In Minnesota United’s dramatic 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City to open their MLS is Back group stage in Orlando on Sunday night, the headlines were drawn by an expected face, with Kevin Molino drawing rave reviews in a reprise of his hot start to the season way back in March. Molino scored the game-winning goal in the 97th minute and was an integral part of United’s late surge on offense to turn the flow of the game.
However, had the headlines been written at kickoff, they would have focused on the faces that Minnesota was missing. Ike Opara‘s absence was known, with the reigning Defender of the Year not in Florida with the team. Ozzie Alonso was held out of the game for precautionary reasons, having carried an injury through training the last week. During warmups, big-money offseason signing Luis Amarilla pulled up lame, which Adrian Heath confirmed after the game was an adductor issue.
The argument can easily be made that United were missing their three best players, at minimum three of their best four or five, for this game. The eye was naturally drawn to how Minnesota’s spine would fare without the Opara-Alonso pairing that completely altered the team’s identity in 2019, and how Mason Toye would play in his first appearance of 2020 with so little notice.
In place of Opara, Jose Aja made his Minnesota debut, with Brent Kallman still serving his 10-game PED suspension from September. Aja most recently played for Union Española in Chile’s top division but had 41 MLS starts for Vancouver and Orlando City between 2016 and 2018.
Here is Aja’s passing chart vs. Kansas City:
Aja had a solid, serviceable game. Using the MLS chalkboard tool (which can be found in any postgame boxscore), Aja had no negative defensive notes, and his passing was okay. He completed just four of 10 significant forward passes, an area that could be improved. The issues one would expect with a defender stepping into a back four for the first time in a game setting were there, with some communication issues and gaps in the United defense, but those will happen. He didn’t get torched in the highlight of Kansas City’s goal, as Michael Boxall and Tyler Miller both did (in slightly different ways).
For comparison, this is Opara’s passing chart from the last game between these two clubs, another 2-1 win for Minnesota decided by a late, late goal:
Less red, more green kind of speaks for itself.
Hassani Dotson, of much acclaim in his remarkable rookie season, deputized for Alonso in central midfield partnered with Ján Greguš. Dotson’s appearance was one of the more underwhelming parts of a thoroughly underwhelming first half.
One of United’s primary struggles in the first half was connecting their attacking four with their defensive six. Molino, Toye, Robin Lod and Ethan Finlay were isolated and unable to create opportunities through sheer virtue of not having the ball. Dotson’s passing from the first half was a decent part of that. Of 11 total forward passes attempted, Dotson completed just three, none in even remotely progressive areas of the field, wasting what little possession Minnesota had (they finished the half with under 40% possession).
Dotson’s improvement in the second half came through doing more with less. There were no game-changing passes, but there were also many fewer mistakes and wasted possession. Of note, Dotson only attempted 10 passes in the second half to 17 in the first. He had less of the ball, and made better decisions as he did so.
For Toye this was an opportunity to prove to Heath that he should be the first striker off the bench, rather than Aaron Schoenfeld, who had been that first choice in both of United’s March games. Though not entirely his fault, this was not the game he needed. Here is every interaction Toye had with play that was recorded by the website in the 59 minutes before he was withdrawn with an injury, one fans hope he recovers from in short order:
(The triangle is an unsuccessful dribble attempt; the squares are passes; the pentagons are discipline.)
The dribble and offside (purple pentagon) both occurred within the game’s first five minutes; take those out and Toye did nothing but pass backwards three times within 30 yards of goal in an hour.
As noted earlier, the service and connection from the midfield was almost nonexistent in his time on the field, but he was completely unable to wriggle free. The unfortunately direct comparison to Schoenfeld’s impact took very little time to become clear.
Within 15 minutes, Schoenfeld had Minnesota’s best (legal) attempt on goal of the night, shortly followed by the drawn red card that removed Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia from the game. He both had better service and did more with it than Toye did, and his threat on set pieces was critical as well.
A final note must go to Raheem Edwards, whose insertion into the game came in the aftermath of Melia’s dismissal and was almost overlooked by observers. Edwards’ dynamic threat down the left breathed even more life into Minnesota’s attack as they rose to the opportunity and snatched the win in extra time, with his assist on Molino’s goal a thing of beauty. One wonders how much he would have to do to supplant the anonymous Lod in the starting lineup.
In summary, while Molino and Greguš (for his “assist” on Khiry Shelton‘s own goal) will get deserved plaudits, the contributions of Minnesota’s five backups were notable, with some excellence and some struggle. It will be interesting to see how Heath shuffles the cards for Friday’s next outing in the Florida heat, with so many pieces ready to go.