There are myriad ways to create chances during the course of a soccer match. One of the most tried-and-true methods is the invariable cross.
If Minnesota United’s opening two performances in the 2020 season — a 3-1 win over the formidable Portland Timbers and a 5-2 thrashing of the San Jose Earthquakes — are anything to go off, then it appears the Loons will be relying heavily on crossing as one of their most prominent chance-creation methods.
This peach of a ball from Ethan Finlay will serve as Example 1a. First, because of its sheer beauty and quality and secondly because I believe this wide-open counter attack and Finlay’s decision to cross given a plethora of options, underlines United’s ethos going forward: create by crossing the ball in and around the box.
In fact, during their two wins, eight of United’s 14 key passes (57 percent) came from a cross, according to WhoScored.com. (WhoScored.com defines a “Key Pass” as the final pass leading to a shot on goal from a teammate.)
Compare that to the combined total of Minnesota’s opponents (Portland and San Jose) over that same span wherein only four of their 21 key passes (19 percent) came from crosses, and you can begin to see the drastic differences in approach.
A huge reason for this to be the chosen strategy is likely due to one Luis Amarilla. The new Paraguayan striker has looked nothing short of lethal in the air as his two goals in two games have both come with his head. Judging from what I’ve seen thus far, I’d say it’s easy to assume one of the key tenets of head coach Adrian Heath’s offensive system this season is feeding crosses into Amarilla at every opportunity.
“His timing of knowing when I’m going to be able to pick my head up, look and be able to deliver a cross,” Finlay said of his new No. 9 after United’s win against Portland. “He’s a very smart player, he knows where the space is.”
Amarilla’s second goal as a Loon seems to only further these narratives. Kevin Molino has numerous options once he receives the ball here, but he quickly decides serving it in the air to Amarilla is the best bet.
Watch it once more.
As soon as Molino picks the ball up from Romain Metanire, he pops his head up and looks instantly at Amarilla. He then serves it quickly and decisively. This looks practiced, drilled and rehearsed. If not based in repetitive coaching instruction, then at a minimum both Finlay and Molino’s choices suggest Amarilla’s teammates have the utmost confidence in him already.
Some of this is not all that surprising since under Heath it’s been commonplace for Minnesota to want to hoof the ball into the box. In fact, last season United ranked third in Major League Soccer in crosses per game. The difference now, though, might be that the Loons finally have a top-notch sniper who can finish off these types of services at a high clip.
The distribution chart per MLSsoccer.com from United’s match versus Portland further illustrates how reliant the Loons are on crosses to break into the opponent’s penalty area.
Above you will see all of Minnesota’s crosses — successful (green) and unsuccessful (red) — from open play or set pieces during the match. I’ve also included key passes (yellow) and assists (blue) since those, too, included crosses and would have been left out otherwise.
Now comes the contrast.
Below is the distribution chart from the same game, but only passes — successful (green), unsuccessful (red) — from outfield players. I have removed all crosses (and key passes since five of the six were crosses).
Notice how you can now actually see Portland’s penalty area. Look how infrequent it is that United plays balls into the opposition’s box outside of crossing the ball. Only six (!) passes from United players went into the Timbers’ box that night, contrasted by 18 that did so via the cross.
The distribution chart from the San Jose game paints an eerily similar picture, with the “balls into the box” count at 14-6 in favor of crosses once again. Though the Loons have been clearly successful thus far, you do wonder if they risk becoming a one-trick pony as they are tied for dead-last in MLS in through balls per game.
The following is a great example of that dichotomy and just how eager the Loons are to play the ball out wide so it can be crossed in.
Here Ozzie Alonso receives the ball just outside the box and has copious options. Note the runs from Robin Lod (center), Hassani Dotson (right-center) and Amarilla (left-center), all of which are in advantageous forward positions. Particularly, Amarilla. Should Alonso have played him in, that through ball would have been the most incisive of all the actions. Instead, Alonso elects to play the ball out wide to Metanire in hopes he can serve in a dangerous cross.
The veteran right-back botches his cross on this occasion, but don’t get it twisted, this was still a great play (aided by a lovely dummy from Dotson). It’s just that you feel United should, at times, look to be even more direct. Firstly, to keep opponents off-balance, and secondly because empirical evidence shows that, albeit of increased difficulty, through balls have a higher rater of goal conversion.
Obviously, with an aggregate win total of 8-3 to open the season, it’s clear this heavy-crossing approach has paid early dividends. One must say that this is in large part due to Jan Gregus, who has been en fuego to start the campaign.
The Slovakian is looking every bit as a designated player in numerous categories of his game right now, but it’s his set-piece delivery that has been truly elite.
Here are his two corner kick assists from the weekend to Ike Opara, which were just absurdly accurate.
What may be missed at first glance, too, but is wildly impressive is that these are two completely different style goals — both from Gregus and Opara’s perspectives. In the first, Gregus plays a whipped ball, which is direct and fired in at a high velocity, while Opara makes a near-post run at full speed, forcing his mark to keep up with him.
On the second one, Gregus executes a perfect high-looping cross which is aimed at dropping precipitously at the right time. In this case, Opara’s run is to the back post and is more static, wherein it relies on him out-jumping his marker.
“Honestly, Jan [Gregus] is great with his services and if we do our runs consistently, we’ve got enough guys more than capable of getting chances,” Opara said on Saturday. “It wasn’t San Jose, that’s just how much we believe in what we can do and tonight it finally came through.”
This is actually doubly impressive when you consider that Minnesota has made it no secret in the past that many of Gregus’ set pieces will be aimed at Opara. That’s right, San Jose should have known full well that Opara would be the primary target on these corners and yet they could do nothing. But as they say, sometimes there’s no defense for a perfect pass.
Gregus was a terror against the Earthquakes. He easily could have been credited with two more assists on the night. San Jose resorted to tackling Opara on one occasion, which led to a penalty kick. And another unbelievably precise ball from Gregus gave Michael Boxall a prime opportunity only for him to head it directly to the goalkeeper.
Just imagine: A player getting four assists in one game, let alone all from corner kicks.
That’s unheard of.
We’ll see if these overall trends continue for Minnesota as the season unfolds, but at present, it’s safe to assume how the Loons will try to create chances more often than not. If Gregus and Amarilla continue to demonstrate elite ability — and prodigious crossers Metanire, Finlay and Chase Gasper chip in with regularity — then MLS defenses will find it frightening to think how good this United offense could be.