Obviously, the preseason isn’t a results-based industry, and the fact that Minnesota United is undefeated in February means very little. And in that light, conceding two second-half goals against Portland isn’t a damning prospect. Once the calendar turns to March, many will forget about these scorelines entirely.
Instead, things like chemistry, flow, and staying competitive are of the utmost importance. For coach Adrian Heath, early returns in these categories have been promising.
“I’ve been really pleased with them,” said Heath via phone. “Some of the players are having to change the way they’ve played before. I’m a big believer in that, if you can control the tempo of the game and control the ball, you’ve got more chance of winning. Everything we do is about keeping the ball. It’s possession-based.”
Over the past three weeks, Minnesota’s attack has come to life. Midfielders like Rasmus Schüller, Mohammed Saeid, and Collin Martin have stepped up possession of the ball. Very recently, newcomers Bashkim Kadrii and Johan Venegas impressed against Portland. Each played more as a striker in the first half against the Timbers, to great success.
“At the moment, we’re still getting to know what we’ve got,” said Heath, reflecting on Kadrii. “We’ve seen him play in a wide area, he’s played underneath the striker, and as the main striker. It’s a combination of what we’ve seen on video and what he’s done with our group. Obviously, after Sunday, it looks like he could play [at striker]. Utterly dangerous.”
When he was brought in by Minnesota in an Expansion Draft-day trade, Venegas appeared to fit as a second striker or a wing. Playing as the main forward, he scored both goals for United. This hardly surprised his new boss.
“The one thing is that I’ve watched a lot of Johan playing as a striker for Costa Rica,” Heath remarked. “When you speak to players and ask their favorite position, they usually say they just prefer to play. Venegas thrives in that role.”
All told, Minnesota is a deep team, especially in attack. That depth has allowed the club to have great flexibility with its lineups so far. For Heath, that’s of particular importance going into the regular season.
“We’ve got options going into the season,” said Heath. “That’s one of the things I wanted to see. We’ve got tournaments coming up in the summer. We’re going to need all of these players. It’ll be interesting to see what we go with on opening day and we’ll go from there.
“With the players we’ve got now, the likes of [Kevin] Molino, Venegas, [Miguel] Ibarra, Kadrii, now [Josh] Gatt… we’ve got five players for three positions. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out.”
Heath addressed the impending acquisition of Gatt, a U.S.-international winger. The coach believed it was just a matter of the league sorting out paperwork before the signing would be official. While the wings are already overflowing with talent, Gatt adds a new angle.
“We’re going to need bodies,” Heath cautioned. “What Josh gives us is something a little different than everybody else. Josh has got raw pace. The rest are guys who combine to make things happen. He has sheer athleticism. That’ll give us another strength to evolve.”
— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) February 11, 2017
When Gatt was first linked to United, there was some thought that he might convert to full back. This wouldn’t be a far-fetched idea: the Loons only have two full backs on the roster. Meanwhile, Heath converted former winger Brek Shea to be his regular left back in 2015. However, the manager doesn’t see this in the cards for Gatt.
“People have mentioned him at full back before. Primarily, we’ve brought him in to be an offensive player. It’s something we may look at, but at this case and time, he’s coming in as a quick wide guy.
“We know that we need some more players there. That’s pretty obvious. We can’t go into a season with just two players that can play there. We’ve brought Alvin [Jones] in and he’s done very well. We’re mindful of where we’re at with our international slots. We’re actively looking to bring in more players who can compete at those positions.”
Heath also mentioned a potential need to fill a goalkeeper position or two on the depth chart. “We’ve brought John [Alvbåge] in and he’s looked fantastic. Behind that, we’re looking at where we’re at and if we need depth there,” said Heath. Outside the potential need for reinforcements at those positions, the Englishman expressed confidence in the roster that he presently has in front of him.
With Kadrii and Venegas starting up top, the club’s two-time NASL Golden Boot winner, Christian Ramirez, was reduced to a bench role for the second straight match. However, Heath assured FiftyFive.One it was not an indictment of the talisman.
“For the games so far, we’ve tried to get people minutes that need them most. Obviously, with our situation, it’s a case of wait and see. We’ve seen Christian, he’s trained with us since the beginning. With guys that have only been with us for a few days like Kadrii, we needed to see what they’ve got. Johan has hardly played with us since we got him because of his niggling injuries. So it’s a case of wait-and-see on Wednesday.”
As for further clarification on what to watch for on Wednesday, Heath wants to see consistency and growth. The club has shown an ability to score goals and play in the style that he deems best. The flexibility that’s apparent on paper has started to carry over on to the pitch. Aside from avoiding injuries, squad rotation and development should be the primary focus for Wednesday’s match against Real Salt Lake.
“The most important thing is if our fitness levels have improved every single game,” stated Heath. “The way that I want to play, for us to move the ball, has gotten better every game. Can we continue to do that, and put a little more into the group?”
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