A journey through Week 11, including a deep dive on Minnesota United and a glance at Sunday’s triple-header.
MLS Week 11 was highlighted by a cracking slate of rivalry games on Sunday. But before those, a look at Minnesota United, who lost another disappointing home game on Saturday.
Crash and burn
After a 3-1 loss to the previously last-place San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United went through the same somber, anger-tinged motions in post-game press conferences.
Coach Adrian Heath reiterated his favorite phrase, “goals change games” (duh!), and lamented defensive mistakes. One of the primary perpetrators of those defensive mishaps, captain and center-back Francisco Calvo, was coy but excuse-laden, returning to his themes of disrespect.
“We as a team need more respect,” he said, according to MLSsoccer.com. “Because all the referees come here and they do whatever they want.”
Two of San Jose’s goals did indeed come on penalty kicks. Neither of those calls were arguable, though. Calvo shouldn’t charge into a shot with his arms raised above his head next time.
Even Christian Ramirez, who scored the Loons’ only goal on a gorgeous chip of San Jose keeper Andrew Tarbell, mentioned the mistakes at the back that continue to cost Minnesota results, saying “We just have to continue to … fix those defensive issues. It sucks losing on two PKs.”
The team know what ails them. It hasn’t been all that different from last season’s monstrosity. But they haven’t been able to fix it. To make any progress toward improvement on that end, they have to hold players accountable — it’s due time that Calvo sits (upcoming World Cup or not) and moving on from players like Jerome Thiesson and Michael Boxall could also be a necessity.
This is far from the only issue, though. Minnesota are disorganized, lack an identity and fail to protect the backline. They rely completely on talent in attack, which gets them some goals, but there is often a lack of purpose and ideas with and without the ball. They don’t create overloads or make productive runs.
Against San Jose, these team-wide issues were prevalent early, particularly through the middle. The deep-midfield pairing of Rasmus Schuller and Ibson is mostly dysfunctional — this, even more than their disastrous defense, is Minnesota’s biggest problem because of its effects on the rest of the team’s shape. They put the backline in difficult positions and struggle to distribute to the attackers, who often have to drop deep to get on the ball.
Ibson is high-usage and drifts into a lot of good areas. He is fifth in MLS among players who’ve played at least 150 minutes with a touch percentage of 13.7, according to American Soccer Analysis. But he’s also 34 and not much for throwing himself into tackles, as much gamesmanship as he dutifully employs. The Brazilian is not a ground-coverer or ball-winner.
That wouldn’t be a terrible thing if he had a partner who could provide those skills. Schuller is not that partner. The Finnish-international has struggled mightily, and against San Jose, he had a tendency to chase the ball and leave space behind him. The Quakes are close to (if not beyond) the Loons’ level of dysfunction, so they struggled to take advantage, but the space was there.
Schuller does not win the ball and tends to get outmuscled, making his ventures forward especially damaging. With the ball, he is slow to make decisions and often doesn’t make up for that by using his body to shield the ball. Losing Sam Cronin to concussion effects has been brutal for Heath’s squad.
It’s up to the English manager to put the pieces back together. That means devising a better, more concrete tactical plan that provides defensive help for the midfield two without sacrificing attacking power. Darwin Quintero, Alexi Gomez and Miguel Ibarra are electric playing off of Ramirez’s hold-up play, but Minnesota will continue to bleed goals if Schuller and Ibson keep having to cover ground they can’t cover.
Team-wide issues are exacerbating a troubling talent deficiency. It is the manager’s job to make the club greater than the sum of its parts.
A three-game national TV doubleheader took place on Sunday that featured three great games: two derbies (Seattle-Portland and Orlando-Atlanta) and an intriguing matchup between quality teams (NYCFC-LAFC). Here’s an individual look at each game:
Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders
After 87 minutes of cautious and cagey action, it was Sebastian Blanco’s goal that sent Portland to a home three points. That goal, which came from a beautiful pass from Samuel Armenteros, was one of just three shots on target between the two teams. It was not an exciting game.
Seattle, who are still missing a huge number of important contributors and were coming off a midweek game at Toronto, set up in a tight 5-4-1 formation with Clint Dempsey alone up top as a false nine. They sat deep and invited pressure from the Timbers, and with a solid back five protected by Cristian Roldan, they did it effectively. Fanendo Adi was effectively marked out of the game.
