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United again seeking defensive midfield depth

Minnesota United midfielder Rasmus Schuller (20) and New England Revolution midfielder Wilfried Zahibo (23) battle for the ball during the first half of a preseason game Feb. 19, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. Reinhold Matay / USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota United enters the 2019 season in the precarious position of lacking depth at defensive midfielder. It’s also a familiar position: In three MLS seasons, the Loons have started in the same dangerous spot.

The Loons lacked any natural defensive midfielders at the start of their expansion season in 2017 and gave up 18 goals in four games before trading for veteran Sam Cronin. He suffered a concussion and sat out the final nine games, and the Loons wound up surrendering an MLS-record 70 goals and missing the playoffs.

Cronin suffered another concussion last February and hasn’t played soccer since. The Loons struggled all year to replace the player asked to disrupt opponents’ attack, gave up 71 goals and missed the playoffs again.

This year, the Loons traded for Ozzie Alonso, considered one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS over the past decade, but he’s 33 years old and missed 27 percent of games in 2018 — after missing 24 percent in 2017. On top of that, MLS has condensed its 34-game schedule by three weeks, meaning more mid-week games on less rest.

“It is something that we’ve spoke about internally, that we need to go and get somebody because it is an area where I feel like we are a little bit weak,” United coach Adrian Heath said.

The Loons spent big money to bring in Jan Gregus from FC Copenhagen in the offseason. Initially billed as a defensive midfielder, Gregus moved to a central midfield role after Alonso was acquired. The two are expected to be the starting midfield when the Loons kick off the season against the Vancouver Whitecaps at 5 p.m. Saturday at BC Place.

If Alonso were to miss a significant amount of games this season, Gregus would be the first replacement option, but that would mean filling another starting role. Fellow midfielder Rasmus Schuller would be another option at either spot, but defensive midfielder is not his natural position.

If Gregus is on international duty with Slovakia, and Schuller is away with Finland, the Loons would really be in a bind. The next tier of options would be Collin Martin and rookie Hassani Dotson.

Clubs must meet the roster-compliance deadline on Friday, which puts a cap on when players can be added in the short term. Heath indicated Wednesday that intraleague moves could still happen before the end of the week.

“I’m hoping in the next 48 hours we get a response to who we’ve asked about,” Heath said.

The Loons will have other opportunities to add, with the primary transfer window open until May 7. United tried to add international defensive midfielders last season, but it didn’t pan out with Brazilians Maximiano or Fernando Bob.