Photo by Robert Hitz for Real Salt Lake


Salt Lake vs. Minnesota: Three Things

by on 17 February 2017

The Loons wrapped up the preseason Portland tournament on Wednesday with a thrilling 3-3 draw against Real Salt Lake. The result, their fifth tie in five preseason games, managed to both be exhilarating and disappointing, but it was beside the point. What mattered most was the performance.

Even though the Loons were quite visibly tired as the game wound to a close, the team’s overall showing in this game, and the last, has been deeply encouraging. Nearly everyone, it seems, has stepped up and done what’s been asked of them. A few days ago, I wrote about how the team’s showing against Portland revealed a wealth of attacking options and depth at most positions. That analysis was confirmed on Wednesday, and gave us more to think about for next week, as the squad completes preparations in Florida.

Here are three things to think about with regard to what we’ve seen so far.

We might’ve just witnessed opening day’s starters and formation

To my eyes, at least, Adrian Heath struck gold with his starting formation against RSL. After about 10 minutes of adjustment, the grouping of striker Christian Ramirez, second striker Johan Venegas, right midfielder Kevin Molino, and left midfielder Miguel Ibarra found a deep and fruitful groove. Every time they got the ball, they were immediately attacking open space downfield. Every time they got the ball, they looked like they might score. The first two goals were superbly worked; the kind of combinations you don’t usually see in preseason.

At the opening whistle, I would’ve called the lineup a 4-4-2, but I now think perhaps a 4-2-2-2 is more accurate. Molino and Ibarra have played on the wings for previous teams, but last night, they had a great deal of license to play centrally, and the full backs, especially Justin Davis, made several overlapping runs.

We also saw ample evidence of the ability of these attacking players to swap positions. Midway through the half, Johan Venegas dropped into Ibarra’s spot and Ibarra moved up as a forward. The first goal came as Venegas, operating as a left winger, flashed in a cross to a centrally-positioned Molino. The second goal came as Ramirez found the third run of Molino in the center of the 18-yard box, after Bashkim Kadrii (on for Ibarra) had crashed the net, and with Venegas lurking on the left side. I thought the whole thing was brilliant, and if the season started next week, this game’s starting attack would be unchanged.

Here’s my opening day XI as it stands on Friday, February 17.

The success of the formation doesn’t mean there’s nothing to work out. Behind this prodigious attacking unit, both Collen Warner and Rasmus Schüller were more comfortable sitting back and giving space to the attackers than trying to play as shuttlers. If there was a flaw to the formation, I felt it came from Schüller, who didn’t look comfortable in his role and wasn’t the standout player that he was a week earlier against Vancouver. If Heath was as impressed with this lineup as I was, a primary task must be to better understand and deploy Schüller. Let the Finnish international hand off more of the defensive task to Warner, and see if this lineup can develop Schüller’s over-the-top balls and late, late runs as additional attacking tools.

The goalkeeping situation is weird, but there are a lot of pieces available

Before Wednesday’s game, the Loons made one of the more confusing personnel decisions they’ve made in a long time, shipping expansion draft selection Femi Hollinger-Janzen back to New England in exchange for Bobby Shuttleworth. I’m happy for Femi, who was deeply valued in New England and was probably made surplus to requirements in Minnesota thanks to the drafting of Abu Danladi and signing of Bashkim Kadrii. But trading for Shuttleworth makes quite a bit less sense. The veteran backstopped the Revolution to the 2014 MLS Cup Final, but lost his job last season to Brad Knighton, and would’ve probably been the third goalkeeper in Foxboro behind Cody Cropper and Knighton. This is not a new development, neither Knighton nor Shuttleworth were protected in the expansion draft, which means we valued Hollinger-Janzen over both at the time, and begs the question of what has changed since. There were better goalkeepers in the draft who we also passed on, and MNUFC had Cropper training in Minnesota for an extended period last summer, but did not (to the best of my knowledge) offer him a contract. The Loons’ sudden attraction to Shuttleworth and not to the two goalkeepers ahead of him in New England’s depth chart, is confusing and inconsistent.

Nonetheless, here things stand. Shuttleworth joins a goalkeeping corps along with Patrick McLain, who started in net on Wednesday, John Alvbåge, the presumed No. 1, and Alec Ferrell, who remains injured and is a long-term project. The team now has all the goalkeepers they could possibly need — in fact, perhaps an oversupply of veterans. Alvbåge is 34, Shuttleworth is 29, and McLain is 28 years of age.

Before Wednesday’s trade, I thought the Loons would also sign Canadian U-23 goalkeeper Marco Carducci, who was on trial with the club, and then eventually loan him out when Ferrell became healthy. That would’ve given the club two goalkeepers for this season (Alvbåge and McLain) and two for the future (Ferrell will be 23 in two weeks, Carducci is 20). But after Shuttleworth’s signing and McLain playing the full 90 minutes against RSL, unless the club now intends to turn around and deal McLain or something has gone badly wrong with Alvbåge’s visa, it seems as though Carducci might be out of luck. That’s a bummer for those of us who see less value in a second/third goalkeeper than in a twenty year old with quite a bit of promise.

What to watch in the next two weeks

We’re exactly two weeks away from the MLS season opener on Friday, March 3, where the Loons will return to Portland. Until then, the club will be in Orlando, and will play Toronto FC and San Antonio FC in the Sunshine State. Don’t expect to get a ton of information out of those matches, especially the last one, where the club will want to keep its preparations secret (hence, the non-MLS opponent). Expect similar to the Arizona matches in terms of coverage.

That doesn’t mean we can’t do some surmising. There are several points of interest that jump out at me. First, the continuing saga of the attack, as Heath mixes and matches players and folds in Josh Gatt. Just because the 4-2-2-2 was stellar on Wednesday shouldn’t stop the experimentation. The familiarity and flexibility of the Loons’ options within the overall system seems ahead of schedule, but it’ll be interesting to see how the coaching staff aims to play around with their attacking pieces further.

The second will be the goalkeeping situation, which I’ve covered above. Is there further movement in the works, or is Shuttleworth considered the final piece? Will he or McLain get further minutes in preseason?

The third is the club’s challenges in filling the full back positions, where depth is obviously shallowest. I thought Kevin Venegas and Justin Davis had mixed showings in Portland, as did Thomas de Villardi (though the latter had the benefit of lower expectations). Jermaine Taylor, who started at right back against Vancouver and RSL, does not look comfortable at that position.

After picking up an additional international spot from Vancouver in the trade for the top allocation ranking spot, will the Loons use it to sign trialist Alvin Jones? The Trinidadian was solid against Portland, but not playing in the RSL match didn’t seem an encouraging signal. As with Carducci, let’s see if he travels to Florida.

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