just Quintero-led counter-attacks.
3. Somehow, some way, stay healthy. The Loons have only one week off between now and the end of October, over Labor Day weekend, and they’ve got a couple of midweek games over the next couple of months as well. Minnesota is not a deep squad; they can’t afford an injury to Quintero, or Ibarra, or to goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. They’ve already had to deal with injuries to Molino and Finlay and Cronin, which robbed them of any depth they might have had. At the moment, Collin Martin would be the primary backup for just about any position in the midfield.
With travel factored in, and the difficulty of playing home games on an unforgiving artificial turf field, Heath and company would dearly love to spread some minutes around. Unfortunately, they don’t have that luxury right now, not with a somewhat thin squad. All they can do is hope that no key players succumb to the stress.
Heath believes that seven or eight more wins aren’t out of the question, leaving aside the team’s remarkable inability to be competitive on the road. As his team embarks on the second half of its second MLS season, his only choice might be optimism. If Minnesota puts together a second half that looks a lot like the first half – and a lot like 2017 – the coach might not be around to see the sideline at brand-new Allianz Field next year.