Minnesota United has started its season with a high-pressing defensive style, trying to force opponents to turn the ball over in their own end to jumpstart attacks closer to goal.
That strategy didn’t work with Ramon Abila at the top of the attack in the 1-0 loss to Austin FC last Saturday at Allianz Field. The new Argentine striker on loan from Boca Juniors did not display much effort to defend Verde players on multiple occasions, nullifying the Loons’ attempted tactic.
Manager Adrian Heath has said in the past he will not take “passengers,” meaning players unwilling to defend, but Heath wasn’t willing to single out Abila on Friday. “I wouldn’t highlight just Ramon on Saturday,” he said. “I don’t think our forward play was very good with or without the ball. I don’t think we pressed as well as we can.”
Off to its worst start as an MLS club, Minnesota (0-3) will look for its first win of 2021 against the Colorado Rapids (1-1-1) at 9 p.m. Saturday from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. In their previous road game, the Loons high-pressed in their season opener at Seattle.
Heath plugged Abila, 31, into that spot despite the fact he was returning from an aliment that forced him to missed the previous game, a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on April 24. Heath said Friday that Abila has been working with a chiropractor and has been moving better in training.
Before Austin’s goal in the first half, Abila didn’t press goalkeeper Brad Stuver, and Ozzie Alonso came up from his defensive midfield spot to provide pressure. When Austin quickly restarted play after a throw in, Abila also didn’t defend as Alonso was retreating. United had lost its defensive shape, and those initial actions served as the first tumbling dominoes to Diego Fagundez’s goal.
A few minutes later, when Abila gave the ball away on a bad pass to Ethan Finlay, Bally Sports North commentator Kyndra de St. Aubin said, “Well, if you are going to turn the ball away, you’d better defend it.”
It was the first start for Abila alongside his former Boca teammate and Loons central attacking midfielder Emanuel Reynoso. They had a paltry three passes together, according to wyscout. Their give-and-go in the 31st minute nearly netted a goal for Minnesota, but Reynoso’s shot hit the post. It was the club’s best scoring chance of the game, with an expected goals of 0.24.
Two of Reynoso’s corner kicks found Abila at the back post for right-footed shots, but one was saved and one went wide.
Reynoso was playing through a calf injury that was clearly limiting the Loons’ best player last Saturday. He limped after a challenge with Austin’s Alex Ring in the first half and grimaced as he walked off the field at halftime.
Reynoso and Abila subbed out in the 58th minute, but both are available to play Saturday. Minnesota knocked out the Rapids 3-0 of the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs last November, but this season’s slow start is a far cry from that first-ever playoff win.
“We are obviously concerned,” Heath said. “It’s not the start that any of us envisioned, certainly after (being 0-0) at halftime of the Seattle game (which ended in a 4-0 defeat). If you would have said this is the position that we’d be in, I would have been very surprised. But that’s the way the game is and the way football is: You have to earn the right to do what you want to do.”