It’s no secret that Minnesota United have yet to get their attack to fully click this season. Through 20 games, the Loons have scored 22 goals — the lowest total of any team above the playoff line in either conference and the second-lowest overall in the Western Conference. The matter came to a head this past week as Minnesota went up a man in two straight games for nearly 140 total minutes and came away with one goal and two draws to show for it. So what’s going on?
Before we get into it — which, fair warning, is going to involves some analytics, so if you don’t like that, just move along — let’s just get a brute overview of what the team is missing right now. Of those 22 goals, six have been scored by midfielder and occasional forward Robin Lod. That’s more than a quarter of the team’s goals right there. Another three have come from wingers Franco Fragapane and Niko Hansen, who are likewise unavailable. Additionally, Fragapane and Hansen have scored their goals so far in less time on the pitch. In terms of goals per 96 minutes, they’re directly behind Lod’s 0.52 with 0.36 and 0.22, respectively. Fragapane, it’s worth noting, has scored twice in two shots on goal — it’s entirely possible that if he had played as much as Lod that he would have as many goals.
Sorry, we went to the numbers a little early there.
So the players who have shown the most concrete ability to finish their chances so far this season are not even available to the Loons. But what’s the issue with the players who are available?
As Head Coach Adrian Heath said in his postgame press conference after the 0-0 draw with Sporting Kansas City, the team is not wanting for chances. “I thought we created a lot of opportunities,” he said. “We’ve had lots of crosses into the box. We had a couple of one-on-ones. I think of Juan’s [Agudelo] one-on-one. [Michael] Boxall had an incredible chance. If you’re not creating chances, then you look at all the stuff. But we’ve had chances again tonight. And unfortunately, you know, it comes back to bite you when you don’t take them chances.”
And it’s true. If you look at teams like Inter Miami, Columbus Crew SC, FC Cincinnati and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, they’ve all scored 19 to 23 goals and looking at their expected goals — a quantitative assessment of the quality of the chances they’ve created — they’re all right around 20 to 24 xG. But Minnesota United have 32.25 xG. That’s fifth in the entire league, while their actual goals scored is seventh worst. So the Loons have underperformed their expected goals all season, but it’s particularly acute right now because of the options they have.
The attacking quartet of Hassani Doston on the left wing, Emanuel Reynoso at the #10, Ethan Finlay on the right wing and Adrien Hunou up top have generated 12.82 xG total this season. They have actually scored seven. By contrast, New England’s Gustavo Bou has racked up 6.65 xG but actually scored 12, and Sporting Kansas City’s Dániel Sallói has 8.52 xG but has also scored 12. If you sprinkled five or six more goals into the mix in one-goal losses or draws, MNUFC would be a lot closer to the top four in the West than leading the pack in the five through seven slots. Note, though, that expected goals don’t change games, only actual goals.
It gets a little more dire if you shift to looking at American Soccer Analysis’ goals added (g+) metric. The metric is an attempt to incorporate all phases of play into evaluating scoring so that defenders are given credit for tackles, interceptions, etc. that increase the likelihood of scoring a goal. The math is complex, but the idea is relatively straightforward: actions on the field that get the team closer to scoring are positive, actions that make scoring less likely (turnovers, for example) are negative. Minnesota’s scoring leader, Robin Lod, has a 0.99 g+ so far. Defender Bakaye Dibassy has a towering 1.65 g+ to lead the team, largely on the strength of his disruptive abilities. Reynoso has a 0.84 g+, but every other member of that recent front four is in negative territory. Hunou has a -0.54, Dotson has a -0.74 and Finlay has a -2.09. Those, in fact, are the three worst g+ marks on the team.
Speaking of interrupting, it’s worth holding up here and emphasizing that these numbers are not everything and that soccer analytics are a long way from and maybe never will be close to those in a sport like baseball that relies so heavily on individual, stepwise actions. But it goes to show that when Heath points out that the team is creating opportunities but struggling to finish them, the numbers absolutely back him up. He can’t shoot the ball for the players, he can only pick the team and try to put them in a position to succeed.
So what is to be done? In the near term, the team’s overall success at creating chances means it’s likely not worth it to try to reinvent the offense. The gap between the fifth spot and the fourth in the West seems to only be growing and while taking just two points from two games where you had the advantage is not great, it’s basically treading water. The hope is that Lod, Fragapane and Hansen will be back after this week’s game against Houston, with the Loons not playing again until September 11. But while Heath has been steadfast in his belief that a forward like Hunou just needs to see the ball go in the back of the net to get a streak going, he also hasn’t been shy about giving young players the opportunity to prove themselves in the past.
We saw both Justin McMaster and Patrick Weah make it onto the pitch late against Sporting Kansas City. While neither may yet be ready for consistent starting minutes, after a double-game week and with the prospect of a longer break after the game, it seems possible we see them earlier or even starting against Houston, or even a shift to the 4-3-3 formation we’ve seen more often on the road this year.
Whatever the adjustments, there is a more open-ended and ultimately interesting question, though, about how to value different elements of attacking football. As one of the league’s best #10s, Reynoso clearly excels in creating not just chances but good chances — as the maestro of the offense, he’s largely responsible for that high expected goals total. But is a forward or winger’s most valuable skill finishing difficult shots more consistently or finishing more shots more often? Is the answer at forward a player who can make something out of nothing, or the one who finishes solidly when presented with the chance? Right now, at least, MNUFC would likely take either.