Minnesota United FC coach Carl Craig used both hands to yank an imaginary floor covering out of the air to illustrate his team’s three-week fall from spring season championship leaders to one out of contention.
“The magic carpet ride got whipped away,” Craig said. “We let our fans and ourselves down.”
The North American Soccer League crowns a spring and fall season champion, rewarding the victors with automatic playoff appearances. The Loons, who won the spring season in 2014, held the top spot on May 14. A 2-0 home victory against Jacksonville, capped by a goal from Kevin Venegas that was voted play of the week, ran Minnesota’s unbeaten streak to five matches.
The 10-match spring season is considered a sprint and Minnesota seemed to be in full gallop after six matches. Fans packed the National Sports Center in Blaine, cheering for a club on the brink of moving to Major League Soccer.
Three consecutive losses, however, stymied the momentum. Trouble showed before the final whistle against Jacksonville. Playmaker Ben Speas left the match with an ankle sprain and has not returned to the field. Even before Speas, an offensive catalyst, went down, Craig expressed concerns about his team’s tendencies.
“We became predictable,” Craig said. “A little bit, dare I say it, Minnesotan. That means, ‘We’ve got the ball, you’re not having it but we’re not going to score on you.’”
The Loons have scored just two goals in their past three losses and were shutout twice. Opponents have found a successful formula for slowing the Loons’ attack, Craig said.
“You see teams sitting off us, letting us have the ball,” Craig said. “But it’s not hurting them much, certainly not in the past few games. Shots and near misses create stress and when you do that, the other team tends to crack. So we have to change how we play. I had addressed it before but not really enforced it.”
A rash of injuries hurt continuity. Joining Speas on the injured list were veterans Greg Jordan, Ibson and Tiago Calvano and new additions Bernardo Anor, Jeb Brovksy, Danny Cruz and Stefano Pinho.
“We lost the players who were brought in to make us better,” Craig said. “But regardless of our personnel, how we are playing our football is not good enough.”
Christian Ramirez leads the Loons with four goals but has not scored in the past four league matches. The lack of production owes to Speas missing from the lineup.
“We were clicking,” Ramirez said. “So when you lose your No. 10, it’s tough.”
Craig credited players by noting, “Even when we’re down, we keep pounding.” But frustration has mounted. Hours after a 1-0 loss to Rayo OKC, Ramirez tweeted, “I respect everyone thinking they know how to solve the situation, but we know what we have to do.”
Players are eager to finish the spring season with a victory Saturday at the National Sports Center in Blaine against expansion club Miami FC.
Manny Lagos, the former Minnesota coach turned sporting director, said of the club’s late slide, “There is some massive disappointment that we didn’t follow up the last three week to secure the spring title.”
Lagos expressed support for Craig, whose contract is not guaranteed beyond the 2016 season, and urged fans to take a longer view.
“We’re still in the first third of our overall season,” Lagos said. “We’re still growing into who we are. We have a huge game Saturday in terms of earning points toward our overall position. We can still become something special.”