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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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Tags: Adrian Heath, Alan Gordon, Atlanta United FC, Axel Sjoberg, Bashkim Kadrii, Christian Ramirez, Colorado Rapids, Francisco Calvo, Jermaine Taylor, Johan Venegas, John Alvbåge, Justin Davis, Kevin Doyle, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Mohammed Saeid, Nima Saghafi, Portland Timbers, Shkelzen Gashi, Vadim Demidov