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Match Preview: Minnesota United FC vs. Real Salt Lake

by on 31 March 2017

Adrian Heath said this week that the coming match against Real Salt Lake is  “probably the most important game in this club’s history.” It is not. However, it is a crucial test. Minnesota will be able to return to the lineup (if Heath chooses to do so) that earned a solid road point against Colorado two weeks ago. If the Loons deploy a similar roster and are able to enjoy success once again, then Minnesota fans might feel they have a template for competence. Then further roster and tactical approaches moving forward can seek to simply build upon that foundation. If it goes poorly, the club and its fans will have run out of caveats and will be left only with questions.

Recent form

Minnesota L D L L -12
GD
0.25
PPG
Salt Lake D L L D L -3
GD
0.5
PPG

Previous meetings

Minnesota played Real Salt Lake in the Portland preseason tournament this year, a game that ended as a 3-3 draw following a late Loons equalizer. After going up 2-0 shortly after the break, the Claret-and-Cobalt surged to a 3-2 lead against a defensive collapse that United fans would come to understand intimately. For Minnesota, the formation was different than we’ve seen in the regular season as a 4-2-2, but the front six lined up very similar to how United played against Colorado. RSL started a very different lineup than what will likely be deployed on Saturday, though it still featured Yura Movsisyan up top and Albert Rusnák in the hole.

Officials

Referee Armando Villarreal
Assistant Jeremy Hanson
Assistant Richard Gamache
Fourth Daniel Radford

At least statistically speaking, Armando Villarreal is someone who tends to let the players play. He ranked nearly last in fouls per game last year (albeit in only 16 matches) and was in the bottom half in yellows per game. Saturday is his first MLS game this year. In 2016, Villarreal split time among MLS and international duty. Minnesota has proven adept at giving up penalties this year; a lenient referee may bail the team out of a scary moment or two this weekend.

Roster report

Minnesota
GK Patrick McLain (concussion) – Out
D Joseph Greenspan (concussion) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
GK John Alvbåge (knee laceration) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (injury) – Out

Real Salt Lake
F Chad Barrett (knee injury) – Out
F Joao Plata (hip contusion) – Questionable
M Jordan Allen (right quad strain) – Questionable
D Justen Glad (knee injury) – Questionable
D David Horst (knee injury) – Questionable
D Tony Beltran (back injury) – Questionable

Tactical outlook

From a lineup standpoint, Heath will need some extremely compelling reasons to put out a starting lineup which does not very closely resemble that which earned his squad a 2-2 draw on the road in Colorado. Jeff Rueter previews that lineup in this week’s Rewind That.

The reader’s eyes surely drifted downward to see what the defense would look like. Justin Davis, back this week from suspension over a dubious red card, will not win any awards for his play this year, but he has played as well or better than anyone else playing out of position in the left back role. Francisco Calvo has been the defense’s surest player and is a guarantee in left center. Brent Kallman, though still adjusting to MLS life, has a goal to his name and has made up for most positional misgivings with tenacious and speedy recovery. More importantly, Vadim Demidov simply cannot see the field, at least not in the back four. Finally, Jérôme Thiesson should return home to the right full back position; neither Kevin Venegas nor Jermaine Taylor have shown anything that should make Thiesson fearful of his starting role. The only foreseeable deviation here may be if Heath saw potential in the 5-3-2 that stopped some bleeding in the second half against New England. However, that second half improvement owed much to a 4-1 Revs lead and Minnesota was ineffective connecting the ball to the front attackers with the tactical imbalance brought with five in the back.

With Kevin Molino likely to return to the right wing and Johan Venegas in line as a second striker/advanced midfielder, one big question will be whether Miguel Ibarra or Bashkim Kadrii start on the left flank. In the preseason, and occasionally in the regular season, fans saw that if Ibarra is allowed to roam, find the game, and make runs at the gaps in the defense, he can be an effective partner with Venegas and Molino especially. However, that positional fluidity can also leave the club susceptible on the counterattack. Pinning Ibarra positionally on the left may reduce his effectiveness, though Kadrii may be successful with that role.

As always, some of the decision making falls to an assessment of the opponent. The biggest news out of Salt Lake this week was the appointment of Mike Petke to the head coaching position after Jeff Cassar was terminated a mere three games into this season. However, interim coach Daryl Shore, who presided over Salt Lake’s strong performance against New York last weekend, will see another week in charge of the club before Petke fully takes over the reins. As such, a tactical look at Minnesota’s opponent benefits more from a look at the past than it does from gauging what Petke’s fingerprints are going to look like moving forward.

Aaron Maund and Chris Schuler for Real Salt Lake have proven an effective center back pairing, while left back Demar Phillips has a penchant for moving forward into the attack. That may mean opportunities for counterattacks can be found on Minnesota’s right side and having a mobile left winger in addition to a strong box-to-box midfielder above Collen Warner could apply pressure and clog the midfield, attempt to force turnovers, and enable quick breaks with an outlet on the right side. It’s just one way to play Real Salt Lake’s back line, and a full court press like the one used against Colorado could help make the most of that opportunity.

Salt Lake has some serious questions to answer in the attack, having scored one goal over four games. Much of that owes to the injury of left winger/forward Joao Plata, newly minted with Designated Player status this year. In his absence, Yura Movsisyan has taken up shop as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1. Movsisyan is probably better suited to playing the target man for someone like Plata to play off of than needing to create his own space and use it, too. Starting right winger Jordan Allen has been out with injury, as well, though in his stead both Sebastian “Bofo” Saucedo and Brooks Lennon have begun to make a name for themselves getting in behind defenses to provide crosses. Plata and Allen have returned to training but may not yet be starting-lineup fit.

