After Minnesota United’s stunning, stoppage-time rally for a 2-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City on Sunday night, it’s clear Adrian Heath’s Loons are for real.
Just not that for real.
In their opening MLS is Back Tournament match — a game that will also count toward 2020 regular season standings — MNUFC re-established its place atop the Supporters’ Shield standings with a third win in three matches this season. Yet the game was a bit of a microcosm of their coronavirus-interrupted campaign to date.
SKC were easily the better team for the first hour, with Alan Pulido making his case for MLS newcomer of the year with this wonderful turn to set up Khiry Shelton’s opener. Then in the final 30 minutes the Loons sparked to life, spurred by an apparent Ethan Finlay leveler that was rightly disallowed, then further by the dismissal of Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia for denying an obvious goal scoring opportunity.
From there, Shelton turned Jan Gregus’ troubling free kick into his own net, and then Kevin Molino popped up for his third goal of the season in the seventh — yes, seventh — minute of second-half stoppage time.
It’s not that Minnesota has consistently rescued victory from the jaws of defeat in 2020. Their earlier victories over Portland and San Jose were both comfortable. But their offensive production has undeniably outpaced the number of dangerous chances they’ve created.
The Loons have scored 10 goals on just 16 efforts on target, which comes out to a 56.3% conversion rate if you take Sunday’s own goal out of the equation. That ratio is even more striking considering who is doing the scoring, with only two coming from a striker — offseason import Luis Amarilla. Sunday’s hero Molino leads the team with three from attacking midfield, while central defender Ike Opara (who was out injured Sunday) also had a brace against San Jose back in March.
For sake of comparison, Minnesota scored on 50 of 148 efforts on target (excluding own goals) last season for a conversion rate of 33.8%. The record-setting 2019 Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC scored on only 35.9% of their shots on frame, getting the ball past the keeper on 84 of 234 attempts.
Not all shots on target are equally promising, but the advanced stats also suggest the Loons are riding some good fortune. Heading into the tournament, American Soccer Analysis’ expected goals metric determined coach Adrian Heath’s bunch had scored fully five goals more than would be anticipated given their chances created. The only other team in the neighborhood? The same SKC side they met on Sunday night.
Further, the Loons had fewer shots overall than their opponents in all three victories. That’s not a reliable metric on its own, but it’s telling in context
So is all this unsustainable? Well, sort of. Expected goals is a relatively new metric, and since American Soccer Analysis has kept their version in 2016, no team has outperformed it by more than a full goal per game during a 34-game season. Expansion Atlanta United came the closest in 2017, outperforming expectations by 27.6 goals overall under manager Tata Martino. The 2017 Toronto FC side that became the first domestic treble-winning club in MLS history also outperformed projections by 25.7 goals on their way to history.
There are two bits of good news for the Loons, though: 1) It’s normal for teams to outperform expectations by double digits over the course of their best seasons, and 2) The 2020 season will likely be far fewer than 34 games, offering less time to regress to the mean. So although Minnesota won’t keep scoring at this pace all year, the damage they’ve done so far will likely prove important at season’s end.