Minnesota United: Build from the back

MLS, Minnesota United, Ike Opara (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
MLS, Minnesota United, Ike Opara (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

This week, Minnesota United clinched a playoff place for the first time in their history. And it all stemmed from an offseason revamp that had one clear focus: build from the back.

While it is the skill-laced, feet-flicking, heart-racing offensive players that grab the attention of the baying football audience, win the individual awards and tend to be higher rated and more watched, in reality, the most successful teams are often the ones that can defend the best.

Liverpool won the Champions League because they have the best centre-back in the world. Manchester City’s dominance in possession is so difficult to contend with because it limits the number of attacking opportunities for the opposition. Atlanta United returned to defensive basics to win the MLS Cup last season, despite having the two best attacking players in the league.

Defenders will forever be overlooked because the secret of good defending is that it is boring. Watching Virgil van Dijk, however remarkable it may be, is actually quite dull. Nothing really happens. And that is why he is such a proficient defender.

In the offseason, Minnesota United had one very clear goal: to make the playoffs. After two dismal years in MLS in which they were routinely the worst team in the league, it was time to finally achieve something. And when it came to making the necessary changes to achieve genuine success, there was only one place they could have started: the defence.

In their first season in MLS, Minnesota United conceded 70 goals. That was an MLS record. The next year, they then conceded 71, which would have been an MLS record if not for Orlando City bettering their inadequacy. It was clear where the change was needed. And so, carefully, methodically, but unquestionably emphatically, the Loons started to make changes to their roster.

This offseason, Adrian Heath and the Minnesota front office utterly revamped their defence. It all started with a new anchor. They traded what is now $1 million in allocation money to Sporting Kansas City after they qualified for the playoffs for Ike Opara. The 2017 MLS Defender of the Year was approaching 30, coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, and was seemingly beginning to break down with injuries. This was a record fee paid for a defender. There was a lot of risk to this move. One year later and Opara is the favourite to win the MLS Defender of the Year award once again.

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In front of Opara, Minnesota United introduced a whole new midfield partnership. Jan Gregus was signed as their third and final Designated Player. Less a defensive player than a distributing deep-lying midfielder, he has provided control and calmness to the midfield. From a defensive perspective, perhaps the more impactful move was signing Ozzie Alonso from the Seattle Sounders. Another ageing, injury-hit but elite MLS star, Minnesota took a risk on his health. It paid off. Alonso has been back to his ankle-snapping best while playing 26 games.

And then there are the smaller moves that had just the same impact. Vito Mannone has been one of the best goalkeepers in MLS this season. He is on loan and is one of the cheapest solutions at the position. Romain Metanire cost nothing, signed on a free transfer, and has been the best right-back in MLS this year, terrific going forward providing seven assists but also excellent defensively.

All in all, this has had a remarkable impact. They have conceded  41 goals this season, an improvement of 30 from last year and the fifth-best in MLS.  They have 11 clean sheets, four more than in the last two years combined.

Next. Minnesota United Vs Sporting KC: 4 things we learned. dark

Minnesota United will be playing in the playoffs for the first time in their history later this fall. And it is because of their defence. They built from the back, and now they are reaping the rewards.