While Minnesota United did lose a match on Wednesday night to Deportivo Saprissa, the implications of the game were vastly different than any MLS game the club has played so far this season.
The international friendly against the Costa Rican champions was an opportunity for players who had not played much in the MLS to get game time and present arguments for regular playing time in a lower-pressure setting, and Adrian Heath’s lineup selections reflected this.
Of the team’s normal starting 11, only Francisco Calvo, who played in both Saprissa’s youth teams and their senior team, started this game. Calvo’s presence made sense both given his history with Saprissa and because he missed Saturday’s game against Houston due to a suspension.
With that in mind, rather than a recap of the Loons’ 2-1 loss, here are five primary takeaways from this game which may have more bearing on future matches than this one-off game.
Of the infrequent players who featured in the starting lineup, Frantz Pangop may be the closest to more regular minutes
Pangop is the obvious name to look at as Minnesota’s lone goal scorer in this game, and a focus on him is well-deserved. Pangop was the most consistent attacking threat for either team through most of the 90 minutes, and his first goal for the Loons was well-taken; a classy set of stepovers to create space and a perfectly placed shot to beat his defender and the Saprissa goalkeeper.
“He showed little flashes of real quality,” Heath said. “Some really good bits of combination play with him and Mason (Toye) at times in the first half and a little bit in the second half.”
“It was a friendly game to expose myself, like every player had the chance to show themselves, and it was what was demanded by the coach,” Pangop said through translation by Jérôme Thiesson. “I’m very happy for himself but especially for the team that he could score this goal.”
Pangop went on describe how he could improve.
“We play every weekend against very good teams and the league is full of good teams, especially tactically, and I think the area where I have the most work to do is tactically.”
Bertrand Owundi Eko’o’s first appearance for Minnesota may be his last for some time
Owundi had not appeared in any games for Minnesota before Wednesday — the only player on the team outside of injured midfielder Sam Cronin in that situation. He started between Calvo and Wyatt Omsberg in the back of United’s recently favored 3-5-2 formation, and was directly at fault for Saprissa’s first goal, a mishit backward pass right into David Ramirez’s path.
“He was a bit nervous, a bit on the edge,” Heath said after the game. “Obviously the first one was a mistake, but after that he got himself going again and got over it. As I said, he’s another one who’s been, how long’s he been here, a few months, and hasn’t hardly played a game yet. He’ll be better for the game.”
A first goal still eludes Mason Toye, but his growth continues
Toye has been a regular substitute in recent weeks with the absence of Abu Danladi, often appearing as Heath’s first change in place of Christian Ramirez. He has come tantalizingly close to his first goal for United, but still hasn’t gotten off the mark.
His work on Wednesday was often as provider, sending in threatening crosses and using his speed on the outside to find his openings rather than working in the middle of the pitch. He also provided the assist to Pangop’s goal with the pass that set the Cameroonian free in the attacking third.
“I think this is probably the first game where I felt comfortable, I felt like I had time,” Toye said. “With some of my movement to give myself a little more time on the ball, I was able to survey my options and try to pick the right one. This is the first game I’ve felt super comfortable on the ball and I was able to do my thing.”
Heath likes the 3-5-2, but new signings may push Minnesota back to old formations
The club’s announced additions of Ecuadorian midfielder Romario Ibarra and Colombian striker Angelo Rodriguez, the club’s second designated player, are likely just the beginning of Heath and Manny Lagos’ investment in the summer transfer window.
Regardless of the relative success of the 3-5-2 formation and the sense it seems to make with United’s current team, particularly with Calvo, Brent Kallman and Michael Boxall all able to fit in the formation, Heath said that the club may be returning back to its old comforts with new players after its flirtation with the new look.
“For some players, for some of the defenders it’s a work in progress,” he said. “Miguel (Ibarra)’s probably never played there for a long time. In the next few weeks, a few more reinforcements, maybe we go back to our tried and tested.
“The one good thing is now we’ve had an opportunity to play this system two or three weeks and I think we’ll have a better understanding of it when we go back to it.”
Many of the players who featured in this game would benefit from a loan to a USL team
The reality for some of tonight’s players is simple: no matter how good their training sessions can be or how hard they work, nothing replicates regular game minutes in preparation for bigger settings, and this may be the largest thing holding them back from more regular minutes.
Owundi had played no minutes this season. Pangop has 74 MLS minutes. Harrison Heath has only two appearances in MLS, with 90 of his 94 minutes coming in March. Even the more regular of the bench players, like Toye and Manley, have fewer minutes than the club might want.
United obviously cannot send all of these players out on loan, as they need subs and a matchday squad of 18. But for Omsberg to be the only one of them sent out on loan — to Tulsa — seems unwise. Owundi’s nerves in Wednesday’s game could have been a lighter burden with a few games in a USL team under his belt.
The solution is not a catch-all, but it seems like something United should consider more for these players not on the fringe of the starting 11, but on the fringes of the full game-day 18. Depth has been a constantly discussed issue for Minnesota this year, and developing the team’s currently signed talent to feature in bigger occasions than this one must be a focus.
Heath was open about the issue when asked about possible loans.
“We need to get them minutes,” he said. “We need to get playing men’s football. I spoke about Mason, people forget, not longer than 12 months ago he was playing high school football.
“Now he’s starting to learn on the job, he needs to play every week. He showed glimpses tonight of what he can do, but we need to get more games onto him.”