Wed. Jun 7th, 2023

Image: Minnesota United

With Minnesota United now 10 games into their MLS season, it’s time to see what nuggets of information we can dig out of all the numbers on the Major League Soccer website. The majority of this article will focus on defense, because let’s face it: we kind of know the story on offense already, at least in the league (go watch highlights from Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup game if you want goals).

The MLS website provides a picture of some pieces of Minnesota’s identity. For example, let’s look at duels. This is defined in various places as two players from opposite teams with an equal opportunity compete at ground level to win or retain possession of the ball (combined from FIFA and Wyscout).

This is a category in which Minnesota’s identity had to change, due to Emanuel Reynoso’s absence. Reynoso led all of MLS in this category in both 2021 and 2022, last season doing so by more than 100 duels over the next closest player, and by more than 250 over the next closest Loon (Robin Lod). For reference, Lod’s total over 30 games was 307; Luis Amarilla, who was next on the list, had 274 through 33 appearances.

The gap in this category has been filled by one Bongokuhle Hlongwane, which fits with how Bongi has appeared to work on the field. Hlongwane, through nine games, already has 149 duels, which leads Minnesota and is sixth most in the league (Christian Benteke of D.C. United leads by far with 233 duels). The only other loon with over the century mark is Lod, with 106.

On the field, we’ve seen the South African’s ability to track back and impact the defensive side of the ball as well as his ability to work forward. The duel stat, at least for previous Minnesota team, has reflected the player most likely to have the ball with or near them. It is interesting that with Reynoso’s absence, the weight of this has shifted not equally to all of Lod, Amarilla and Hlongwane, but has shifted dramatically towards the latter. With Hlongwane’s dramatic impact in Tuesday evening’s victory, one wonders if this could bear more fruit moving forward in the attack.

Another tracked defensive stat is the interception, where a ball is stolen from the opposition on a pass or dribble. According to FotMob’s “interceptions per match” stat, MNUFC are 2nd in the league, trailing only FC Cincinnati.

This particular statistic, understandably, usually tilts toward defenders. Last season, Michael Boxall led Minnesota with 46 interceptions in 31 games, followed by DJ Taylor with 43 interceptions in 26 appearances. Bakaye Dibassy, for reference, was fourth with 37 in the 26 games before his injury.

The reason Dibassy is brought up because of the shift in load from Taylor to Micky Tapias, who fills Dibassy’s previous spot in the centerback position next to Boxall. Boxall once again leads Minnesota thus far with 22 interceptions, with Tapias just behind him at 21 and Taylor back at 13.

This is a massive shift in numbers thus far. If Boxy were to continue at his current pace for an entire season, playing the same 31 games he played in 2022, he’d wind up with 83 interceptions on the year, smashing last year’s mark into pieces and setting a number that would have led MLS last season. Boxy and Tapias are both top 10 in the league so far in interceptions, which can mean a couple different things. It can mean that they have played well and seized an impressive share of their opportunities thus far, which is true. It can also mean that they have been placed under more pressure than in previous years and have had all the more opportunities to intercept the ball due to Minnesota’s lack of possession (currently at 44.4% on the year, which is dead last in the league via FBref).

The above stats show a small portion of how Minnesota has changed to fit around Reynoso’s absence to date this season. The struggles have been clear and obvious, but the opportunities given and successes achieved by other players are also there to be celebrated. Boxall, Tapias and Hlongwane are all keys to a scoring defense that remains top ten in the league.

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