Cronin has confident Minnesota emerging from historically bad start
When asked to assess his team following last weekend's 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath mixed humor with a double helping of understatement.
"I've had worse weeks this season," he quipped.
Indeed he has. The opening matches of Minnesota's MLS existence were rife with some of the worst defending the league has ever seen, leading to some heavy defeats. The back line was completely fractured when it came to stepping up or dropping as a unit, resulting in numerous breakaways. Defending in the box was nonexistent.
As a result, Minnesota wasn't leaking goals as much as it was drowning in them. The side conceded 18 times in its first four games and looked well on its way to fulfilling the worst of preseason predictions.
But Heath and his staff have now managed to create some stability on the field, especially in the back. Vadim Demidov was benched in favor of Brent Kallman, who has formed a steady partnership in the center of defense with Francisco Calvo. Marc Burch and Sam Cronin were acquired in a trade with the Colorado Rapids -- which is looking more lopsided by the day -- and brought badly needed experience to the expansion side. Cronin in particular has helped take pressure off the back line with his ability to break up plays farther up field.
Now, the results have started to come. The Loons are 3-2-1 in their past six games. In that time just seven goals have been conceded, allowing some of the team's intriguing attacking pieces like Kevin Molino, Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez to find more of a rhythm.
"As a whole, we've started to protect the back four a little bit better, getting people in better spots," said Heath in a phone interview with ESPN FC. "And I just think everybody has taken a little more responsibility for the defensive side of the game and that has certainly helped."
In an ironic twist, Minnesota's improved form has seen it pull level on points with fellow expansion team Atlanta United, although that isn't quite an apples-to-apples comparison. Minnesota has played one more game while Atlanta has had a road-heavy schedule to start the season, with six of its first nine matches away. Minnesota is set to embark on a difficult stretch as well, though, with games against Toronto FC, the LA Galaxy, Orlando City SC and Sporting Kansas City over the next four weeks. L.A. and Orlando will be at home.
That's why Heath isn't getting carried away with his side's improvement.
"The important thing for me is that this group believes in what we're trying to do, works really, really hard every day, " he said. "We'll see where it takes us at the end of the season."
If nothing else, Minnesota has at least begun to establish a foundation and gain some confidence that it does have some good qualities. To hear Cronin talk about it in a phone interview with ESPN FC, it was there all along. The team just needed to find a way to burrow out of the wretched start to the season.
"I got there and it was like, 'Man, there are some sharp players,' and in some cases sharper than what we had in Colorado," said Cronin. "I was like, 'This is a pleasant surprise.' But the team's confidence was pretty low. Guys were confused, like, 'What the hell is happening?' The scorelines were so lopsided that it's tough to take those losses and feel good about what we have and the team we have.
"One thing I shared with the team and with guys individually was, 'You guys are good. The team is good enough, the players are good enough,'" Cronin added. "'As a group we have good enough players to get results. Don't worry about it. We've just got to keep charging on. It's way too soon in the season to put your head down and worry about what people are saying. Let's get to work and try to improve every day.' The guys have done a good job with that."
For all the talk about different personnel, Minnesota is at last finding consistency with defensive fundamentals. It leads to the question of why it wasn't there from the beginning, but at least it's there now.
"I think for me the biggest change has been without question just tracking guys in the box," said Cronin. "Earlier in the season, opposing players were just getting free inside the 18-yard box. Even my first couple of games here, the vast majority of goals were happening there. There's no guarding space. When you get into our 18-yard box, you get touch-tight to somebody, do a job and help organize the people around you. I think we've been a lot better with that in the past few weeks."
With 10 games under their belts, the Loons have naturally become a more cohesive side, which is always a challenge for expansion teams. Heath said that with so many new players, it takes time for a coach to figure out which buttons to push and when. For players, chemistry is often a code word for trust. If I make this demanding run, will my teammate see me and find me with a pass? Can I make a tackle secure in the knowledge that there is cover in behind me if the ball isn't won? If enough of these questions get answered in the negative, it can lead to tentative play that can exacerbates weaknesses. Unfortunately, time is the only cure, but without question Minnesota has made progress in this area.
"The only way [trust] can happen is with hard games and tough environments and adversity," said Cronin. "This team has not had that together just because it's a brand new team and every player on the team is basically new. You have a few holdovers, but it's a new group of players in a new league. I think as a team we're getting stronger. Even in some of the recent games, when other teams have gotten one chance or two chances and are on top of the game, we've found a way to get to halftime or get to the end of the game where I think earlier in the season we would have conceded and then conceded again. We're getting more cohesive and getting some trust for sure."
So how far can this team go? At present, Minnesota is just two points below the red line, but it's still difficult to see the Loons finishing ahead of enough sides to reach the postseason. The team isn't thinking that way, of course.
"There's no reason that we should set our sights any lower than that," said Cronin about reaching the postseason. "That should be the goal for this group: to scrap and claw and find a way to get into the playoffs."
With the primary transfer window now closed, it's up to the front office to figure out how to bolster the squad. One can only hope that it has learned some lessons in terms of what works (Cronin) and what doesn't (Demidov).
Heath is a bit more guarded in terms of Minnesota's playoff prospects. He's in a position to know, having been through Orlando's inaugural MLS season when the Lions just fell short. At least now, he and his team are confident that there are better days ahead.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.