But when center-back Kim Kee-Hee went down with an injury in the 71st minute and Brian Schmetzer chose to bring on winger Handwalla Bwana and replace Kee-Hee with midfielder Jordy Delem instead of backup defender Tony Alfaro, Seattle got considerably weaker at the position. Delem is useful and versatile, but he’s not a center-back. The goal came not long after.
That Alfaro has barely been considered for use even as a number of Seattle central defenders have been out with injuries raises questions about why the 24-year-old is on the roster in the first place. If he’s not going to be used now he’s never going to be used.
Portland moved away a bit from the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation they had previously been using, instead putting out something more along the lines of a 4-3-3. Diego Valeri played on the right wing and cut inside, while Andy Polo played a unique secondary winger position. Polo was deeper than Blanco, who was on the opposite side of Valeri, but had the liberty of charging up the flank. The speedy Peruvian stayed on the left side of Diego Chara and was able to start his occasional dart up the field from a deeper position, using Blanco as a distraction.
It teetered between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-3 — defensively, it looked more like a 4-3-3. Polo’s role is a unique one, but Portland struggled to break down Seattle. They need to get more of their attacking skill players in threatening positions through the middle, particularly Valeri. They also need more from Adi.
Orlando City SC vs. Atlanta United
One of MLS’s best new rivalries added another chapter on Sunday, and again it was marked by intense fans, wide-open play and crafty attackers. Atlanta’s 2-1 win in Orlando was filled with chances on both sides as each team spread out and attacked. The difference was that ATL are a stout and ever-improving defensive team. Orlando had a comparatively okay game on that end, but were not quite good enough to beat the best the team in the league.
The Five Stripes, coming off a 10-man loss at home to Sporting KC on Wednesday, returned to a 3-5-2 formation, pulling noted Lion tamer Hector Villalba for stud wing-back Julian Gressel. This look helped them add numbers to midfield, thanks to Gressel and left wing-back Greg Garza’s tendencies to shift inside in their defensive shape.
They were dominant early in the game and continued to press Orlando into oblivion even after winning and scoring a seventh minute penalty-kick. Orlando, who as a team did not look as good as they have for much of this game, improved when Uri Rosell came on at halftime for Cristian Higuita in deep midfield.
The Lions never were able to find a connectedness in attack, though, even after Stefanho Pinho and Josue Colman came on as substitutes. It’s a disappointing defeat to a rival, but sometimes you just lose to a better team.
Los Angeles FC vs. New York City FC
This game has an argument for being the best of the season. It was end-to-end and action-packed:
Games between teams with solidified tactical identities are often the best, and that was certainly the case here. The score was 2-2, a deserving result for both clubs. More, please.
The best team in the league
It is Atlanta United, and the gap is wider than any point since Week 1. NYCFC played a great game in LA, but they were error-prone in defense. It’s possible (even likely) that neither of the goals they conceded would have happened with it were Maxime Chanot in place of Sebastien Ibeagha.
The worst team in the league
We’re still going to go with the Colorado Rapids here after they lost at home to the New York Red Bulls. Anthony Hudson’s lack of willingness to try different things in attack is becoming a point of concern in Colorado.
Unheralded player of the week
From the wacky 2-2 draw between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Houston Dynamo on Friday, Whitecaps’ right-back Marcel de Jong (sort of) stood out. He held his own against Alberth Elis down the flank and managed to avoid catastrophic error, which can not be said for other defenders in this game.
Random result of the week
We go back to midweek for this one, to the Seattle Sounders’ 2-1 win at Toronto FC. Seattle had struggled up to that point and had to go to Toronto, who despite their large swash of injuries sent out a solid enough lineup. This was a big win for Seattle. TFC, after they lost again on the weekend to New England, desperately need results to get themselves back in the playoff race.
Predictable result of the week
The Magic Unicorn is back! Mauro Diaz recorded three helpers in FC Dallas’ 3-2 win over the LA Galaxy. FCD are organized, confident and suddenly capable of getting results. It’s nice to see the old Dallas again.
As good as they are at putting fans in the seats, the Galaxy are struggling mightily. Sigi Schmid is planted firmly on the hot seat.
Goalkeeper howler of the week
Alec Kann gave up a bad rebound that allowed Justin Meram to pull one back for Orlando:
Can’t give that up. But he’s one of the best backup goalkeepers in MLS.