Minnesota United captain Michael Boxall earnestly answered a question with a question after the Loons dropped a second straight game to start the 2021 season on Saturday.
With a 2-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake in the home opener in St. Paul, Boxall was asked postgame: “Through two games, how do you assess how your team is playing?”
Answer: ““How we are playing or how we are sitting?”
The Kiwi center back draws a distinction, believing the Loons’ performances are better than the zero points they have to show for it in the Western Conference standings.
“You kind of walk away from them thinking you played well, you’ve got enough to get something out of one (game), maybe not both of them,” Boxall said. “But I think we are playing OK.”
With last season’s Western Conference final playoff loss still fresh, United wanted to start strong and show it could be the sheriff out West. Instead, it has been too wild and sits at the bottom of the standings.
But only 6 percent of the MLS season is down the drain, and 32 regular-season games remain to correct the defensive breakdowns and lack of offensive finishing that has resulted in a minus-5 goal differential thus far.
Here are three takeaways:
Defensive woes (again)
One exacerbating element is the two goals allowed Saturday and the majority of the four conceded in Seattle last week were due to individual letdowns. Adding to the problem is different people were at fault.
“At this level, you can’t make mistakes of the magnitude we’re making and expect to win a game,” Boxall said.
Romain Metanire’s shot on a recycled corner was blocked, and RSL capitalized on the counterattack for the first goal. Their preventative marking plan was foiled. Then left fullback Chase Gasper’s bad back pass was seized and converted for the second, easy tap-in goal 10 minutes later.
“It’s OK to just put it in the stands and then get our shape back and reset,” Boxall said. “I think that’s one thing we can take away from the last two weeks.”
As the captain, Boxall raised his hand, too. “I think it’s just a focus thing and something we need to realize, to keep each other accountable on the field,” he said. “I think for me and my part, just be more vocal and get others to take command of the situation at times.”
Shot, shot, shot
One of the reasons why Heath called the first two games “a mixed bag” is because in midfield Minnesota has been stronger. The Loons lead the league in passes to the final third (159) of the field and through passes (33), according to wyscout.
The Loons can see the goal but haven’t been able to finish more than once in front of it. Minnesota is second in MLS with 42 total shots but is last (27th) in shots on target at 16.7 percent.
“We haven’t made the most of our pressure where it’s counted, and that will come down to quality at times,” Heath said. “Our final ball has not been good enough.”
With Ramon Abila out, Juan Agudelo made his Loons debut at striker. He had three shots against RSL and none on goal. American Soccer Analysis liked Agudelo’s receiving skills vs. RSL in its goals-added model, but his shooting was mediocre, the analytic site said.
With him breaking a 176-minute start without a goal this season, attacker Robin Lod leads the team with 1.52 expected goals and assists; that’s good for 10th in MLS through Saturday. Emanuel Reynoso’s 1.31 xG+A is 1.31, good for 14th in the league.
Change at winger?
American Soccer Analysis’ goals-added list had Ethan Finlay at 409th out of 410 MLS players through Saturday’s games. The winger’s minus-0.52 number is brought down primarily by a minus-0.23 mark given for his dribbling.
On the right side vs. Seattle, Finlay had a team-high five touches in the penalty area and no shots. On the left vs. RSL, he had only one shot and was subbed off in the 65th minute for rookie Justin McMaster.
McMaster showed a soft touch to redirect a bouncing ball in the box to set up Lod’s goal in the 85th minute Saturday. “If he hits it too hard, Robin can’t hit it the first time,” Heath said. “He came in the pockets at the right time. A couple of nice moments.”
Heath said McMaster needs to get fitter and up to the speed of MLS after dealing with injuries at Wake Forest. Playing 90 minutes might be a stretch, but McMaster’s bright start could bring about change.
“We’ve been pleased with him,” Heath said of McMaster.