Minnesota United enter the 2019 season with high hopes, after the struggles of their first two years in Major League Soccer. In six years in the NASL, Minnesota United had considerable success including winning the championship in 2011, but so far this success hasn’t translated into the top tier of the US football pyramid. They haven’t made the playoffs in their first two seasons, but are hoping to change this as they also open their new home. The new 19,400 seat Allianz Field will open in Midway, an area of the Twin Cities between Minneapolis and Saint Paul and Minnesota United hope that their acquisitions and changes this off-season will reward their supporters who have attended their matches in large numbers, even in less than ideal conditions.
One of the key issues for Minnesota United in their opening two seasons has been their defence. In their inaugural season, The Loons broke the league record for goals conceded in a season (70) and in 2018, their beat their own record with 71. This poor defensive record meant that much of the focus of their front office was to bring in reinforcements.
On 13 February, Minnesota United brought in Vito Mannone on a year-long loan from Championship club Reading. An upgrade over Bobby Shuttleworth, their starting goalkeeper from last season, Mannone offers good shot-stopping ability and is better in one-on-one situations. With Adrian Heath seeming to favour a high defensive line this pre-season, there will be space for counter-attacks to break into and Mannone’s ability in one-on-ones will be tested. Additionally, the Italian Mannone will offer an improvement with his distribution. His passing range is slightly better than Shuttleworth, but he is better at controlling the tempo of the game with his passing.
Finding an upgrade at goalkeeper was an important step, but the key addition this off-season was Ike Opara from Sporting Kansas City. The 29-year-old American won the 2017 MLS Defender of the Year award at Children’s Mercy Park, while also being in the 2017 MLS Best XI. This success led him to get his first cap with the United States in a January 2018 friendly versus Bosnia and Herzegovina. His ability to organise a defence, while also providing the physical presence in the heart of the defence is something that Minnesota United has struggled with. Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo read the game well and position themselves well defensively, but struggle in the air and against physical strikers. The addition of Opara should stabilise the defence, and improve the performances of his partners.
Newly acquired from Stade Reims, Romain Metanire will look to make the right-back spot his own. His ability to provide service and energy on the wing will be a welcome addition to a side that has often had to operate with defensive full-backs, who offered very little in the opposition’s half of the pitch. With Michael Boxall and Ike Opara at centre-back, it seems that club captain Francisco Calvo will be the first choice left-back. Using the Costa Rican International at left-back will use his passing ability and positioning, while also minimizing his aerial weakness.
The first arrival this off-season was Jan Gregus, a 27-year-old defensive midfielder. A Slovakian International, with experience in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League with FC Kobenhavn, he was brought in on a ‘Designated Player’ contract to fill a hole in the roster that has existed since Minnesota United joined MLS. The unusual step of using one of three DP slots on a defensive midfielder was soon followed by a second acquisition in the same position, Osvaldo Alonso. The 33-year-old defensive midfielder is coming off a couple of injury-plagued seasons with the Seattle Sounders, but he is still a quality midfielder who has made the MLS All-Star Team 4 times, and was named to the 2012 MLS Best XI.
Adrian Heath has had problems finding a midfielder who was capable of protecting his back line. Last season, he tried playing Rasmus Schuller in the role but he lacked the positional discipline to excel. In addition, this caused the Loons to miss out on his passing in further up the pitch on the attack. Now the Englishman has two midfielders who can function in a double pivot to protect his defence while also getting involved in the attack. Alonso operates as a midfielder destroyer, a player who is willing to do the physical work and tackling to break up the play in front of the defence. Jan Gregus’ game is much more reliant on positioning and intelligence. He also offers more in the attack with a better passing range, and his ability to operate higher up the pitch which he showed at FC Kobenhavn.
A double pivot of Gregus and Alonso will allow the three attacking midfielders more freedom going forward. The revelation of 2018 was 31-year-old Designated Player Carlos Darwin Quintero. Arriving from Club America in Mexico for $200,000 at the end of March, the Colombian went on to score 11 goals and added 13 assists in 27 league appearances. His displays, including Minnesota United’s first hat trick against Toronto FC, lit up Minnesota United’s attack and allowed them to score the goals necessary to overcome a leaky defence. He does his work between the lines, and he has the freedom to drift around the pitch to find the spaces that allow him to thread through balls into the striker. A good example of this below shows him running onto a lay-off from Ibarra before playing a one-touch pass behind the defence for Angelo Rodriguez.
So far this pre-season, Adrian Heath has been playing Rasmus Schuller on the right wing. His reasoning seems to be the depth he currently has in the middle of the pitch. He also hopes that by having Schuller out wide, drifting inside that he’ll be able to find spaces higher up the pitch to influence the game more. Schuller has put in some good displays so far, but he’ll have competition from Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra’s dribbling and willingness to take on the opposing fullback makes him a more orthodox choice, but don’t be surprised if Heath favours Schuller’s passing and playmaking ability.
The left wing seems like it will be Romario Ibarra’s to lose, as he would provide the physical pace and power. His ability to run at the defence, as well as his defensive work rate are something that Heath seems to value. He also has an ability to stretch the defence as he tries to get into the left channel. These runs also will help Minnesota United’s third DP, their Colombian striker Angelo Rodriguez. He’s an orthodox number nine who combines well with Darwin Quintero. He struggled early in his time in Minnesota, but as the season wore on, he got better. He finished the season with four goals and one assist in 11 appearances, including three goals in the final five appearances of the season.
Minnesota United had a dangerous attack last season, with Darwin Quintero playing at an MVP level. The focus this off-season has been to stop the mess at the back that has left them with the worse defensive record in the MLS over the past two seasons. Bringing in experienced MLS players like Ike Opara and Osvaldo Alonso, while also adding two players with top European experience in Vito Mannone and Jan Gregus means they have made smart additions. The Loons should be able to reward their fans by bringing MLS Playoff football to their new stadium this season.