24 Thoughts: Minnesota United on the ascent, plus the latest on Zlatan's injury and Copa America 2020

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/399503/" data-ylk="slk:Darwin Quintero">Darwin Quintero</a> (left), Rasmus Schuller and Minnesota United are off to a surprisingly hot start. (Associated Press)
Darwin Quintero (left), Rasmus Schuller and Minnesota United are off to a surprisingly hot start. (Associated Press)

Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

Just three teams head into the third weekend of the new season having won each of their first two games. There’s high-flying LAFC, the early Supporters Shield favorite. There’s perennial MLS Cup contender Seattle Sounders, a club poised for a bounce-back season. And then there’s Minnesota United. Minnesota United?

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Few would’ve predicted the Loons’ quick start after Adrian Heath’s men failed to reach the playoffs, by considerable distance, in their first couple of years in MLS. But with the club set to move into sparkling new $200 million Allianz Field next month, sporting director Manny Lagos has quietly put together a far stronger, more balanced roster for this year. “We have much more depth, much more competition at each position,” Lagos told Yahoo Sports this week. It’s already paying dividends.

Two games is a tiny sample size, to be sure. The Vancouver Whitecaps won their opening pair last year and went on to miss the postseason. But in beating the Earthquakes 3-0 in San Jose last week, Minnesota has already done something they hadn’t previously: keep a clean sheet on the road. A stiffer test awaits on Saturday away to the LA Galaxy, even if the hosts will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the second week in a row. (More on Ibra’s injury below.) So far, though, the vibe around these Loons just feels different.

24 Thoughts

1. Minnesota United conceded the second-most goals in the league during its expansion season. Only two teams got scored on more last year. For Lagos, shoring up that leaky defense was Job No. 1 during the winter. In came MLS veterans Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonzo. Keeper Vito Mannone and defender Romain Metanire arrived with valuable experience in the English Premier League and France’s Ligue 1, respectively.

2. “We needed to be really honest about why we struggled the first two years in MLS,” Lagos told Yahoo Sports “We’ll put our hand up and say that our defensive issues, our issues on the road were glaring.” Minnesota has yet to allow a goal from the run of play this year, as both of the Whitecaps goals in the season opener came off of set plays.

3. Historically, it’s taken new teams several years to get up to speed in MLS. Minnesota had the misfortune of entering the league alongside instant hit Atlanta United, which became the first expansion team in eight seasons to make the playoffs when they did it in 2017. (LAFC repeated the feat last year.)

4. “Atlanta has been amazing, and we love and respect what they’re doing. But what they did, going into that first season with three designated players at high price points, was an investment the league had never seen,” Lagos said. Minnesota didn’t have any DPs initially. A number of players from their lower league side were retained. But last year the Loons added Colombian attackers Darwin Quintero and Angelo Rodriguez. A third DP, Slovakian midfielder Jan Gregus, was signed in December. “We really thought by year three we’d have a really good sense of what kind of investment we needed to build out from our core players,” Lagos said. “That build was based off the reality of our resources.”

5. The potential was there, though, as were the fans; with an average attendance of almost 24,000, the Loons were the fifth-best supported MLS team in 2018. Quintero changed the complexion of United’s attack after arriving a month into last season. The former Club America man hit double digits in both goals (11) and assists (15). Miguel Ibarra, whose own game was transformed by Quintero’s arrival, thinks having a full preseason together will only strengthen the partnership. Quintero set up Ibarra for a slick strike in San Jose:

6. Ibarra is a great story. The winger was ready to walk away from the sport after being cut by the Portland Timbers in 2012. “But Amos Magee, who was Portland’s assistant coach, told me he didn’t want this to end my career,” Ibarra said in a phone interview. Magee called Lagos, then the coach of the second-tier Loons. Two years later, Ibarra would help Minnesota win an NASL title.

7. A surprise call-up from U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann followed later in 2014, helping put the club on the map for American fans. Ibarra soon left the Twin Cities for Liga MX side Leon, but returned to the Loons in time for their inaugural MLS campaign. “It’s been surreal from the start,” Ibarra said. “I took a gamble. It paid off.”

8. Ibarra wasn’t among the 28 MLS players new USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter invited to his first training camp in January. But Berhalter reached out to Ibarra, who had seven goals and eight assists in 2018, before the squad was named. “He said I was in the plans and that if I kept performing this season the way I ended last season I’d definitely get my shot,” Ibarra said.

9. Ibarra had just landed in Los Angeles when we spoke Thursday. He was on his way to dinner with Christian Ramirez, who was traded to LAFC last summer. Ramirez led the Loons with 14 goals in 2017, and was also their top scorer during their final three years in the NASL. Ibarra stays in near-constant contact with his close friend, who this week was summoned by Berhalter for upcoming international friendlies against Ecuador and Chile.

10. “We’re both happy for each other,” Ibarra said. “We’re always talking about making it to the national team at the same time. That would be a dream come true for both of us.”

11. It remains to be seen if the proposed 2020 Copa America in Argentina and Colombia actually takes place. CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, is determined to host the event on its own continent rather than in the United States. But my understanding is that several of the 10 nations that comprise the region would prefer the U.S. to host — no shock considering the financial guarantees on offer from U.S. Soccer. Wherever the tourney ends up, though, I’m told that the U.S., Mexico and four other CONCACAF teams will almost certainly participate.

