What’s the matter with Rey?

Minnesota United is undefeated this season, but has scored just four goals in four games. When you look down that short list of goals, you won’t find Emanuel Reynoso’s name – not as a scorer, not with an assist.

And so there’s one question we keep asking: What’s the matter with Rey?

Emanuel Reynoso in Allianz Field. Courtesy MNUFC.

The first question, I suppose, is: is there anything the matter, or are we just inventing a problem? If you’re looking for them, it’s always pretty easy to find moments where Reynoso is less than perfect. He attempts lots of dribbles but isn’t 100% successful. He tries a lot of inch-perfect passes that don’t come off. He carries the ball forward when there’s nobody around and ends up giving the ball away.

Without any highlight-reel moments to balance these out, it suddenly begins to seem like he’s struggling. That means it’s hard to trust the eye test. I thought he had his worst game as a Loon against New York a few weeks ago, but the numbers might tell us more – with the huge caveat that four games is a very small sample size.

According to FBRef.com, his numbers might have dipped slightly from last year. In 2021, he was third in the league in key passes (passes that directly lead to a shot); in 2022 so far, he’s tied for 16th. He was also third in the league in passes into the penalty area last season; this year, he’s tied for 23rd.

In terms of pass completion, he’s also dipped a bit. In the attacking third, his completion percentage has dropped from 61% down to 55.2% (this according to the indispensable American Soccer Analysis), and in the middle third, from 76% down to 71.5%.

Those obviously aren’t huge drops, but Reynoso’s strength is that he’s not always playing the safe pass; his completion numbers are usually among the worst in the squad, when rated against expected pass completion, simply because he’s trying to do more. But they confirm the eye test, in that a lot of his passes simply aren’t working out.

His dribbling numbers are mostly the same. He’s attempted more than anyone else in MLS, completed more than anyone except Lucas Zelarayan, and is once again leading the league in nutmegs*. He’s fifth in the league in progressive carries (dribbling the ball at least five yards forward, excluding the defensive 40% of the field); he was fourth last season. And the fledgling PFF FC ratings have him rated as the league’s top dribbler so far.

(*I just love that they track this, and will mention it any time I can.)

He’s also second in MLS at being tackled and losing the ball; he was second last season, too.

I think you can see the picture that emerges from the stats: here is a player that tries more, succeeds more, and fails more than maybe any other single player in the league. It’s why the great Matt Doyle called him “maybe my favorite player in the league to watch.” And it’s why, without the successes to color your memory, the failures stand out.

As to why he’s struggling a bit this season, I think there are three potential reasons, without delving into pop psychology.

First, he’s simply surrounded by different players this year. This was one of the theories that head coach Adrian Heath offered when I asked* after the San Jose game. “[These lineups are] new for a few of them, so that will get better,” he said.

(*Side note: I realized later that I used the phrase “fighting the ball” in my question, which is my brain taking a hockey question about a goaltender “fighting the puck” and translating it to soccer. My brain is broken.)

It’s hard to argue with this. Old friend Robin Lod is still manning the right wing, but apart from the Finn and two and a half games of Franco Fragapane, the MNUFC lineup has been hugely different so far in 2022.

Luis Amarilla has started all four games in front of him – he’s new. Kervin Arriaga has played three of four games behind him – that’s new. Bongokuhle Hlongwane has seen significant minutes, and he’s new. Right-back Romain Métanire has been absent, with his role filled by Oniel Fisher and Hassani Dotson – new, and new-ish. Even Bakaye Dibassy, who has been excellent at left back, offers something different than Chase Gasper.  

So maybe that drop in completion percentage just means that the players around him need to get on the same page as Reynoso.

The second theory that Heath offered had more to do with the playing surface. “The field is not in a great condition at this moment in time, it’s very bobbly,” Heath said. “He has so much faith in his own ability, and he needs a good surface to play on.”

The pitch at Allianz Field was in rough shape so far for both MNUFC home games, thanks to a frozen rainstorm at the home opener, and Brent Kallman told the press that the field in New Jersey was actually worse. I can’t necessarily rate the truth of this one – you could see it being true, but also, it wasn’t the field that made some of those passes miss any teammate by 20 yards – but it’s certainly a potential reason.  

The third possibility is something that Minnesota simply must work around – that other teams are, naturally, going to target Reynoso as much as possible. He was the fourth-most fouled player in the league last season. He’s second this season. And take a look at this quote from Seattle’s Joao Paulo, ahead of this weekend’s game:

I think that team is about Reynoso. He’s the main piece of that team. He’s a danger guy. Obviously they have more guys, other players, but we need to take care of Reynoso first, and I think the game can come to us.

Joao Paolo

After nearly two years of the Bebelo Experience, opposing teams have simply begun to decide that their goal is to take Reynoso out of the game. Whether they follow him everywhere or put extra defenders in his favorite spaces, other teams will dare the other ten Loons to beat them.

Whether new teammates, bad fields, or extra attention, though, the Loons long ago gave the keys to their attack to their best player. They need more from Reynoso – more incisive passes, fewer wayward attempts, and the same league-leading ball-carrying skills.

Otherwise, they will have to hope that their defense continues to excel, because no matter what the rest of the forwards do, Reynoso will continue to be the Loons’ main focus – and without his excellence, they’ll always struggle to find goals.

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