Photo courtesy of Scientif38


Match Preview: Colorado Rapids vs. Minnesota United FC

by on 17 March 2017

Ostensibly, a game preview exists to show readers a glimpse of what they may see when the game unfolds. Minnesota’s first two performances have made that extremely difficult. In truth, it is a major challenge to predict what Adrian Heath and the Loons will do to staunch the bleeding. The solutions aren’t obvious and, even if they were, Heath has shown a willingness to walk his own path in terms of tactics and roster decisions thus far. Week three will teach us much about Heath’s approach to crisis management.

Recent form

Minnesota L L -9
Colorado L W Even

Previous meetings

Obviously United has not taken on Colorado in MLS play before, but longtime Minnesota soccer fans will recall a 4-1 home win over the Rapids in the 2005 U.S. Open Cup as the Minnesota Thunder. Minnesota made it to the semifinals that memorable year.


Referee Nima Saghafi
Assistant Eric Weisbrod
Assistant Jason White
Fourth Kevin Stott

Saturday will only be Nima Saghafi’s fifth MLS game as a head referee, and his first this year. Though it is dangerous to draw conclusions based on such a small sample size, Saghafi would have placed right in the middle of the referee pack in terms of fouls and yellows in the four games he manned last year. United fans are most likely to remember Saghafi as the gentleman who officiated their club’s U.S. Open Cup game against Sporting Kansas City in Blaine last year, a match which featured 43 fouls, 11 cautions, and two penalty kicks. In NASL action, Saghafi has earned regular time and was liberal with the yellow cards. In a match between the Jacksonville Armada and the Carolina RailHawks, he handed out four yellows including a double yellow ejection. Only one week later, he dished nine yellows and two reds between the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies. If Minnesota is once again chasing the game this weekend, desperate fouls may be duly punished.

Roster report

GK John Berner (wrist injury) – Out
D Axel Sjöberg (hamstring surgery) – Out
F Kevin Doyle (head injury) – Out
F Alan Gordon (back injury) – Out

M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
GK John Alvbåge (knee laceration) – Out

Tactical outlook

When a unit has performed as badly as Minnesota’s defense has in its first two MLS games, a careful balance must be struck between tinkering with a lineup and respecting the need for a unit to gel. Wholesale changes every week for the next month come with the opportunity cost of wondering how a team’s original lineup might be faring if they’d had another month to build on-field rapport. Minnesota’s starting lineup on Saturday will tell us much about Heath’s philosophy on the matter.

One of the biggest decisions facing Heath against Colorado is what to do with full back Jermaine Taylor. Despite consistently poor showings in preseason, Heath persisted in his faith that United was better with Taylor on the pitch than off it. When Jérôme Thiesson started at right back, Taylor simply moved to the left side to replace Justin Davis. After another substandard outing against Atlanta, not only will the skipper’s faith in the veteran full back be tested again, but Heath must make a choice between allowing the chemistry between Taylor and center back Francisco Calvo to mature or deciding that more tinkering will yield more positive than negative effects.

The other player on whom most of the negativity has been heaped is captain Vadim Demidov. Demidov’s place in the lineup may be more secure than Taylor’s, as a quick revocation of Demidov’s captaincy may be a severe blow to morale on a team already searching for positives. On the flip side, a temporary benching may be the type of message sent that could motivate the team to push past its slump. It is the type of decision that separates great coaches from poor ones, and it is an inherent gamble. If Demidov starts (which seems likely), it may be at his usual right center back spot or, as Jeff Rueter suggested this week, he may be moved into a defensive midfield role that could better capitalize on his ability to distribute the ball.

Farther up the pitch, there are only slightly fewer questions. Many were pleased to see Christian Ramirez start as Minnesota’s main striker with Johan Venegas playing underneath him. That Venegas was deployed neither as a second striker nor as a No. 10 was somewhat surprising however, given the strong ball movement shown in the last 15 minutes against Portland when Venegas was moved into such a role. Even more surprising was the inclusion of Mohammed Saeid as a left winger. Saeid’s skillset is not blistering speed, pinpoint crosses, and clever cuts to the inside. Saeid seems more successful playing centrally and as more of a box-to-box type of midfielder. That true wingers Miguel Ibarra and Bashkim Kadrii sat on the bench as Saeid started in an unfamiliar position was a head scratcher.

