How Minnesota United climbed to the top of MLS’s Western Conference

When Eric Ramsay fulfilled his post-match media obligations in a Zoom session from Charlotte two weeks ago, the Loons head coach shut the laptop on still-waiting reporters back in Minnesota.

What? An MNUFC player was set to speak next.

Ramsay didn’t exactly slam it shut; he had no reason to be upset. His squad had just produced a comprehensive 3-0 road win against a team that hadn’t lost at home in nearly a calendar year.

It was nothing more than an accident and the teleconference was rebooted in time for the player to talk. Over the next fortnight, that mishap became a running joke — from when the team returned from North Carolina to before they left for Georgia on Friday and again after the Loons beat Atlanta United 2-1 on Saturday.

“Laptop is staying open,” Ramsay said in his parting words. “Don’t even worry.”

The even-keeled Ramsay was in a good mood after the Loons produced yet another road win. His team has an MLS-best four road victories; it has stacked 20 total points through 10 games; and it sits in first place in the Western Conference based on points per game (2.0). Only Lionel Messi and Inter Miami in the Eastern Conference are averaging 2.0 points per game.

Ramsay inherited a team in mid-March that had seven points through its opening three games, and he has built on it in his next seven matches.

Minnesota United is now 6-2-2, one point behind Real Salt Lake (6-2-3) in the MLS’s 14-team Western Conference.

Ramsay has instilled a strong defensive identity predicated on a compact shape that sets a high line. That set-up included a switch from two to three center backs in the past three games and the Loons have allowed only two total goals in that three-game winning streak.

Ramsay’s Loons are willing, especially on the road, to let the other team have the ball outside of its defensive third for the majority of the game. When the Loons have less than 50 percent possession, they are undefeated (6-0-1). When Minnesota has the majority of the ball, they are winless (0-2-1).

On the road, MNUFC will look to pounce on opportunities when the Loons win the ball back. The Loons’ two goals Saturday came in this fashion. Kervin Arriaga scoring on a corner kick, and Tani Oluwaseyi capitalizing on a counter attack.

Arriaga’s header was the Loons’ third goal from a corner kick in the past three games.

“We obviously do a solid amount of work around those situations,” Ramsay said. “There’s a reasonable level of detail to each of the goals we scored, but I will say, you can’t look past a very good delivery and a real intent to score. We’ve got that across a couple of players in both of those components in those situations.

“We will be a team, I’m sure, that will create a lot of chaos in those situations and take it when you come to places like (Atlanta), when you know you are going to be on the back foot in terms of volume in possession that you have. You need to make sure in those moments you can really make it count, and we have done that. That’s a big part of (Saturday’s) win.”

One tactic the Loons used Saturday was having goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair boot the ball long. It fed into MNUFC having a season-low 32 percent possession.

“We didn’t want to give anything cheap away to the opposition here,” Ramsay said. “They are a good pressing team. They are very well organized, very disciplined. They’ve got a really good change of pace and rhythm when they press. We wanted to make sure that we — certainly in the opening stages — took that element of the game away from them. Largely it worked.”

Ramsay said he was “really disappointed” with Atlanta’s goal, which came from Minnesota playing it long and not dealing with the ball after it drops and space is created.

A flick-on header from Giorgos Giakoumakis went to Daniel Rios, who was running in on goal. As Rios gained possession, he outraced Micky Tapias and laid it off to Saba Lobzhanidze, who had a few paces on Devin Padelford, and scored in the 82nd minute.

That goal got Atlanta back in the game at 2-1, but Minnesota didn’t wilt and allow the late equalizer. Ramsay chalked it up to organization, discipline and “a phenomenal mentality” from the players.

Right back D.J. Taylor credited team chemistry and defensive shape for the success the Loons have had on the road this season.

“The togetherness of what we are doing and everyone understanding our roles,” Taylor said. “Everyone knows, OK, we have to be aggressive and win these battles. Being able to play this way with a five-back (setup) is really nice because we can be a lot more aggressive in defending and winning the ball higher up the pitch.

“So, I think as long as we are all committed and we keep on that schedule and keep going, that’s been helping us have huge success. It’s just everyone helping the guy beside them and everyone understanding what they need to do in certain situations.”

When Taylor was done speaking on Zoom, the laptop remained open. He left the frame to go enjoy a post-match meal of Chic-fil-A before flying back to Minnesota with another three points.

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