Heath: Minnesota's defensive woes require "serious look" in the mirror

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Adrian Heath was blunt after Minnesota United FC were overwhelmed 5-2 by the New England Revolution on Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

The expansion side must “have a serious look” in the mirror, said the Loons’ coach, after conceding an average of 4.5 goals in their first four MLS games. The 18 goals conceded in their first four games are easily the most ever through the first four games of a season, with the previous record being 11 according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 18 goals conceded are also the most over any four-game stretch in MLS history, with the Colorado Rapids in 2008 being the previous record holders.

The solution to this problem, Heath added, needs to come quickly.

“A mentality, formation maybe, personnel,” Heath said. “We certainly have to make some some decisions, some really hard decisions and important decisions in the next few months. We can’t carry on like that. We have to either change personnel, shape or maybe both. That wasn’t good enough.”

It was Juan Agudelo, Kei Kamara and Lee Nguyen tearing apart Minnesota’s backline in the Revs’ home opener, but they’re not the only ones to do so in 2017. The Portland Timbers cruised to a 5-1 win over MNUFC to begin the 2017 MLS season before Heath & Co. dropped their own home opener 6-1 to fellow expansion side Atlanta United FC.

There was hope last week when they earned a 2-2 draw at the Colorado Rapids, but miscues returned against the Revs and they faced a 4-1 deficit at halftime. Minnesota are on pace to smash the MLS season record for most goals conceded (67, set by Chivas USA in 2013). 

For Loons fullback Kevin Venegas, a message from assistant coach Mark Watson best summed up the club’s state of affairs.

“He was saying how this has to really fuel us,” Venegas said. “It’s really got to hurt as much as it hurts the coaching staff to watch the amount of goals in four games. It’s not acceptable. We need to come together more and really stand for our defensive side of the game and get that down, or it’s just going to continue to roll like that.”

While New England ran rampant, Minnesota could only dress 17 players, with nine missing to international duty, suspension or injury. The Revs registered 16 shots on goal and attempted 160 passes in the final third, but Heath said a depleted squad is no excuse.

Looking to patch his defense, Heath deployed Minnesota in a 3-5-2 for the second half, and it offered some stability. Brent Kallman, Jermaine Taylor and Vadim Demidov lined up as center backs, and were flanked by wingbacks in Jerome Thiesson and Venegas.

That unit, anchored by Bobby Shuttleworth in goal, only allowed one goal in the final 45 minutes. Kallman said the formation change was one of necessity – the bigger ask for the Loons is limiting mistakes.

“Whatever we decide, we have to do it together,” Kallman said. “Eleven players defend, 11 players attack. It’s not on the defenders necessarily, it’s not on the midfielders, it’s a group effort.”

On Saturday Minnesota host Real Salt Lake (8 pm ET| MLS LIVE), a side that recently fired their head coach Jeff Cassar. Heath said the task before players is straightforward: Defend as a group and take it from there.

“I don’t think that we’re asking anything that they can’t do,” Heath said. “That’s the puzzling thing. We spend most of the week on defensive shape and being in the right spots at the right time. Then obviously today in the first half, [New England] could have conceivably had a lot more.”