New Look Loons Are Very Good – Before They Are Very Bad

Unable to take advantage of a strong opening half, Minnesota United falls 2-1 to Orlando City at home on Matchday 8.

It is true, of course, that MLS is a difficult league to adjust to. The travel and physicality of play are demanding and often made harder by what are typically off-season trades and a distracting cultural relocation into the US. But it is also true that when players are put in positions to succeed, they do.

On Saturday night, within Minnesota United’s disappointing 2-1 home loss to Orlando City SC, Robin Lod had his best game of the young season. Playing out wide on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 he collected a hockey assist on Minnesota’s only goal of the night and created three other great scoring chances for the team.

In the 40th minute, receiving the ball out wide and just outside the box, Lod turned in and back out to create the space to simply run past his defender, Rodrigo Schlegel, before cutting the ball back to Sang Bin Jeong just off the six for what should have been the newest Loon’s first goal in Minnesota. In the 48th minute Lod again received the ball wide and just outside the box, this time moving towards goal; with two moves, he put a through ball in to Bongokhule Hlongwane leading him to the end-line off the back post from where, with four Loons crashing the box, Hlongwane put a shot straight into the side netting. In similar fashion the set-up for Minnesota’s goal in the 58th minute began with Lod receiving the ball wide and outside the box from where he was able to drop a quarter-chip in behind for Hassani Dotson who found Hlongwane in front of goal.

MNUFC’s Robin Lod controls the ball in a match against Orlando City SC at Allianz Field on Saturday April 15, 2023 in St Paul, Minnesota (Photo by Tim McLaughlin)

And then, in the waning moments of the game, after Orlando had scored twice, Lod again received the ball wide and just outside the box; cutting across the middle he drew a foul, setting up what should have been a great set-piece opportunity for Kervin Arriaga. All night, Lod was able to do, as an inverted winger, what he has come to do best with this team: cut inside, beat a defender, open a quick series of passes with his teammates, and create chances.

Lod’s move out wide was not head coach Adrian Heath’s only change on the night. Sticking to the 4-2-3-1 that did not work in the first half last weekend in Chicago, Hlongwane started on the left, making space for Lod and replacing Franco Fragapane; Sang Bin was given his first start as a Loon at the #10; Ménder García started up top, a decision for speed and directness; and Dotson began the night alongside Arriaga in the midfield.

Sang Bin Jeong kicks the ball as blades of grass are flung into the air.
Minnesota United forward Sang Bin Jeong (11) crosses the ball during the match against Orlando City SC at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

After training last Friday Heath had announced a desire to move away from the defensive posture the team had adopted with success in the first five games of the season, working to gain “a lot more controlled possession in the other team’s half,” working, he continued, “to get to the stage where we are having combinations in wide areas, getting the full-backs high and wide, [and] start to deliver the ball into the box, start to play in the other team’s half a little bit more than we have been.” And in this, the changes to start the game against Orlando were a success. For the first 60 minutes Minnesota played with balance and possession, controlling the game.

Much of that balance and control began on the night in the midfield, with the spacing and movement that Arriaga and Dotson provided when playing together. Although not quite what would be called a high-press, with Arriaga and Dotson the team defended to create offense and not simply to absorb pressure, and where able to stay much more connected on offense, with opportunities created through Lod cutting in, over the top to García, out wide to Hlongwane, or down the middle through Sang Bin; all of which took place within the space created by the width of DJ Taylor and Kemar Lawrence out of the back.

And from the start of the night, Minnesota’s intention was clear. In the second minute, after a few opening touches, Michael Boxall picked up the ball just inside his half with one thing on his mind: release García over the top. Although he didn’t get his through ball quite over the top, García was, with a mature bit of positioning and body work, able to control the pass and beat his defender to the end line before finding Hlongwane alone at the six. Minnesota could have been up a goal within two minutes.

And that, in itself, tells another version of the story of the first 60 minutes of the game for Minnesota. Control and good intentions are one thing, scoring is another. After Hlongwane flubbed his opening chance, getting his footwork all wrong, Minnesota would go on for the night to take 17 shots, getting 4 on target, while the one goal was well below their xG of 2.3. Goals, as we have been told, change games, and Minnesota struggled to find them. Hlongwane did knock in the Loon’s only clean finish of the night in the 58th minute. It was a beautiful strike, assisted by Dotson and Lod, but the tables turned shortly after.

Bongokuhle Hlongwane stretches out with both feet off the ground.
Minnesota United forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane (21) attempts a scissors kick during the match against Orlando City SC at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, April 15, 2023. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

In his first start after only a few training seasons with the team, Sang Bin had a very good shift, but his night was done just before 60 minutes. In a move that seemed odd in the moment, he was replaced by Wil Trapp, shifting Minnesota into what seemed to be a 4-3-3. Set-up like that, the spacing of the team came undone, leading directly to Orlando’s first goal in the 66th minute. With three Orlando players coming down the left, Lod, Trapp, Arriaga, Taylor, and Boxall were unable to find or close down their assignments, and with three quick Orlando passes the defense collapsed into the box, leaving Iván Angulo alone at the back post for an easy finish to level the game.

Orlando City SC’s Iván Angulo celebrates his equalizing goal in the 66th minute of the match against MN United FC at Allianz Field on Saturday April 15, 2023 in St Paul, Minnesota (Photo by Tim McLaughlin)

In the 73rd minute Fragapane was brought on for Dotson and, along with Luis Amarilla who had replaced García up top, the team returned to a 4-2-3-1, but the game had already turned. Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja had changed his team, using four substitutions to move from a 3-4-2-1 into a 4-4-2, taking advantage of Minnesota’s uneven midfield. Through a play that was strikingly similar to their first goal, Duncan McGuire put Orlando ahead in the 88th minute, and Minnesota was unable to muster a response.

Minnesota United Football Club and Orlando City Soccer Club play in an MLS match at Allianz Field on Saturday April 15, 2023 in St Paul, Minnesota (Photo by Tim McLaughlin)

Next weekend Minnesota heads out west to face a Seattle team that, despite losing to Portland last night 4-1, seems to be top of the class in the league. And it is hard to know what to think as Minnesota moves into this next run of games. The team opened the season collecting 11 points from 5 games, finding a Reynoso-less identity sitting deep, absorbing pressure, taking just enough advantage of their opportunities to get results. Then, in two cross-conference games the Loons came out looking for more possession and control, an intention that produced one very bad half and one very good 60 minutes, but two losses. One of those losses was on the players, the other on the staff.

The season is, of course, quite long, but soon it won’t be, and so Minnesota is going to need to figure out who it wants to be and become the best version of that. If not, this Reynoso-less season could become quite long in other ways.