Image: Minnesota United
It would not take the smartest analyst to write that Minnesota United’s main problem thus far in 2023 is their near-complete inability to score goals. However, it still needs to be written, so here we are. The Loons have scored just eight goals through their first nine fixtures of the season, tied for 22nd most in a league of 29 teams. This has caused them to take fewer points despite having allowed just eight goals, fifth-best in the league.
Deep analysis of the 0-0 draw on Sunday night against Dallas may prove as soporific as the watching of the game itself was, so we will refrain from a deep dive there. Instead, we will throw praise at the feet of Robin Lod.
Lod, after a somewhat uneven start to the season through March and April partially due to Finland international duty, had arguably his best game of the season on Sunday, logging a game-high and team-high five shots and two shots on goal, including one of Minnesota’s best chances of the night in a remarkable run past four Dallas defenders.
Not only that, but Lod was everywhere on defense as well, tracking back to create turnovers and intercept passes regularly. Lod took 16 duels during the game, second-highest on the team to Bongokuhle Hlongwane, and won 60% of those duels, also a high mark on the team. Lod’s 90.6% pass completion mark was his best since last September. It was a complete game for Lod, and that note about last September provokes some thought.
Cast your mind back to 2022 Minnesota United, complete with Emanuel Reynoso at its core. Due to the season-long injury to Hassani Dotson and occasional injuries to Kervin Arriaga and Wil Trapp, the Loons were depleted in central midfield starting in early July, which caused one Robin Lod to shift back from his normal right wing spot into defensive midfield (something that he did again during Sunday’s match after Franco Fragapane’s entrance). According to FBRef’s positional data, Lod played at least portions of 13 of Minnesota’s final 15 matches last season in defensive midfield or central midfield, notionally as the No. 8.
This also happened to coincide with the Loons’ best form of last season. During those 13 matches, Minnesota went 8-3-2 despite their thin squad. Lod at the 8 was anything but a detriment to the team, so much so that he started that playoff match in that position despite the health and availability of Arriaga. This entire experience was just seven months ago!
As with everything 2023 Minnesota United, Lod in central midfield looks different with no Reynoso in front of him. However, could a formation in which Lod shifted back provide more juice for Minnesota going forward? It seems like it would be worth a try, even if it might compromise their defensive solidity.
The easiest solution would be to keep Adrian Heath’s preferred 4-2-3-1, but shift Lod back out of his right wing spot and start just one of Arriaga, Dotson or Trapp next to him. This would be harsh on those three but perhaps necessary. This move would also allow you to move Hlongwane to Lod’s now-vacant right wing spot (coincidentally, where he happened to also be starting for the entire run of form mention above), and move Fragapane from the bench back to a starting left-wing job.
As noted, none of Lod, Fragapane or Hlongwane would be playing positions they haven’t spent significant time playing for the club before. The same is true for either Luis Amarilla or Mender Garcia playing above them. Sang Bin Jeong at the 10, in Reynoso’s spot, is the (still quite significant) change. It surely would be worth going back to, at least to see if it could recapture some of last season’s magic.
You could even go a step further and check Heath’s seemingly preferred back-up formation this year, the good ol’ 4-4-2. If you were to use Lod as the higher central midfielder in a diamond midfield, you could then still use both Fragapane and Hlongwane on the wings and could try two of Mender, Sang Bin and Amarilla up top together.
To go even further into the woods, let’s look back to 2020 Minnesota United and the formation that the Loons rode to their best ever playoff performance. Kei Kamara and Aaron Schoenfeld had been splitting time up top, but in Minnesota’s final regular season game (also against Dallas, weirdly enough), Heath unveiled Robin Lod, false 9, at the top of his formation. In case you have forgotten, the Loons won that match and each of their next two playoff matches 3-0 before losing in the Conference Finals.
Could Lod at the false 9 work with Minnesota’s current personnel? It may require a departure from the 4-2-3-1, and another subtraction from the defensive midfield. In a 4-3-3, you could try Lod at the center of the upper 3 with whichever combination of Mender, Sang Bin and Amarilla you preferred. The middle three could include Hlongwane plus two of your normal defensive midfielders; Hlongwane did an admirable job tracking back in Sunday’s match, and Dotson has spent plenty of time on the outside of formations during his career, so put the two of them on either side of Trapp or Arriaga and see what happens.
The long and short of this entire thought process is simple: Minnesota’s attack right now isn’t working. If Heath trusts that this comes simply down to player quality and the luck of the bounce of the ball, then he could stick to his guns and keep running out the same group. If he chooses to try something new, there are options available to him with the personnel at his disposal. The Loons surely have to figure something out if they want this season to improve.