Cincinnati 1, Loons 0: Players need to end misfiring trend

Minnesota United FC is having trouble scoring goals.

From just that sentence, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether this article was published previously, perhaps at any point in the last year and a half.

Saturday night’s 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati was the latest example of the ongoing struggle, and also a microcosm of the struggle as a whole.

The Loons created a lot of half-chances against Cincy – not big chances, mind you. They took 15 shots, but got just five on target. They had 1.0 expected goals as a team (according to the MLS official website), but none of their potential chances was over 0.25 xG.

Their most threatening offensive player was Emanuel Reynoso, taking free kicks from 25 yards out. Adrien Hunou and Bongokuhle Hlongwane both had chances from acute angles against keeper Roman Celentano, but neither one could get the ball past him, and in fact Hunou’s attempted shot was cleared by a defender.

The Loons always get shots. They always have the ball in dangerous areas. They’re in the top half of the league for shots again this year; they were third in MLS last season. When we say that they can’t score, they can’t score – but they create offense. Once the ball leaves the shooter’s foot, though, that’s when the problem begins.

Saturday night’s 5-for-15 performance will actually bring this season’s percentage of shots on target up, all the way to 31.4% – still enough to rank in the bottom ten. Last season’s numbers were even worse; in 2021, the Loons only put 27.5% of their shots on target last season, worst in the league.

““I can’t fault the effort today; It’s not that the lads didn’t try or anything, I just don’t think there was enough quality in important areas,” said manager Adrian Heath. “At the end of the day, you live and die by both boxes.”

The Loons have tried different alignments up front. Luis Amarilla, Robin Lod, Abu Danladi, and Hunou have all played in the number 9 role this season. Hlongwane and Franco Fragapane have each played more than 350 minutes on the left wing.

Nor has Minnesota been inflexible; after the Loons had two scoring outbursts with Lod up front and Hlongwane and Danladi on the wings, the trio got the start in Los Angeles. Fragapane is starting on the bench after his struggles. Hunou had issues scoring last year last year, and only started against Cincinnati because Lod and Amarilla were out sick. Even against Cincinnati, Heath moved Danladi up front with more than a half-hour to go, in the hopes of adding some speed through the middle against a set Cincinnati defense.

The coaching staff is making changes, the team is trying different things, but nothing’s working yet. “With the opportunities we’ve had this evening, we should be scoring a goal at least,” said Heath.

Dayne St. Clair kept the Loons close. Courtesy MNUFC

Nor can anyone accuse the front office of not doing anything to address the issue, roster-wise; their big veteran additions in 2021 and 2022 were Hunou, Fragapane, Amarilla, and Danladi. Two designated players at striker, an MLS veteran to play up front or out wide, and a veteran Argentinian to fill the wide role on the left. Offense, offense, offense, and what have they produced?

Amarilla has five shots on target all season, in MLS play. Fragapane has three shots on target all season. Amarilla has scored two goals, Fragapane has one assist. Hunou has only played a total of 81 minutes in the league this year, but has scored zero goals and has one shot on target.

Sure, there are systematic reasons that the team has struggled this season. Emanuel Reynoso was excellent last night, I thought, and is back up there with guys like Carles Gil in terms of MLS playmakers – but early in the season he was having a difficult time, even though he was the focal point of the attack. In Oniel Fisher and Kemar Lawrence, the Loons are breaking in two new fullbacks, and in games where the opponent sits back – as Cincinnati did – the fullbacks are a huge offensive key for the Loons, and their ability to stretch the defense horizontally.

But at some point, the struggles aren’t about the system. Winger Niko Hansen made his season debut in the second half against Cincinnati, and he knew it, too. “We’re a very aggressive attacking team, and I think it’s tough to pinpoint,” he said. “We’re lacking maybe on goals, but possession and being in the final third, I think we do really, really well. I think the final product is maybe missing.”

Watch the highlights of last night’s game, and compare Minnesota’s attack to FC Cincinnati’s. Cincinnati doesn’t have the ball in better positions, and isn’t playing with some exotic tactical setup. But when they get the ball in the final third, they’re making things happen. Dayne St. Clair had to make three or four world-class stops just to get the game to the 93rd minute without Cincinnati scoring. And when the chance came in stoppage time, Brandon Vazquez made a simple, effective cut in the box, into space, and it opened everything up for the winner.

At some point, it comes back to the players. “The final product.” “Quality in important areas.” Whatever you call it, at some point, the tactics and the lineup can only change so much.

At some point, the players that are out there need to produce.

“I kind of take it personally,” said Hansen. “I’m pretty upset with the loss and I’m going to go home and look at everything I could’ve done better. I think that’s what everybody on this team is doing. I don’t think anybody is blaming anybody. I think everybody is looking inwards. Everybody takes responsibility and I think we want to do better – we definitely can do better.”

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