Colorado has had a more respectable start to the year after winning a game they were supposed to win and losing one they were supposed to lose (it will surprise no one that both games ended 1-0). However, they come in with questions of their own. Injuries to Kevin Doyle and Alan Gordon left Caleb Calvert to start as Colorado’s lone striker last weekend. (Ever heard of him? Exactly.) However, Colorado was playing a very good team on the road and bunkered quite a bit. With Doyle and Gordon still ruled out, expect Calvert to earn the start against a Minnesota team that might do wonders for his confidence. If he does not, it will only be because Shkëlzen Gashi is once again deemed 90-minutes fit and can secure more time against the Loons.

Injury woes were only part of Colorado’s trouble last week. Perhaps more concerning was Colorado’s very poor pass completion percentage of around 58 percent. Much of that owed to the Rapids’ choice to bunker against a superior Red Bulls team, then launch long pass after long pass upfield praying for a counter. If Colorado plans to deploy the repeated Hail Mary approach, it will need to execute its soccer rosary with more precision this week. However, with an opponent that employs a more patient, possession-oriented approach to attack rather than running directly at Minnesota, Colorado may have space to take a different tact.

How will it play out?

What happens when an unmoving force accidentally brushes up against an utterly movable object? That will be the story this weekend. Colorado tied for dead last in MLS in goals scored in 2016. Having two-and-a-half injured forwards probably doesn’t help that equation. But guess what? In 2016 they came within two points of the Supporters Shield. Viewers can expect to see a little bit more adventure from the Rapids going forward, aiming to pick apart a Minnesota defense that has been less Swiss cheese and more Cheez Whiz. United’s lack of a tenacious ball-winning midfielder (say in the mold of an Osvaldo Alonso) and avoidance of a high pressing style will give Colorado the space they need to build up some meaningful possession, assuming their passing holds together.

Colorado had best not get too cocky, though. Minnesota’s offense has been non-terrible, looked good in the expected goals department, and has earned a good share of possession in its first two games (much of this, sadly, can be attributed to opponents letting off the gas once ahead by three goals). Fans might expect this to be Minnesota’s first multi-goal game if the players can capitalize on the chances they earn. Though Colorado’s defense is still very good, scoring may be all the easier with Axel Sjöberg out of the backline for six to eight weeks. All will depend on how willing Colorado is to push forward, and how necessary leaky Minnesota feels it is to bunker.

Colorado will win if…

This isn’t the time to slow play a superior hand. If Colorado can bravely venture forward and test the historically bad Minnesota back line, they can easily bag a couple of goals. Put United on their heels early in the game, and Colorado can open the portal to those mental mistakes that have doomed Minnesota this year.

Minnesota will win if…

The Loons will have their chances. Even against excellent teams like Portland and Atlanta, Minnesota was able to look dangerous in the attack. Bury a couple of those chances, and anything is possible.

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  • Jacob

    Well at the very least, it should be a different kind of game than the first two. Atlanta and Portland might both be top-5 offenses this year and could conceivably be the top two (thanks in part to some stat-padding against an unprepared Loons defense). Most teams don’t have that kind of fire power.

    I’m anxious to see the next chapter in the “lineup continuity vs. fresh blood” storyline. Heath’s got some competing philosophies to balance. On the one hand, Taylor and Saeid on the left is an odd change and I hope Heath doesn’t start Klinnsmaning this team. But it seems like he’s valuing previous MLS experience over skill set or continuity. Then again, I suppose league experience can ease adjustments. I could see the argument that having Taylor in there is a calming presence on the backline and others around him since he’s not mentally overloaded by the game. Not sure how well that theory holds water with Taylor over Davis at LB though. On the other hand, the reluctance to substitute guys seems very much like a pro-continuity decision. At least I read some of that into his decision not to sub in the ATL game–he valued leaving guys in there to grapple with their issues a bit over putting fresh legs in or adjusting tactically.

