After a nice little break, we are once again on the eve of an Orlando City matchday. The Lions will hit the road to try to get back to winning ways, and fans will see a familiar face in the dugout as OCSC takes on the Adrian Heath-led Minnesota United FC.
A clash with Minnesota means I spoke with Alan Van Wyk, one of the writers over at Northland Soccer Journal, previously SBNation’s E Pluribus Loonum. Like ourselves, the folks over at Northland have recently gone independent, so make sure you go check out their new digs, especially since I answered some of their questions about the Lions over at their place.
Talk me through Minnesota’s transfer business from the end of last season until now. What were the key departures, if any, and who has come in to replace them?
Alan Van Wyk: It was a rather typical off-season for MN United. Alan Benitez, Abu Danladi, Oniel Fisher, Jonathan Gonzalez, Niko Hansen, Jacori Hayes, Aziel Jackson, Nabilai Kibunguchy [editor’s note: Nabi is now with Orlando City B], Justin McMaster, Romain Métanire, Callum Montgomery, and Tyler Miller were all let go. Most surprising, or at least most disappointing, were the departures of starting right back and previous MLS All-Star Métanire and U.S. international and starting goalkeeper Miller. After trying to be brought back from injury too quickly too many times over the past two seasons Métanire was released for injury reasons, while Miller was simply allowed to leave, with the club turning to young Canadian international Dayne St. Clair as their starting keeper.
Most of the club’s new signings were designed to add defensive depth to the team, a need that became especially pressing last season when the team struggled after losing center back Bakaye Dibassy, who is still out recovering from a rather freakish thigh injury, and to continue their desire to get younger. Coming in this year were young attacking player Cameron Dunbar, veteran defender Doneil Henry, who is still working his way back into fitness, veteran goalkeeper Clint Irwin, SuperDraft signee Ryen Jiba, young defender Mikael Marqués, defender Micky Tapias, veteran defender Zarek Valentin, and the most recent signing, young South Korean international striker Sang Bin Jeong.
Of most important note, at the moment, are Tapias, Valentin, and Sang Bin. Tapias has very quickly established a strong partnership with Michael Boxall in the center of the Loons’ defense, while Valentin looks to be an important option at right back. Sang Bin has yet to see significant minutes, after clearing paperwork and securing his visa, he was first available last weekend in Chicago, but he looked very good in his brief substitute appearance.
The Loons have had a good start to the season and only lost for the first time last week. What has MNUFC been doing well up to this point?
AVW: The next three answers all begin with some form of “missing DP playmaker Emanuel Reynoso,” but we’ll leave a fuller explanation of that situation for next. For now, Minnesota did have a great start to the season: a five-game opening run that began and ended with statement road wins against FC Dallas and St. Louis City, with a bye-week, another win, and two draws in between. As has been well established, Head Coach Adrian Heath is ride-or-die with the 4-2-3-1, which was built, in Minnesota, around Reynoso. In Reynoso’s absence, the team has turned to a more defensive 4-4-2, which has allowed them to sit back and absorb pressure while remaining opportunistic in attack. Averaging 43% possession this season, the Loons are quite comfortable without the ball, taking advantage of a few quick breaks and very well taken set pieces by Franco Fragapane for delivery and Kervin Arriaga on goal.
Like Orlando, Minnesota hasn’t been scoring a ton to start the year, with seven goals in six games. What do you think has been holding them back in front of goal?
AVW: “Missing DP playmaker Emanuel Reynoso.” This is going to get long, but, to back up for just a moment, Reynoso joined Minnesota in 2020 and immediately took over the team, forming an attacking partnership with Kevin Molino that the Loons rode to the conference finals of that season’s MLS Cup. Over the past few years, Heath and Chief Soccer Officer Manny Lagos have built the team around Reynoso. Last season, the club and Reynoso agreed to a new three-year with club option contract, and at the announcement everyone said all the right things: MNUFC were excited to have Reynoso long-term, Reynoso was happy to make a home in Minnesota, etc., etc., etc. Then Reynoso failed to report for camp in January this year. At first, his failure to appear was treated by the club as nothing exceptional: St. Clair was going to get a few days off after the World Cup, Kemar Lawrence was dealing with some personal issues in Jamaica and would join the team later in Florida, Fragapane would be a few days late, what with the difficulty of winter-weather/international travel from Argentina, and Reynoso was going to be late dealing with some “personal issues” at home.
This was the club’s stance until it wasn’t, ‘Reynoso is home dealing with some personal issues but will hopefully be joining the team soon.’ In early February, the league suspended Reynoso without pay for failing to show up, and the club revealed that there hadn’t been much contact with Reynoso or his people up to that point. They now hoped that “common sense would prevail” and that Reynoso would be joining the team soon. He remains suspended by the league and not a part of the active roster. There are, of course, as there always will be, a number of rumors about Reynoso’s absence, but there is very little that we actually know; the people who do know, both those with Reynoso in Argentina and those at the club, are not saying anything of substance. So he remains absent until he is not.
With that, to say that this team has been built around Reynoso is a bit of an understatement. For the past few seasons, the Loons’ strategy has been to not give up goals and get the ball to Reynoso as quickly and as often as possible and let him do something special — a strategy that has gotten them into the playoffs three years in a row. The team is still founded on a very stout defense, but has lost its structural ability to generate any offense. When the Loons return to the 4-2-3-1, as they did last weekend against Chicago, they remain a team divided, with six players sitting defensively deep, three players staying high on offense, and the No. 10 in the middle bridging the gap between the two. Reynoso was incredibly good at that role, receiving the ball just inside Minnesota’s half, turning and making a 10-to-15-yard run to start the attack. Robin Lod, who is being asked to play that No. 10 role in Reynoso’s absence, is an incredibly good player for the Loons and should consistently lead the team in goals and assists, but he is not good at turning and carrying the ball into the attack through the middle.
Without Reynoso in the 4-2-3-1, the striker is out on an island and the two wide midfielders are stranded in the in-between. The other problem for Minnesota’s offense this season has been the form of their two DP strikers, Ménder García and Luis Amarilla. Amarilla has seemingly lost all confidence and so is over-thinking and falling a step behind in everything he does, while García is still very young and growing into his game. With the right support, García will become a very good attacking player, but at the moment he is still a half season away from that. It is still very early, but it seems that as soon as Sang Bin is integrated into the team and finds his full fitness he will be starting up front, either alongside Amarilla or García in the 4-4-2 or by himself in the 4-2-3-1.
Are there any players unavailable to selection due to injuries, suspensions, call-ups etc? What is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
AVW: The two absences of note for the weekend will be Reynoso and Dibassy. The team has, in Tapias, found a way to cover for Dibassy’s absence in the center of their defense. They have not found a way to cover for Reynoso’s absence in the center of their offense. As for how the team will line up, only Heath and his staff know that. Most fans and media here are getting on board with the idea that this team works better in a 4-4-2, but as last weekend showed, there is still a commitment to the 4-2-3-1.
With that, the open questions remain up front and the decision to go with Amarilla, García, or Sang Bin or some combination of the three; whether Lod will remain in the middle of the field, or if he will move up front to a false 9, replacing one of the other forwards, or if he will return out wide, pushing Bongokuhle Hlongwane to the bench; and whether Hassani Dotson has done enough and has regained enough full fitness in his recovery from a season-ending ACL tear last year to move into the starting XI in midfield, giving Kervin Arriaga or Wil Trapp a rotational break before the team faces Seattle next weekend.
[No score prediction provided]
Thank you to Alan, for an in-depth look at MNUFC. Vamos Orlando!