What is it that Minnesota United FC excels in? You can pontificate all you like, but it’s hard to label anything clear and outright. This may be the chief issue for Adrian Heath at present. The absence of Kevin Molino, who provides such a strong creative thrust for the team, makes this all the more glaring in their 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew.
Possession served as a clear-cut example of United’s struggles in the offensive third on Wednesday night. In the first half of that match, Columbus out-possessed Minnesota handily by 61 to 39 percent margin — though it felt like more if you took in the action.
While United was baptizing newcomer Kei Kamara to their squad, that was nowhere near enough of an excuse for their dismal possession retention. In fact, Kamara seemed to be a benefit to all things hold-up play related. With his movement and his touches on the ball, he exuded the type of proficiency the Loons have lacked at striker ever since Luis Amarilla was injured in the MLS bubble. Considering this was his first time playing with United, this would seem to be an especially positive sign.
The chief culprit appears to be Heath and his coaching staff’s tactical instructions. Secondarily, the players who underperformed in the midweek match were Jacori Hayes, Thomas Chacon and Hassani Dotson.
I may be willing to forgive Hayes and Chacon, however, as it would be my conjecture that it was they who seemed to have been negatively influenced by Heath and Co. Both Hayes and Chacon looked utterly frightened to venture anywhere on the pitch separate from the mainstay position they were given to start the game. The fact that both players were also having to fill the boots of two of the teams most entrenched starters feels like it’s not a coincidence either. Meaning, either they felt the pressure of filling in or Heath did and thus was overly conservative with their instructions. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above.
Numerous times Chacon, who is incredibly adept at combining with teammates, looked like a dog with an invisible fence when it came to ever moving away from the left wing. Similarly, Hayes was never heard from when United had possession in the opposing half. This combination of events lead to Minnesota essentially handicapping themselves as it meant less passing options, numerically and dynamically. Knowing Heath’s rigid beliefs, again, one assumes his fingerprints would be found at the scene of the crime.
It’s a frustrating conclusion considering the flashes of brilliance both Hayes and Chacon have displayed so far this season.
Dotson, however, seems to be his own worst enemy. The second-year man out of Oregon State continues to struggle to progress whenever he’s moved into midfield. He seems wholly unclear what positions to take up to best assist his team. What’s more, this stymies him from creating his bombastic impact plays he’s become known for.
There was something specific that did seem to work to great effect.
The second half saw United play with new life, something that has been a theme throughout 2020. On Wednesday, it took even longer than usual, though. It was about halfway through the closing stanza before United regularly got forward, and there was one key difference: Emanuel Reynoso dropped deeper to pick up the ball.
Because the entire team trusts him to pick the right pass, there’s much more forward movement when he does this. One of United’s biggest issues on Wednesday (and plenty of other matchdays) is their stagnant and predictable movement off the ball. When someone other than Reynoso is on the ball for Minnesota, oftentimes the opposing team gambles that they won’t be able to find the open man and therefore press the ball aggressively. Numerous times this gamble pays off.
With Reynoso, though, this doesn’t work nearly as much. In fact, it can actually be a domino effect in the opposite direction, because once the defense over-pursues on the Argentine, he uses that vacated space against them. When Molino has been fit and healthy, this has made United highly effective. Without their other creative pivot to foil with Reynoso, the results have been meager. (Once again whey Chacon being chained to his LW position was all the more frustrating on Wednesday.)
At present, United and Heath know some of the pieces they’re certain they want to include — Molino, Reynoso, Robin Lod, Michael Boxall and Dayne St. Clair. What’s unclear is what pieces and what strategy will best bring the rest of the puzzle together.