Minnesota United drew with Real Salt Lake, 1-1, on Saturday to remain undefeated in its last eight matches in all competitions. Our soccer analyst Nicolas Hallett gives us his main takeaways from the match.
1. The Loons maintain their unbeaten form, but appear light on fuel.
It’s been a dizzying run of games for Minnesota United as of late. Largely, the team has passed all of its tests with flying colors, but on Saturday, it appeared they could be feeling some of the ill effects of that many contests in that short of time. Angelo Rodriguez was unable to dress for this crucial Western Conference clash due to an injury he sustained at training during the week.
The squad as a whole showed glimpses of sharpness, but those who’ve seen them reel off seven straight wins could tell this wasn’t them at their flying best. This context would thus serve as Example 1A as to why Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath closed the game with such a pragmatic approach. Add in the fact that United — and MLS teams as a whole — regularly struggle to obtain points away from home and you could see why Heath felt this was a point earned, rather than two points lost.
2. Were Heath’s substitutions too conservative?
United entered this match with arguably the most momentum in franchise history considering their robust winning streak. They also entered this matchup in their newfound yet unusual position among the MLS elites, standings-wise at least. For these reasons, you’d feel United should continue to impose themselves on any and every opponent who lay in their wake.
Yet, it was unequivocally clear that’s not how Heath saw it as he made two head-scratching substitutions during pivotal times of the match.
First, he decided to replace the scorching-hot Mason Toye with the utterly ice-cold Abu Danladi — given recent performances, this change makes minimal sense in almost any context, frankly. Secondly, and in a full I’m-waving-the-white-flag fashion, Heath took off his most talented attacker Darwin Quintero for a defensive midfielder in Lawrence Olum.
This is the equivalent trading in a Ferrari for a mini-van.
Heath can feel vindicated in the sense that these changes may have helped lead the team to his goal of not losing. But shouldn’t his goal have been to win? Given the team’s recent form, you’d have to think that was the more apt decision. The players seemed to differ with their coach as both seemed to clearly gesticulate they’d have preferred to remain on the field.
The Toye substitution is the most confounding of the two as, at just 20 years old, his body doesn’t require nearly the amount of safeguarding many of his older teammates might. Not to mention his replacement is quite literally one of the coldest strikers in the entire league considering he hasn’t scored in 15 matches and only has one goal in his last 32.
3. Jan Gregus needs to shoot the ball more.
It really is that simple. The Slovakian international has been picking up his play slowly but surely as the season has worn on. But what we’ve known about Gregus from Day One has been his top attribute: ball striking. That’s why the coaching staff made him the designated set piece specialist before he even played a minute for the team.
Though this hasn’t translated to many direct goals from Gregus himself yet, it has led him to him leading the team in assists with eight. And that’s not easy when your competing against Quintero (third with 5 assists) and Romain Metanire (second with 6).
In United’s previous MLS game, a 1-0 win over Dallas, it was Gregus hitting a quality shot that led to his team’s win as his low drive was saved and then rebounded in by Toye.
On Saturday against RSL, with chances hard to come by, Gregus attempted two shots and both were obscenely good while being mere inches from going in. His first was a howitzer that would beat nearly any keeper given its velocity, but it happened to go straight at Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando.
His second was an even more gorgeous curling strike from outside the box that was so close to going in that when it hit the post its ricochet almost hit Rimando and bounced in.
More directly to the point, Gregus’ striking ability not only could provide Minnesota crucial goals, but his ability to strike from distance would give United’s offense a whole different facet.
4. Impressive rookie Hassani Dotson finally gets to play his position.
With the shoulder injury to captain Ozzie Alonso holding him out of this contest, rookie Hassani Dotson was finally given a competitive debut at his preferred central midfield role. A year ago, a rookie second-round pick starting an away match against Real Salt Lake and being a key part to a well-earned point on the road would have been seen as a massively uplifting storyline.
Fast forward to now and expectations for Minnesota and its standout rookie have both skyrocketed.
It must be said that Dotson’s performance wasn’t his most enthralling. Still, though unspectacular, his play was calm and assured throughout. He, along with the defensive unit as a whole, was integral to keeping the competent attack of RSL at bay. Multiple times Dotson displayed his uncanny ability to pop up in the right position just when it seemed like the opposing team was going to find itself in a dangerous position.
Alonso is arguably the United’s most valuable player this season. For Dotson to step into his shoes and there to be no noticeable drop off defensively is mighty yet subtle reassurance for the continued development of the 21-year-old.