Even better, the game was deeply informative about the way that United intends to play this season, and it was reassuring for Loons fans on many fronts. After the match, there was a lot more reason for confidence than there has been since the preseason started, and since the previous preseason match, which ended in a lackluster 1-1 draw against Vancouver.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s action.
On Sunday, Loons fans got to see Johan Venegas play his first semi-competitive minutes with the club, and got an extended look at Bashkim Kadrii, who had previously played just 20 minutes against Vancouver. The two played side-by-side at the top of a 4-4-2 for the first half, ably assisted by Kevin Molino and Ibson in midfield, and Venegas scored twice. In the second half, Venegas was replaced by Christian Ramirez, and Kadrii moved to right midfield, in a 4-4-1-1 that also saw Eugene Starikov behind Ramirez at the tip of the spear. Last Thursday, the Loons deployed Abu Danladi as the center forward, flanked by Miguel Ibarra on the left wing and Molino on the right wing in a 4-3-3.
In two matches, we’ve seen three formations, and none of them were the 4-2-3-1 that Heath so religiously played in Orlando and that we’ve assumed all of this time to be his hallmark. Oh, and Femi Hollinger-Janzen and Josh Gatt, who both figure to be a part of the attack this season, have not yet featured either.
It’s easy to see that the Loons have a surfeit of talented attacking players. In eschewing the traditional “designated player No. 10” model, the team has no obvious or standout focal point in the attack. Instead, they have a much broader array of players who can make a difference in the final third, and who almost all possess the ability to play multiple attacking positions and offer something unique in each one.
Here’s a simple chart to illustrate this:
Minnesota has, in my mind, eight or nine attack-minded, goal-dangerous players, almost all of whom can play several roles in the attack. (This leaves out players like Ismaila Jome and Collin Martin, but more on them later.) The possible combinations available to Heath are remarkable. There are also a number of combinations that provide players the opportunity to interchange positions during the run of play and provide different looks to opposing defenses. On Sunday, we got a glimpse of this in action, as Johan Venegas, Kadrii, Molino, and Ibson combined to good effect. As preseason continues watch for the mix and match of these nine players. Finding roles for each, and keeping them happy, healthy, and in form might be the toughest and most important task for the coaching staff all season.
It’s still preseason and fitness is still a work in progress for the squad. It was only natural and expected, then, that the team which played for 70 minutes on Thursday against Vancouver would get rest on Sunday against Portland. That gave the team’s presumed reserves a golden opportunity to show their mettle. After a shaky start to the match, that group suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t be so presumptuous. Simply put, the starters on Sunday rose to the challenge and put pressure on the guys ahead of them. This is a deep team.
Starting from the back, Brent Kallman again stood out in central defense, and was again name-checked by Heath after the match. Credit as well to left back Thomas de Villardi, who largely handcuffed Dairon Asprilla in the first 60 minutes, and then gamely battled against Sebastian Blanco and Alvas Powell in the final half hour (albeit with less success). The other center back, Joe Greenspan, had a tougher night, but also played the full 90 minutes and demonstrated his ability to offer a threat on attacking set pieces. Right back Kevin Venegas had a better night than he got credit for, stepping across the box to block a wide open shot in the opening minutes, and providing the critical pass to Molino that set up the game’s first goal. Oh, and trialist right back Alvin Jones looked solid in the second half, making a case for the Loons to add an international spot to sign him.
In midfield, Martin impressed for the second straight game. There was next to no hype for the young former D.C. homegrown when he signed, but his string-bean appearance turned out to belie a toughness in possession, a clinical first touch, and a care in passing that should make him highly useful, even if he may be crowded out of his natural No. 10 position. Jome also made a positive impression. The Minnesota native played intermittently with the NASL squad last year, and seemed a sure bet for a loan this season. But perhaps that analysis was too hasty. Jome’s role as a left-sided counterbalance to Molino was what helped the Loons find their footing in the first half. Throughout the game, whenever there was a scrap in midfield for the ball, Jome could be found in the middle of it. Like Martin, Jome didn’t display the kind of difference-making skills that would enter him into the conversation of the attacking corps, but his tireless work and surprising speed could make him into an excellent defensive and ball-winning asset.
Who else? Eugene Starikov showed his qualities once more, and seems most at home driving down the center of the field at the center backs. Ibson battled and scrapped all game and looked as good as he ever has in a Loons shirt. Against a fresh XI of first-team Timbers players, the tired Minnesota reserves gave an excellent account of themselves overall. It was immensely reassuring to see such a hard-working and unafraid performance.
With the lineups of the first two games, we can safely make assumptions about Heath’s strategy for this tournament and the likely lineup for Wednesday’s match against Real Salt Lake. Much of the starting XI from the Vancouver game will make a return, with the exception of goalkeeper John Alvbåge, who will head back to Sweden to sort out his visa, and the possible exception of Molino (who featured on Sunday) and Danladi (who was at an MLS rookie symposium and whose schedule I don’t know). These absences could give big opportunities to certain players, especially the two healthy goalkeepers in camp, Patrick McLain and Marco Carducci, who each sound like they are penciled in for a half.
This game will likely see Gatt’s United debut, whose signing is widely expected, and whose presence was announced officially by the Sunday teamsheet, which listed him as a bench option in midfield. He may stand in for Molino, who has started both matches on the right.
Plenty of eyes will be on the battle for the striker spot. Up top, Danladi could come back to reclaim his spot, although he was bullied physically last week. Ramirez could also see more time. The Loons’ NASL ace has had an interesting preseason. He assisted the team’s first preseason goal and has made something of his opportunities, but saw little of the ball during the second half of the Portland game, when the Timbers’ starters came in, and has yet to get a real run with the presumed first team in this tournament. After the success of the 4-4-2 on Sunday, it might fairly be asked whether the team should prefer a single-striker deployment at all.
Kadrii, Johan Venegas, and Kevin Venegas/Jones could also feature as substitutes, having been subbed on Sunday.
After Wednesday’s game, it’s back to Minnesota for United, which will reveal its new jerseys on Friday and then jet off to Orlando for two more scrimmages away from the prying eyes of their Western Conference rivals (vs. Toronto FC and USL-side San Antonio FC). We’re not likely to learn much about either game in the interest of not giving away too many secrets, so enjoy Wednesday’s Portland finale while it lasts.
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