    I disagree with both of those decisions, but I buy that one of this team’s biggest needs right now is continuity. I think that’s especially true on the backline and particularly with Demidov, where his perceived strengths (positioning, communication, timing) need more time to gel and what he lacks–athleticism–could help make up the difference. He isn’t the dominant, mystically effective backline leader that I thought he was, but I think he can be much more effective than he’s been, given a few more weeks.

    Last thought–I love not worrying about where the goals are going to come from. I’m sure as the season goes on there will be more critiquing to do, and if this last game had ended 2-1 instead of 6-1 I’m sure I’d have more criticism to give, but for now I’m happy with Molino and Co.’s status.

    • Eric Beckman

      Good points.
      I feel a bit like I did last year: its like we’re watching ongoing tryouts. Heath as much as said he wanted to see the starting unit for more minutes on Sunday so that he could evaluate them. This frustrates me as a supporter, but is understandable. The transfer market is much better in the summer, so maybe he is just looking for big enough sample sizes to evaluate current players.

      • Jacob

        It does give an interesting insight into Heath’s priorities. With the game out of reach, he’d rather get some more film on the chosen starters than give minutes to others. It’s kind of frustrating that he doesn’t already know what he’s got for the long haul, but it is what it is. If that’s what it takes to sort the wheat from the tares and, who knows, sign the right DP this summer, then okay. I just hope it works, and I hope it doesn’t stir up resentment in the clubhouse or prevent us from discovering that Gatt and Kallman or whoever are the future.

    • Offensive Loons Fan

      There has been enough evidence to show that Taylor is not a calming presence on anything. Personally, I do believe that Demidov will get better and I think he has been unsustainably poor in his two games so far. Taylor, however, I believe will be exactly this poor consistently.

  • Alex Schieferdecker

    Colorado are a good opponent, because they can’t attack for beans. This might be an opportunity to see whether our defense really is historically bad, or whether we just went up against two the league’s best attacks (as Jacob says) in the first two weeks. It’s probably a combination of the two, but we’ll see in what measure this week.

    Looking for line-up and tactical changes this week. That 4-3-3 is going to kill me if Heath trots it out again. Colorado are a good team defensively, and we will not score if we don’t have four attack-minded players on the field.

    • Offensive Loons Fan

      Yeah not enough conversation going around about how Minnesota has been poor, but they’ve played some seriously good attacking teams as well. We will regress toward a mean. Even if we don’t like where that mean winds up being.

  • Doug Foss

    Well it hasn’t taken Atlanta very long to have on field rapport but MNUFC could use another month? Pure and simple MNUFC didn’t aquire enough better quality of players for their roster. I am calling BS.

    • Jacob

      It’s both. Atlanta was a month or more ahead of MN in the roster building process. I don’t know how much more time they’ve had on the field together, but Thiesson had only been in the country for 3 days, Alvbage, Schuller and Kadrii missed a chunk of preseason, Gatt’s not even match fit yet, I believe Molino arrived after preseason had started, the NASL guys weren’t officially added until near the end of preseason, Calvo and Venegas were with the Ticos… I know Atlanta had a few late arrivals but not on the same scale, and the bulk of their roster was settled well before ours. Not to mention the effect of off-field life–finding housing and getting settled takes a while and affects the psyche.

      But yeah, those factors don’t add up to losing at home 6-1 if your talent level is on par with the opponent. I’m inclined to think that we’ll do some catching up in the next month, but the player quality in the league is rising quickly. I’m hoping for a big splash or two, especially if one of our TAM guys (Demidov?) fails to thrive.

    • Offensive Loons Fan

      Not saying that Minnesota should or shouldn’t have on-field rapport compared to anyone else, but saying that if we tinker moving forward we certainly disrupt that process.

      Let’s also not get to crazy about Atlanta just yet. They lost to New York when they fell apart late, and they looked good but against a team that has been historically awful. I don’t think Atlanta’s gelling work is necessarily complete yet.

  • Jeff Wolter

    MLS team momentum can change like the wind.
    Weather will be nice, field is good.
    No reason MN defense should have all much trouble with Colorado attack. Timmy is another story.

    Good luck and have some fun