Tampa Bay's game-tying goal last Saturday, scored from a corner with the last kick of the match, was a shock to the system - a dagger, right at the end of a game during which Minnesota United had defended exceptionally.
If anything, it was a microcosm of Minnesota's problems - good defense undone by one moment of relaxation when defending a set piece. In each of United's past five games, the first goal they've allowed to their opponents came from a set piece of some kind, including all three goals that Minnesota has allowed in their three fall-season games.
"Massive frustration," said defender Connor Tobin. "They're cheap goals."
I asked head coach Manny Lagos and defender / assistant coach Kevin Friedland to walk me through the team's process for working on free kicks. According to the coaching staff, the team assigns specific roles to each defender for corner kicks; some players are assigned to mark specific opponents, while others are assigned other roles - presumably manning a post, or manning another zone in the defensive area. (The coaches, understandably, didn't specify all aspects of their defensive plan for public consumption.)
The day before a game, the team runs through their set piece scripts, both offensively and defensively, just to make sure everyone's on the same page. "We typically try to predict which ones of their guys will be coming forward and which guys will attack," said Friedland. "For instance last game, the guys that we had predicted actually didn’t come [forward] in the first half, so we made some adjustments."
According to Friedland, the team's made a few tweaks in that preparation for the fall, in terms of which players are assigned to which roles - something that's already had an effect. "Despite the goals we’ve given up being off set pieces, it’s hard to say, but I think we’ve actually been better on set pieces than we were, even though we have given up the goals," he said.
The problem over the past few games has not been the initial ball into the box. Though all three fall goals allowed by Minnesota have come on corner kicks, none of them has been headed directly in from the corner; instead it's the second ball in, or the third ball in, that's ending up in the back of the net.
"We’re still defensively not finishing off plays the right way," said Lagos. "We tend to deal with the first danger and get complacent. We’ve really been trying to stress finishing plays out defensively until the danger’s cleared."
Said Friedland, " I think sometimes you just have to finish the play; the ball is actually not dead until it clears. I think a couple of times we have our marks, and then a second ball coming in, we get caught ball-watching or trying to anticipate a play or a counter-attack to go in favor of us, and it doesn’t work out that way and then you’re out of position."
"In my opinion, it’s just mental things," said Tobin. "You look at it, all three of them aren’t the initial ball being served in, it’s all second or third balls. For me, that’s not a physical thing, that’s a mental thing. A lot’s been made of the defenders, but I think that it's entire group mentality, everyone on the pitch, [needs to] get switched on."
Ultimately, then, United's issues are less about preparation, and more about concentration. For center back Aaron Pitchkolan, defending set pieces really shouldn't be that hard. "Positioning-wise, all corner kicks are the same; they come from the same spots. It’s just knowing where we’re all supposed to be, and once the ball gets cleared out, knowing where our spots are supposed to be after that."
For Tobin, Pitchkolan's defensive partner, the team just needs to give a little more effort on the training pitch. "In my opinion, it’s in training, when we do set pieces, there has to be that urgency, has to be that hunger and realizing that we haven’t been good enough at it," he said.
If the team didn't have that sense of urgency before, they'll have it on this week's trip to Carolina. The RailHawks ended Minnesota's spring-season chances earlier this year with two late goals to win the game - both of which came from corner kicks.