Where do you place the blame for Minnesota United’s playoff exit?

Minnesota United’s penalty shootout loss to FC Dallas was yet another tough playoff elimination to swallow for the Loons — something that’s dangerously close to becoming a theme for this franchise.

Tactical analysis is always hard for games like these. It’s just one match, so it’s not like there are a ton of lessons to be learned for improvement (unless there are). It’s not even like a penalty shootout is an even remotely good indicator of which team was the better one.  

Because the match went to penalty kicks, the 120-odd minutes that preceded the game’s final 10 shots doesn’t really mean much at all. The shootout itself boils down to two plays.

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First, what came last: Alan Velasco, a 20-year-old taking a penalty to win a playoff game, tried to execute a Panenka, a right-down-the-middle chip shot. Velasco sort of did it, though Minnesota goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair almost had a chance at recovering from his first effort to stop Velasco’s try.

Maybe you place the blame here. It was the last thing that happened in the match and where the Loons lost. Sure, it would’ve been nice if St. Clair’s dive kept him a yard closer to the middle of the goal — then he probably would’ve been able to actually take a swipe at Velasco’s shot. Or maybe you say he should’ve saved any of the other four FC Dallas penalties in the shootouts.

It feels cruel to punish one of MLS’ best shot-stoppers for the shootout, though. Maybe you think that St. Clair shouldn’t have even been in must-make-a-save mode in the first place. Midfielder Wil Trapp had a penalty saved earlier in the shootout, after all.

You might watch Trapp’s penalty and think it was readable, that the lay person’s eye in slow motion aligns with what Dallas ‘keeper Maarten Paes saw in real time, that the shooter’s angle tipped his placement and that it was at an all-too-easy height for the goalkeeper.

Perhaps you don’t even think Minnesota should have been in the shootout in the first place. If this is the case, you’re probably an FC Dallas fan — or just someone who recognized the value of the chances they created.

The Loons were lucky to make it to a shootout. Nearly two hours into the game, Dallas ran the soccer equivalent of basketball’s dribble hand-off on the far sideline, leading to a clear cross into the box. St. Clair kicksaved it directly to Jesus Ferreira, only for one of the league’s best strikers to entirely mishit the ball, only for Sebastian Lletget to try a backheeled shot inside his opponent’s six-yard box inside the final ten minutes of a playoff game, only for Minnesota’s goalkeeper to grab the ball inches before it crossed the goal line.

Maybe you think the responsibility lies with manager Adrian Heath, the only MLS Western Conference coach to get his team into the playoffs for four consecutive years. You might disagree with his decision to start Bongokuhle Hlongwane after returning from inury, a winger who attempted to dribble past more players in a playoff game than any other match this season. But one of those failed dribbles somehow turned into an assist, so what do you know?

Maybe you wanted the Loons to have more of the ball — 40% is not much possession at all. But in the five games this year that Minnesota spent 40% or less of the game with the ball, they had five wins. Possession means nothing, really, but it is an indicator of gameplan, and United’s gameplan seemed to its usual blueprint for success: keep a 4-4-2 block compact — 20 yards between the first and last lines, which you could tell from Toyota Stadium’s faded football lines — and stay close to Dallas’ fast-and-frequently-moving attackers.

Even after going up 1-0, the Loons still conceded. Is that where you think the wheels fell off? DJ Taylor got beat on the weak side of a corner, allowing Dallas’ double-header strategy to work.

Here’s what I think: After a season of injuries and streaky play, Minnesota United limped into the playoffs, correcting a horrid stretch with a Decision Day win. The offense had never confidently nor consistently come together beyond the excellence of Emanuel Reynoso. The defense, because of those injuries, had regressed to half of its 2018, record-breaking-in-all-the-wrong-ways form.

Then, a week ago, that team got lucky once for a goal, got beat on a set piece, got lucky again with a miss, then lost an only-slightly-controllable coin flip to crash out of the playoffs after playing the final 45 minutes largely gassed. Was this iteration of the Loons a contender? I don’t think so.

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This offseason will be a tipping point for the franchise as it decides between personnel upgrades for ceiling-raising’s sake or consistency for floor maintenance.

If this playoff game leads to any lesson, it should be this one — the sort of lesson that comes from four straight years of general let-downs: Getting to the playoffs is one thing, and it’s a thing this club has figured out. Winning in the playoffs, though, requires preparative depth built and developed throughout the regular season and a more varied bag of playmakers. That’s easier said than done, but hey, what else are we supposed to argue about for the next four months?

Lead image courtesy Minnesota United/Twitter

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