Ask anyone who follows Minnesota United FC what the strength of this team is and you’ll get the same answer 100% of the time.
The back line.
Heading into the 2019 season, Adrian Heath and the Loons front office had one clear goal, to completely revamp a defensive third that had been the worst in MLS statistically over their first two seasons in America’s top tier, allowing 141 goals combined in 2017 and 2018.
The organization’s most notable move came with the addition of former MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara from Sporting Kansas City.
Opara would deliver in his first season up north.
Minnesota saw their Goals Allowed drop from 70 and 71, respectively, in each of their first two MLS seasons, to just 43 last year. That’s a difference of 28 goals between 2018 and 2019.
Another MLS Defender of the Year Award would soon be added to Opara’s mantle, and his performance, along with the rest of the defense’s, would catapult the Loons to their first MLS Playoff appearance.
“Leading from the Back” is a term that is commonly used to define the success of this Minnesota United team, and that leader is undoubtedly Opara. However, the Loons will be without their back-line general for the MLS is Back Tournament, as Opara announced in a tweet Thursday he’s opting to stay home.
In an interview on the Dan Le Batard Show, Heath hinted that Opara could return in time for the knockout stage, should the Loons make it that far.
“He’s got a few little issues that he wants to sort out,” Heath said. “We’re hoping that maybe after the group stage if he feels a bit better, but at the end of the day we will work with the medical people. If he comes down, great, because he would be a great addition to the group. If not, I’ve got a lot of faith in the guys that we’ve got here.”
Losing arguably the best CB in the league is already a major hurdle to overcome, but the back is also where United is most thin.
Midfield and attacking depth are two of this squad’s strengths, and their starting defensive group is among the best in the league, but they don’t have many defensive options off the bench, especially with Brent Kallman still needing to serve three more games of his 10-game suspension.
So where does Heath look now? Here are a few options…
“Plug and Play”
The most convenient option for Heath and Co. to execute would be to insert someone in his CB spot. While the Loons’ depth at the back is suspect, there are a couple options.
The 27-year-old came over from Chilean Premiera Division club Union Espanola this offseason. Aja also has MLS experience, playing three seasons with Orlando City and Vancouver from 2016-18.
Standing 6’4″, Aja provides height and, more importantly, quality international experience for Heath to be able to confidently plug him in at the vacant CB spot.
This is the most popular, and likely, option because it allows Heath to keep the 4-2-3-1 shape he favors and doesn’t require any additional adjustments within the back line.
Another recent addition for United, Musa came over in January via a free transfer from USL’s Phoenix Rising.
While he did spend some time in MLS with Sporting KC in 2017, the UK native only saw the field in one match, but he became a major contributor for one of the most popular teams in USL’s Championship Division.
Naturally a defensive minded midfielder, Musa provides Heath some flexibility in terms of where he can be utilized on the field. It wouldn’t be a stretch for him to play central defense, and he does have limited experience in that role.
The 28-year-old was already likely to be a popular depth piece off the bench, at least in the group stage. But now, as one of the true defensive-minded options off the bench, he’s a starting candidate and, at the very least, a guaranteed sub choice.
Switch to a 3-back Formation
Another way Heath could opt to cope with the loss of Opara is by keeping three defenders and bolstering the defensive midfield. In this scenario, two players stick out as potential starting candidates
Many believe that Dotson is the heir apparent to Ozzie Alonso at the No. 6 position, but a formation that favors a defensive midfield as opposed to the back line could see Dotson and Alonso starting together.
Dotson provides a lot of flexibility, with an ability to both defend and attack at a high level. This formation would allow the 22-year-old to read the game and decide when to slide back or when to pounce and head up field. It also allows Heath the flexibility to drop Dotson back if defending becomes priority or push him up if they need a goal.
Edwards’ versatility and personality already has him a favorite of Loons supporters before he’s even played meaningful minutes in a Minnesota uniform.
United brought Edwards on through a trade that sent Wyatt Omsberg to Chicago, and seems to still have a lot of support in the Windy City as well as his native Toronto, where he played in 2017.
Naturally a midfielder, Edwards can play the entire left side of the field, and has spent time at LB. If Heath opts to go for a more attacking-centric look, you could potentially see Edwards on the left side of the defensive midfield with a green light to attack when necessary.
Alternatively, the 24-year-old could also drop to the back wall and play that role well.
Plugging Aja into Opara’s spot is the far more likely scenario, especially with less than a week remaining to prepare for their first group stage match against Sporting KC. But however Heath decides to play it, the defensive depth of Minnesota United will be tested moreso than ever before.
Plus, as we’ve already seen with other squads, and a scare for Minnesota with a false-positive test, a lot can change between now and the opening kickoff as far as COVID-19 is concerned. MLS is Back could turn into a war of attrition moreso than a test of who’s the better team.
If Minnesota United can find a way to advance into the knockout rounds, they will get some much needed relief with the return of Kallman, and potentially Opara. But, without their field general, the task of accomplishing that just became a lot more difficult.