3 questions that will determine Minnesota United’s fate in 2022

Here we are. 

It’s 2022, MLS begins in February now, and Minnesota United’s set to begin its sixth season in the league — and yet I remember Vadim Demidov like he was here yesterday. Calendar-ically speaking, it’s also the time of year for predictions.

As is a time-honored tradition, folks like me make variations of that good ol’ cliche, the one about how what we’re really making is just content-starved overreactions to preseason streams and Twitter clips. It’s a more predictable indicator of spring’s arrival than Punxsutawney Phil.

Many people will write and speak authoritatively about what the Loons will and won’t do over the course of the upcoming campaign, but I decline to partake in this craft.

(I reserve the right to reverse course on this frequently and without notice.)

Instead, I’m electing to write about what I don’t know. Modest, yeah? I thus present the three most burning-est questions about the oncoming onslaught of on-field action to which I have no satisfactory answers.

In a sense, these areas are what I’ll be watching early in the season for some answers about what the 2022 Loons look like. Let’s do some asking.

Question 1: What does the second midfielder need to be?

A few years ago, when we talked about a hole in midfield, we talked very literally about the quality of Allianz Field’s pitch. Now, however, it’s about personnel. Who will work alongside Wil Trapp, and will they work tactically?

You know the cast’s roles by now: Plug-and-play player of all plug-and-play players Hassani Dotson looks poised to start. Kervin Arriaga’s both the competition and the unknown. Joseph Rosales and Jacori Hayes could do some things, too.

The question — in my eyes, anyway — is not really about who will start alongside Trapp. Based on Dotson’s previous depth chart coverage, he’s a likely candidate to see minutes in other positions regardless of where he falls in the midfield conversation. Midfield roles tend to see a fair amount of substitution and rotation, anyway (you know, lots of running).

Wil Trapp and the gone-but-not-forgotten Ozzie Alonso both excelled last season at the No. 6 spot. They both played more defensively — not really like the 6/8 pivot that’s expected of a two-player midfield.

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(If you don’t like numbers, skip this paragraph.)

According to American Soccer Analysis’ goals-added metric, Alonso was 8th and Trapp 12th in interrupting among defensive midfielders who played at least 1,500 minutes in 2021. In passing, Trapp was first while Alonso was 8th.

Too many numbers; didn’t read: They were good.

If there’s a statistical hole (outside of just Alonso’s lost output), might it be in dribbling? Neither Trapp nor Alonso made a notable impact (positively or negatively) in that area, according to the metric, though that’s not uncommon among defensive or central midfielders. Stats wouldn’t suggest Dotson brings much in that area, but it’s a question worth asking.

Perhaps the Loons stick with trying to have two stoppers in midfield to bolster the defense and connect with the attack through the pass. Or maybe the tactics ask for a true No. 8 to do that by advancing the ball with their feet. What’s asked of the second midfielder — and how the candidates for that role approach the position — will be an important tactical question to monitor early in the season.

Photo courtesy MNUFC

Question 2: What will the defense be?

Yes, this question is vague, but I’ll argue it to be nonetheless valid. 

The expected back line looks to be:

  • Romain Metanire, 31 (about to be 32), returning from a torn hamstring in the playoffs
  • Michael Boxall, 33
  • Bakaye Dibassy, 32, who missed the Portland preseason tournament with a quad injury
  • Chase Gasper, 26, who Heath said has “an issue” and hasn’t practiced on-field after a head-to-head collision in the preseason finale

That might be catastrophizing a bit, but the defense very well might not be as stable this season as it has been in years past. There’s a reason it’s been stable — stability being something of a presumed indicator of goodness — but the national take on the Loons seems to be less confident on the goodness front.

More tactically, I wonder how Minnesota’s defensive block will affect the back line. In years past (the 2020 MLS is Back Tournament stands out vividly in mind as an example of this), the defensive shape was a compact 4-4-2, where the back eight — and sometimes whole team — fit at times into 25-30 yards of vertical space. 

The shape was looking a little bit different against Real Salt Lake in the preseason:

As you can see in that clip, it’s a pretty darn clear high 4-2-4. That can put more pressure on the opponent’s back line (that can have all sorts of effects — too many to write about here). But what it can also do is leave space open in wide areas in front of fullbacks, like that clip.

Often, that’s an automatic overload or man advantage, since the fullback is probably generally marking a winger and now has an encroaching other attack to handle out wide. A rotation has to occur for someone (either the fullback or a help defender) to reckon with the new wide threat.

You see that happen here, where Robin Lod tracks back as the recovering help defender. The problem is that he’s coming back from a high position, which gives the wide player plenty of time to get off a pass — which he does poorly, allowing for a clearance and no real threat.

Now, that’s one situation in a preseason game, which is not particularly meaningful at all. It’s the sort of thing, though, that could lead to some regular chance concessions if not systematically reckoned with. 

A high block is going to put more defensive players in one-on-one situations, which, with depth players, could get a little nervy.

Consider this possession, again from the RSL game (in the second tweet):

The tweet explanation is enough to understand what’s going on, and it requires a defense to be in sync to defend such a situation collectively. Again, it’s preseason, but leaning on depth pieces can complicate that effort.

So, to make the question a little more specific through sub-questions: Who will be part of the defense and how stable will that personnel group be? Will the defensive system lead to possible exploitation of depth players?

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Question 3: How can Heath manage his attacking talent?

If I were to make a flat-out prediction for this season, it’s that there will be a lot of debate about how the attack performs. (Is that even a prediction?)

It feels pretty safe to say that there are three options each for starters in attacking midfield and striker. If we operate under the assumption that those six are competing generally for attacking spots — the number of which could vary by formation — the conversation gets interesting.

In terms of confidence or reliability, I’d guess the general populace would generally rank them into two tiers:

Emanuel Reynoso 

Robin Lod

Franco Fragapane

 (A break)

Luis Amarilla

Adrien Hunou

Abu Danladi

You probably disagree with that exact order, though you probably follow the general tier structure. Most of this comes from the general unknown that the striker room is.

In that case, using the three attacking midfielders seems to be the “safest” course of action, personnel wise. (That’s some 4-2-3-1 validation!)

But then, only one of the three strikers in this conversation is on the field in their true position, and there’s still a lot of talent at that position — the ceiling is quite high. If you wanted to get another striker on the field and go with two up top, it’s difficult, since it has to come at the expense of an attacking midfielder and would probably result in a formation/system change.

So, a question arises: How much time will attackers receive to “figure it out” should they struggle? There will no doubt be eyes on the strikers in particular, and with a crowded position group, the appeal of the backup will probably be never-ending. Simple as it might be, playing time will be an interesting narrative.

And those, as they do or don’t say, are the questions. I’ll be looking for answers to these during the early part of Minnesota United’s season. Join in for the discussion about them here at Sota Soccer and on the 10k Pitches Podcast.

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