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Storylines | Leading the Way


So, we’re doing alright this year, right? If you ask me, two points per game after 10 games isn’t too shabby, and 20 points is a pretty great way to start the year. In fact, it’s the best start to an MLS season that Minnesota United have ever had, and it’s no fluke. Seeing as we’re about to come up against another team that’s had a hot start to 2024—hello, LA Galaxy—I used this week’s Storylines as an opportunity to explore how we got here and what’s worked so far. Let’s go!

Statistically Significant

As far as 2024 goes, the Loons are doing more than just hanging with the leading pack—they’re paving the way. At the time of writing, their 20 points are second only to Real Salt Lake’s 21 in the Western Conference. The Black and Blue have a game in hand on the Claret and Cobalt, though, and based on points per game, our boys are the best in the West. The only team to match MNUFC’s impressive 2.00 ppg clip is Inter Messi, with 24 points from 12 games in the Eastern Conference.

Let’s take a look at last season’s big winners from the Buckeye State to understand the context of this kind of start to a season. FC Cincinnati won the 2023 Supporters’ Shield with a total of 69 points. After 10 games, Pat Noonan’s men had 21 points—a single point more than your 2024 Loons. The reigning MLS Cup champions, the Columbus Crew, only had 14 points from their first 10 games in 2023. I don’t know about you, but those are encouraging numbers in my eyes.

While a good start to the year doesn’t guarantee trophies, it certainly puts you in a position to challenge for relevant titles late into the year. In Major League Soccer, especially, trophies are often won by a strong finish rather than a fast start. Playoffs, pressure, and parity make this a tough league to win in, but thus far, your Loons have done a great job of navigating our favorite soccer league.

Principles Guide Tactics

Before the season even started, we knew the club was going to look different, both on the pitch and on the sidelines. Assistant Coach Cameron Knowles did a wonderful job guiding the team through preseason and the first few weeks of the season and deserves plenty of plaudits for his performance in a unique situation. And ever since Eric Ramsay joined as head coach, the level hasn’t dropped a bit.

Anyone who’s watched the Loons’ first few games of the season will have picked up on a few tactical changes. First, the 4-2-3-1 formation that we’d grown used to seeing disappeared this season, replaced by a 4-3-3 more often than not. Most people that have played soccer have played in a 4-3-3 at some point in their career, making this an easy formation to build from. This simple, effective switch helped the players focus on the introduction of new tactics and principles while playing in roles they were familiar with. Without having to worry about mastering a new position or formation, the squad was able to shift their style of play with what appeared to be relative ease.

Where the Loons may have once sat back and absorbed pressure before launching a counterattack, Ramsay and company have the team pressing far higher up the field, meeting the opponent quickly and making it difficult for any team to turn and run at them. This aggressive, confident principle has guided everything the Loons have done thus far, transforming the team and bringing the best out of the players available. Playing on the front foot is hard work, but it’s rewarding when done right.

Getting a Little Fancy

Lately, we’ve seen Coach Ramsay experiment a bit more with his choice of formation, responding to absences, injuries, or just playing the hot hand. Now that the shift in mentality and guiding principles have had time to sink in, formations are easier to switch between, giving the team the freedom to utilize players in positions that best suit their skill sets. On this current three-game win streak, we’ve seen some creative solutions pay dividends.

The 3-4-3 against Charlotte introduced the idea of playing with three center backs, giving Kervin Arriaga a place in the squad and allowing the fullbacks to shine as they transitioned to playing as wingbacks. This shift likewise introduced a more fluid role for the wingers and attacking midfielders in the lineup, allowing them to move side to side to better use the space they were given while the wingbacks filled in the wide areas. With Wil Trapp and Hassani Dotson holding down the midfield, the rest of the squad was able to move with freedom and numbers, with as many as seven or eight Loons playing in the attacking third at a time.

The 5-3-2 we saw against Sporting Kansas City yielded mixed results but built on the positives against Charlotte. Coach Ramsay showed a desire to put more threats into the box by having Tani Oluwaseyi start alongside veteran Teemu Pukki, and it paid off when the younger striker notched a goal in the first half. Robin Lod continued to thrive in this evolving setup, operating in more of a free-roaming role that suited his qualities perfectly.

A week later, the Loons came out in a 5-4-1 in Atlanta. The return of Miguel Tapias pushed Devin Padelford back out wide, allowing Joseph Rosales to shift to midfield to cover for Hassani Dotson. Rosales and Sang Bin Jeong continued to use side-to-side movement to make space for their team, and while it didn’t result in as dominant a win as it did against Charlotte, it appeared that the Loons were comfortable ceding possession to an Atlanta side that has struggled to come up with ideas of their own lately.

With small adjustments in each game, the Loons have gotten the edge they’ve needed on a variety of different opponents. The hard pivot in formation against Charlotte nullified any pre-game scouting Dean Smith’s team might have done. It worked nicely, so they built on the same principles against SKC. Then, a relaxed press against Atlanta took advantage of the external pressure the Five Stripes were feeling, under which they ultimately folded without any ideas, despite having more than 60% possession.

What’s Next?

Now, with a week to rest and reset, the coaching staff has a chance to decide what the next shift will be. Keeping things fresh seems to be a big part of the strategy this year, and in a game that has so many factors to consider, there really aren’t many other ways to do it. If you simply pick a formation, pencil in an eleven, and refuse to shake things up, people will figure you out pretty quickly.

As long as players understand what is expected of them, which appears to be true for the Loons’ squad, any formation or tactic can work. Simple, effective communication is the key to every strategy that looks mind-numbingly complex, and Coach Ramsay is demonstrating an ability to communicate clearly and quickly, with changes working nearly seamlessly week-to-week. I have a feeling we’re going to continue to see some creative tinkering, and I’m very much here for it.

When the Galaxy come to Allianz Field next week, it will be Minnesota United’s biggest test since their home match against the defending champs. You’ve got to beat the best to be the best, though, and three points against one of the other top dogs in the West could be the momentum the Loons need if they want this incredible start to 2024 to keep going.