Stejskal: Strong start from new-look defense has Minnesota United confident

Minnesota United entered the season with one glaring question: Would their new-look defense hold?

There were few doubts this winter about the quality of the Loons’ attack. With Darwin Quintero running the show, Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay set to return to full health after both missed most of 2018 due to injuries and Romario Ibarra, Miguel Ibarra and Angelo Rodriguez providing support, the consensus was that Minnesota had more than enough to get by going forward.

The defense was a different matter. Minnesota set the MLS record for most goals conceded in a season by allowing 70 in 2017, then went out and gave up 71 last year. They addressed their glaring needs in the back this winter, overhauling their defensive group by acquiring holding midfielder Ozzie Alonso, right back Romain Metanire, goalkeeper Vito Mannone and center back Ike Opara, a move that allowed them to shift Francisco Calvo from center back to his more natural position on the left.

On paper, it looked better. A lot better. But how would it work on the field?

It’s very early, but so far, the defense has been decidedly solid for the Loons. After allowing two set piece goals in a 3-2 win at Vancouver on opening day, Minnesota posted a shutout victory at San Jose last weekend. They’re one of just four teams in MLS to not allow a goal from the run of play this season, and the new additions have meshed well despite not getting too much time together in preseason.

“I think we’ve done really well at trying to adapt quickly in the first couple weeks of the season,” Opara told over the phone earlier this week.

Opara has been strong and Metanire and Calvo look like they could become one of the better fullback duos in the league. But Alonso has been perhaps the most important new addition in Minnesota. The former Seattle Sounders captain has brought Minnesota a steadying midfield presence they lacked during their first two years in the league.

He’s paired well with new Designated PlayerJan Gregus, covered ground intelligently, moved the ball effectively and showed good understanding with Opara and fellow center back Michael Boxall, often dropping deep and splitting the pair while Minnesota have the ball to allow Metanire and Calvo to get forward on the flanks.

“Ozzie drops in well there, even when an outside back goes forward he’ll make sure he covers them. He’s been kind of our main focus there in the middle,” said winger and longtime Loon Miguel Ibarra. “When we need to calm the ball down, he can calm it down. When we need to slow down the game, when we need a foul to stop a counterattack, he’s the first one there. He’s a big presence for us.”

The new talent in the back has had a positive implication on Minnesota’s offensive capabilities. Not only are Metanire and Calvo frequently jumping into the attack, but their solid work on the defensive end, along with the presence of Alonso and Opara, has given the club’s attackers a new sense of freedom going forward. They’re still engaged, but they’re not quite as worried about their own defensive responsibilities as they were in 2017 or 2018.

“I play on the right and I have Romain right behind me, him telling me, ‘Don’t worry about defending as much, take care of the attacking.’ I really never had that since we started in MLS,” said Ibarra. “Having him in the back and telling me that, having Ozzie telling Darwin the same thing, it just gives us more freedom for us to attack while knowing that in the back we’re going to be OK.”

The early returns have been positive, but both Opara and Ibarra made sure to note that it’s still very early. Both of their wins came on the road, but both were against opponents expected to struggle this season. There are also legitimate questions about Alonso’s longevity. The 33-year-old has struggled with injuries over the last few years; he’s only started 24 regular season games once in the past four seasons. If he misses significant time, there could be a steep dropoff.

Not that Opara or Ibarra are worried about that now. They’re just focused on growing in the back, stacking up points and getting Minnesota, who play at the LA Galaxy on Saturday (10:30 pm ET |  MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada) in the third game of a five-game road trip prior to the grand opening of Allianz Field in April, to the playoffs for the first time in club history.

“If we keep defending how we’re defending and the attack, we keep running it through Darwin – Darwin’s our creator there – and with myself, Romario, Angelo and then Ethan and Molino when they’re both 100 percent healthy, we’re all just going to contribute and be a big part of the whole offense,” said Ibarra.

“Defensively, we’ve got to do what we’ve been doing. We’ve conceded two set-piece goals, none in the run of play, so if we continue that way, I think we can do some really good things this year.”