One of Minnesota United’s major priorities for this season is improving on the defensive end of the pitch. While the Loons scored more goals than six other teams (including two playoff teams), the club allowed 70 goals, the most in MLS history — Colorado allowed 69 goals in two fewer games in 1998. And while a major chunk of those goals came in their first five matches when they surrendered 20 goals and things improved down the stretch, the team is working to bolster their defense through a mix of growth and depth.
At the MLS SuperDraft, Minnesota United added two young defenders in centerback Wyatt Omsberg and fullback Carter Manley. Although neither is likely to start at the beginning of the season — effective defense is predicated nearly as much on chemistry, communication and continuity as pure talent — the coaches have been impressed with their work rate so far.
“They’re good kids, they’re both very athletic,” said Assistant Coach Mark Watson, who works primarily with the defensive players. Of Omsberg, he says, “Really quick for a guy of his size. We saw that at the combine as well, one of the top sprint times, which you don’t normally see for a 6-foot-4-inch guy. He has not looked out of place and I’ll say the same with Carter. Physically, he’s very impressive. He’s got good feet. And the little things that we’ve asked, you know, they’re coming into a group of pros that have done it before and have been there, they’ve not looked out of place. And even stood out a little bit.”
Defender Michael Boxall — who joined the team partway through the season and played and started in 12 matches in 2017 — is an MLS veteran (Vancouver Whitecaps) with international experience with the New Zealand men’s national team, and his experience will be crucial to getting the young guys acclimated to their jobs.
“You try to give bits where you can during trainings, but obviously you’re also focusing on yourself as well,” he said. “Plus in the heat of the moment, the way you communicate doesn’t always translate across as well. So I think after the training you can just walk them through things, and pull them aside and just help them, when they are able to just focus on that one thing. And I think that’s — I noticed when I was much younger — that that was far more beneficial to me.”
The Loons also added defender Tyrone Mears in the offseason, and Mears believes defending well is about more than simply talent and also more than just the defenders.
“The team starts at the back,” he said. “If you’re conceding goals, then you’re playing catch up in games all the time. The coaching staff thinks they need to add more players, but you know, the team that we have, we just have to work harder. Again, the back four just needs to work harder with the holding midfielders and get that good connection together.”
Overall, the team will bring back Boxall, captain Francisco Calvo, Brent Kallman, Jerome Thiesson and Marc Burch while adding Omsberg, Manley and Mears on the defensive end. Getting all those pieces to gel will take time but Watson observed that they’re already way ahead of where they were last year when an entire team had to be assembled in a matter of a few months. That doesn’t mean the team is just waiting or hoping to get better, though. Hard work in training camp and now during preseason in Florida will make the most of the mix of youth and experience backstopping the squad on the pitch. If MNUFC can connect a strong back four to the midfield, the Loons’ defense will be well on its way.