All the Real Salt Lake lineup talk adds up to the idea that the team has a very good spine: two solid center backs, a still-good-in-MLS Kyle Beckerman, creative playmaker Albert Rusnák, up through Movsisyan. This could be a boon for Minnesota, as it may enable the defense to play more compact in the middle of the field, decreasing the creases between defenders and shortening the distance needed to cover in case of emergency. It may mean conceding the wings, but it might be the odds-on approach to counteract RSL’s most obvious strengths.

How will it play out?

It would be foolish to predict anything other than a crooked number put up against the Loons, who faced a genuinely poor Colorado offense, still allowed two goals, yet had fans dancing in the streets with its defensive showcase. Yet Real Salt Lake does little to inspire excitement in the offensive third.

Expect Salt Lake to move the ball centrally in the attack and for the wingers on the left or right to cut in to provide support and attempt to overwhelm and confuse assignments for Minnesota’s back line. Minnesota, with its greatest attacking strength coming up the right through interchanges among Molino, Johan Venegas, and Christian Ramirez, may keep things to the outside to minimize damages on turnovers and to hit Salt Lake on its relative weaknesses on the edges of its defense.

Real Salt Lake will win if…

RSL has had more opportunities than its one paltry goal scored lets on. The team will have its chances again with a Loons defense lacking any kind of confidence. Players like Movsisyan and Rusnák need to start turning those opportunities into goals if they want to earn their first win of the year.

Minnesota will win if…

Scoring goals has not been a problem for Minnesota this year. However, because they haven’t managed to score six goals in a game yet, it just has not been enough. The team needs to be competent defensively — and that means all 11 players. If they can limit the damages to a goal or two and show some type of energy and heart by tracking back when mistakes do happen, the offensive side of the ball just might do enough.


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  • Jacob

    Good point re: needing the offense to pile it on if we want to win much. This team is more likely to score 3 or more than it is to allow 2 or less against most teams at this stage. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the offense to improve from where it is.

    Tomorrow’s game could go a long way toward redemption. They can slam the brakes on the #PANIC narrative and justify the fan support, and we have the starters available to make it happen. But failing to win at home, at full strength, against a winless team with a new coach, would really hurt. It’s certainly the most important game of the team’s MLS existence, and I’m just going to assume that that’s what Heath meant.

    • Offensive Loons Fan

      I’m not even convinced that this is our most important game so far this season, but I believe it is our truest test yet. Portland is a juggernaut, no one looks good there. Atlanta is a towering offense and the blizzard made things weird. New England we missed most of our starters. Colorado was our most realistic test yet, and even Colorado is a good team that almost won the shield last year. Against RSL, with our preferred squad, we have our best look at whether we can even be competitive with the lower levels of the table.

  • David Sterling

    I’d offer the suggestion that with our ability to put the ball in the back of the net, let us take that opportunity and pile it on, regardless how that leaves the defense. We need to remember that one goal against Colorado was a terrible back pass. Erase that, and it’s a whole new scoreline.
    I say we push forward, use Ibarra, and allow him to roam. It will open us up for counters, sure, but sometimes a defense is buoyed by a strong attack. Come out and see what RSL has planned, if after 20 minutes, RSL hasn’t shown too much, we should push forward and force their squad to defend. We haven’t applied that type of pressure yet this season, and I think this squad can do it, but Heath has been [rightfully] reluctant to give it a shot.
    If we go down, let’s go down swinging.

    • Offensive Loons Fan

      I don’t disagree with you necessarily, but I would make a key reminder. Though our defense has been obviously, demonstrably poor, we also expose that poor defense to trouble when we make giveaways farther up the pitch and don’t track back to defend; when our midfielders are not doing the work to disrupt play when they are not on the ball; and when our more forward players (even down to a guy like Schuller) are playing out of position. Eleven players play defense. An attempt to pour it on could, in theory, expose our back line more if we don’t execute clinically and play both sides of the ball more aggressively in the midfield.

      • David Sterling

        I agree, but I think our flaws in the MF are due more to mental confidence than ability. When the guys behind you are not playing up to par, it’s not unheard of to see your own ability fall simply due to the lack of confidence in your extra effort being rewarded. It’s definitely a chicken and egg situation, though. And again, a more aggressive play up front could very easily expose us, but putting the opposition on their heels is a very good way to defend, especially when they lack major attacking prowess such as RSL.

  • Dave Laidig

    Historically, not conceding is more valuable than scoring a goal. (see the Numbers Game). And I think the tactics should focus on preventing RSL passes in and near the box, and then utilize whatever attacking options that remain.

    • Offensive Loons Fan

      Another gentleman mentioned the idea of piling on goals. Not sure if I mistakenly gave the impression that we should win a bunch of 6-5 barnstormers. In my last paragraph I suggest that if we focus on defense conservatively, limit the damage to one or two goals, that we have the offense to overcome that. My thought is to put defense first.

      • Jacob

        Yeah “piling on” may be too strong a term. But if we allow two goals every game, we don’t win unless we score 3 (at least that’s how John Madden explains it to me). I guess Burch/Cronin might change that formula a bit now, but Heath is known for high scoring games and our relative offensive/defensive track records only perpetuates that story.