12. Would MLS shut down for the beginning of the tournament even if it’s not played in North America? Given the number of players who could be involved, it might have to. The league will break from June 14-21 this year to accommodate the opening week of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

13. It wasn’t enough to advance, but it was still good to see Atlanta United salvage some pride by beating Monterrey in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals on Wednesday. Los Rayados are the best team in the region. This was their first loss all year.

Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer (center) engineered a win over Liga MX power Monterrey, but there are still plenty of questions circling the start of his tenure. (Getty)
Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer (center) engineered a win over Liga MX power Monterrey, but there are still plenty of questions circling the start of his tenure. (Getty)

14. Still, Atlanta didn’t really come alive until about the 70th minute. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that it happened after coach Frank de Boer switched from his much-maligned 3-4-3 formation to a 4-3-3.

15. I’ve been asking around about Atlanta and the defending champ’s stumble out of the gate under de Boer. A couple of themes keep coming back. First, while Pity Martinez is an excellent player, style-wise he’s completely different from Miguel Almiron, the player he was brought in to replace. “Almiron is a runner. Pity’s not,” is how one MLS scout put it. “They’re still figuring things out.”

16. The other recurring theme concerns de Boer. Look, it was probably unfair to expect the Dutchman to immediately replicate the success the Five Stripes enjoyed under Tata Martino. But the knock on de Boer at Crystal Palace in the Premier League was that he wasn’t willing to change his approach to fit his personnel. And that’s the exact charge that’s being made against him now. I’m curious to see if Atlanta can use the momentum from the midweek win to pick up their first victory of the regular season against the Philadelphia Union at home on Sunday.

17. One of the reasons Pity Martinez has had a rough go of it so far is that he’s being kicked to bits. It’s happened in CONCACAF play. It’s happened in MLS. The league’s referees have gotten a bit better at protecting skill players from cynical, game-killing fouls over the years, but there’s still a ways to go. Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro has been fouled 10 times in two games. LAFC’s Carlos Vela is just behind him, with eight fouls suffered. And those were just the ones that were called.

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18. Chicago Fire fans haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years, to say the least. But on Thursday, the club announced out of nowhere that it had inked Argentine national team playmaker Nicolas Gaitan. With all due respect to Bastian Schweinsteiger, it’s the Fire’s most potentially game-changing signing since they landed Mexican great Cuauhtemoc Blanco a dozen years ago.

19. Hats off to Sporting Kansas City, the lone MLS team to successfully reach the final four of the CONCACAF Champions League. They’re going to have their hands full with Monterrey in the semis, but if any MLS can upset Los Rayados, it’s Peter Vermes’ SKC.

20. The Red Bulls were kicking themselves after taking a 2-0 lead at Santos Laguna on Tuesday, only to surrender four second-half goals and lose 6-2 on aggregate. “For it to end the way it did, it’s bitter,” keeper Luis Robles said.

21. “We take with us another experience for what these games are like, real games against top players,” coach Chris Armas added. That experience is invaluable. It’ll pay dividends down the stretch.” Where it could really matter is during the postseason. The Red Bulls have been an elite regular season team this decade, winning three of the last six Supporters’ Shields and qualifying for the playoffs every year since 2010. Yet they continue to struggle in tournament play. Maybe I’m reading too much into Armas’ quote, but it sounds like the priority is MLS Cup above all else this year. It should be.

22. So Inter Miami (ugh, guess I’m going to have to get used to typing that), will play its first two seasons at a refurbished Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, huh?

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/374294/" data-ylk="slk:Zlatan Ibrahimovic">Zlatan Ibrahimovic</a> could be facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines, which would be bad news for him and the Galaxy. (Getty)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic could be facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines, which would be bad news for him and the Galaxy. (Getty)

23. Oh yeah, Ibrahimovic’s injury. Galaxy boss Guillermo Barros Schelotto announced Thursday that while the Swedish icon won’t play against the Loons, he could return in time for LA’s next match, at home to Portland on March 31. But the fear is that Zlatan could have a small tear in his Achilles tendon. If he does, it could mean a lengthy spell on the sidelines for the 37-year-old. That would not be good for the Galaxy.

24. Here’s what else wouldn’t be good for the Galaxy: With Ibrahimovic and fellow DP Romain Alessandrini (hamstring) both out, and with Ola Kamara having been sold to China on the eve of the season, Schelotto might be tempted to plug the gaping hole in his team’s attack with 16-year-old Efrain Alvarez. He should resist the urge at any cost. Technically, Alvarez is mature beyond his years. Physically? He still has a way to go. The club has been working with him on his fitness since last year, but he’s not a 90-minute MLS player right now and shouldn’t have to be. Alvarez has come off the bench in both of LA’s games this season. He clearly belongs.

Combined with his obvious talent, Alvarez’s off-field story has already made him the most hyped 16-year-old MLS player since Freddy Adu. But Adu isn’t the only promising youngster to have been given too much, too soon, in this league. Let’s take it easy with this kid for now.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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