For most of the MLS is Back tournament, Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath has harped on the idea that the MLS public is doubting his Loons. He claimed before Minnesota’s round of 16 match against Columbus that “everybody’s crowned (the Crew) champions already,” and even after Minnesota won their quarterfinal against San Jose, he bemoaned the many critics he seems to think his team has.
There is a history in sports of coaches using media soundbites to motivate their teams. Heath did the same thing last July, expressing his disapproval with the “experts” after a win. While Heath is surely overstating how many people are doubting his team, his tactics seem to be working. Minnesota is winning despite center back Ike Opara, arguably their best player, being out of the tournament.
Minnesota United silencing whatever critics they have
On Saturday, the Loons put together a complete performance in a 4-1 victory over the Earthquakes, advancing to the tournament semifinals. This comes after a win in a PK shootout over the Crew. Whatever critics they have, they’ve silenced them with this run. Their win over the Crew was impressive, and the Quakes game solidified the legitimate hype around the Loons.
It is true that Columbus were considered favorites before the round of 16. I called them the best team in the tournament and wrote that they were the most likely team to win the whole thing. (Welp.) The optimism around the Crew was valid, considering they won all three of their group stage games without conceding a goal, but Minnesota eliminated them with an energetic midfield and a flawless penalty kick performance.
Hassani Dotson has emerged as a dominant performer the last two games. We knew he was versatile, but he produced a pair of impressive performances. First, he shadowed Darlington Nagbe as a central midfielder the entire game against the Crew, and then, after Roman Metanire had to sit out with an injury, he produced a shutdown performance at right back.
Minnesota has been generating meaningful contributions from multiple unlikely sources. Left back Chase Gasper has been solid. Jacori Hayes, after a few games coming off the bench, made his first start for Minnesota against the Quakes and played very well in the Dotson midfield role. Center backs Michael Boxall and Jose Aja have minimized the impact of Opara’s absence. Goalkeeper Tyler Miller, a shrewd offseason acquisition in a trade with LAFC, proves you don’t have to spend on goalkeepers to find valuable assets.
Perhaps the most important part of their success has been the midfield, where Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus have been sensational. Alonso has been touted as a candidate for tournament MVP for his performance in defensive midfield. Gregus is a perfect partner for the legendary No. 6, acting as Minnesota’s primary distribution hub. Gregus, who takes most of the free kicks, is also a notable reason for Minnesota’s set piece dominance — they lead the league in goals from dead balls in 2020, with eight, even as top aerial threat Opara has been out.
Heath’s tactics winning out
Heath has proven he can win games with smart tactics. He assigned Dotson to Nagbe in the Columbus game and disrupted the Crew’s attempts at gaining a rhythm in the attacking half, and against the Quakes, he had his team finding the gaps in San Jose’s confounding man-marking system. While other teams have fallen victim to Matias Almeyda’s designed chaos, the Loons exploited it. Alonso played an important role in attack, ranging forward from deep midfield to drag the Quakes’ defenders out of place. Minnesota kept pouring it on, never sitting back too much or conceding chances to San Jose.
Well-organized and cohesive teams are tough to beat, and Minnesota fits the description. Against Orlando in the semis, they’ll be favorites — though you probably won’t see Heath admit it.