It's still early in the MLS season to forming definitive conclusions about any team, but three games into the 2021 campaign, the slow start of Minnesota United has nonetheless emerged as a surprising storyline.
Fresh off an appearance in the Western Conference Championship that they very nearly won against the Seattle Sounders in last year's MLS Cup Playoffs, the Loons were a popular preseason pick to take another step forward and solidify themselves as a legitimate championship contender. Instead, it's been three straight losses to start off the year, including a pair of deflating home defeats to Real Salt Lake and expansion side Austin FC.
So, what's gone wrong for the Loons so far? And can it be fixed? The Extratime crew took a stab at answering those questions in the latest episode.
"I think they lack some mobility, they haven't been dynamic at all. Losing [Kevin] Molino has been tough," host Calen Carr said. "Bebelo [Reynoso] comes out, he hasn't quite looked up to his standards, he's looked like he's searching for partners or partnerships. Avila comes in and he didn't really have that sort of dynamic movement, he didn't look fully fit even. I guess the bright spot was the 17-year-old, [Patrick] Weah coming on and mixing it up and getting a couple chances, but you can't really rely on that right now.
"So, the question is: How are they going to get goals right now?"
Matt Doyle also weighed in with his observations from watching the Loons' first three games, saying that he views one of the culprits as a drop-off in central midfield compared to last season, when that was an area of strength.
"It's a bunch of stuff: Just watching the games, I kinda followed my nose, and looked at the numbers -- one of the things that Minnesota was really good at last year was taking space, because they actually had a lot of good passers of the ball on that back line," Doyle said. "And obviously when [Jan] Gregus is in there in central midfield, and Ozzie [Alonso], they can move you around with the ball, open up space and then get their wingers in particular into positions to go 1-v-1.
"And so they had the third-most attempted dribbles last year, and they were top eight or nine success rate. Down the stretch, into the playoffs, they were I think fourth in dribble success rate. So, they would use their dribble-possession to open the field up, create 1-v-1s and then Molino especially was devastating. This year they are 24th in dribble success rate. They're still third in the league in attempted dribbles per 90, but they are 24th in success rate, so they're not dynamic on the ball in any possible way."
It's been an inauspicious start, but there's still plenty of time for Adrian Heath's group to turn it around. David Gass said he feels as though the team is capable of doing so, but added the caveat that the longer the early-season doldrums persist, the harder it might become to work their way out of it in time to get back to where many preseason projections had them on the table.
"I think most of it can be fixed," Gass said. "They have huge pieces that are aren't available. I think Calen made the point, though, that as each loss builds on itself, that's the most worrying thing. To me, most of what's worrying with this becomes psychological and emotional the longer it goes on.
"You've got a DP center forward that hasn't even arrived yet. You've got center backs who aren't available. You've got pieces that will make this team better already available to you, plus it sounds like another winger. But the longer this goes on ... that's the only fear for me, is that they get so deep mentally and as a group that however good they get, they're already fallen off."
For more from the crew on Minnesota and Week 3 in MLS, check out the full episode here.