2018 all over again?
On an MLS opening night that always begins with so much excitement and nauseating branding, Minnesota United FC faithful saw that thrill turn to head-scratching disappointment following a decisive 4-0 defeat at the hands of the host Seattle Sounders.
Coming into the 2020 Western Conference Final rematch, there was reason to be optimistic about the Loons’ chances. Both star forward Jordan Morris and dangerous attacking midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro were out of the lineup for Seattle, and Minnesota had just come off of signing Argentinian striker Ramon Abila to provide the offensive punch this lineup was presumably missing beforehand.
However, due to multiple factors in and out of head coach Adrian Heath’s control, the outcome was far from favorable for a club looking to cement themselves as a consistent threat in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, as significant as Seattle’s missing pieces were, they were counteracted by a pair of Loons on the mend in crucial positions.
Before the matchday injury report was released, it was widely known that center-back Bakaye Dibassy would likely be out with a left thigh injury. In his place stood Brent Kallman, and while the Woodbury native has started plenty of matches for the Loons in the past, the difference between a former Ligue 1 talent and someone who spent a portion of last season down in the USL Championship is drastic. That difference showed in spades Friday night, as Raul Ruidiaz, Kallman’s mark for most of the evening, was able to get into quality goal-scoring position relatively easily on multiple occasions, tucking away two point-blank insurance goals to put the match out of reach in the 2nd half.
The surprising omission was winger Niko Hansen, tabbed by many to start on the left in place of the departed Kevin Molino, who was on the “OUT” portion of the injured list due to an issue with his left thigh.
While the prevailing opinion is that this club has amassed enough depth to overcome the injuries and international duty losses they’ll inevitably encounter over the course of the season, left-wing and center-back are arguably their thinnest positions. Combine that with playing the first game of the season in a place like Seattle, and the scenario was less than ideal.
Largely attributed to the aforementioned missing pieces to the Minnesota lineup, multiple Loons found themselves playing outside their normal and optimal position.
Robin Lod, who can normally be found on the left or right wings, served as the starting No. 9, while normal defensive midfielder Hassani Dotson was placed on the left side of Minnesota’s attacking front.
In normal circumstances, transitioning a couple of players to a secondary position for a game or two, especially when injuries are a factor, is understandable and necessary in a long MLS season. However, when those two players are positioned right next to each other with limited chemistry and familiarity, a struggle to gain any rhythm within the game is inevitable.
Case in point: 0 goals.
LOSS OF INTENSITY
One thing was evident off the opening kickoff on Friday, and that’s Minnesota was determined to get out on the front foot, high press, and take the game to the hosts. MNUFC maintained that pressure for the entirety of the first half. Even former USMNT standout Stu Holden, who provided color commentary for the FS1 broadcast, acknowledged that the Loons looked like a team motivated and ready to make a mark.
Then, in the 49th minute, Seattle central midfielder João Paulo fired a rocket from outside the box for the opening goal of the match.
Despite only being down a goal and still being very much in the match, that goal seemed to take the wind completely out of the Loons’ sails, and they were never able to regain that intensity they showed for the first 45.
All the factors that were both in and out of Minnesota’s control aside, Seattle was on another level Friday evening. They took the best punch the Loons were able to throw in the first half and came out with a game plan to completely take control of the match.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer was able to find a way to get his club into Minnesota’s attacking third consistently in the 2nd half and capitalize on the advantage they had with Dibassy out.
Is this one result indicative of what we’ll see from the Loons over the remainder of the season? Likely not. Down multiple starters, not having your new striker fully integrated, moving pieces around, and running into one of the consistently best clubs in MLS history at the top of their game is quite the perfect storm of circumstances.
However, that doesn’t absolve Adrian Heath and Co. of needing an improved product on the field when Minnesota makes their return to the Wonderwall inside Allianz Field Saturday night.