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Rewind That: A Blueprint to Stop Minnesota United’s Bleeding

by on 15 March 2017

After a thrashing in the opener against the Portland Timbers, Minnesota United FC was taken to task once again. Fellow expansion side Atlanta United went to work immediately, and the bleeding continued for the Loons. So what can be done to fix this?

Second verse, same as the first.

Very little of what went wrong against the Timbers was resolved in time for Sunday’s home opener. The defense was disjointed. Certain players had repeat poor performances. The attack didn’t get enough time with the ball to become lethal.

So how can this be resolved? Surely, Minnesota United isn’t [clears throat] “the worst team in MLS history™.”

Everyone has their idea of how to mitigate disaster and some are less practical (and legal) than others.

However, the tweet of mine Lalas quoted laid out my plan. It requires a tactical switch, the return of a couple of familiar faces, and a re-positioning of a regular. Here’s why I think it could work.

A mobile back line

Let’s start in the third minute of Sunday’s match. Atlanta United has the ball and goalkeeper Alec Kann distributes it. Immediately, Atlanta sees many pockets of space across the pitch laid out by Minnesota. A very technical Atlanta side wastes no time. We’re going from box to box in 12 seconds.

Players with the vision of Miguel Almirón dream of chances like this. While many — including myself — initially thought Josef Martínez was offside, it turns out that Jermaine Taylor (playing at left back) was out of position. Playing as a virtual center back, Taylor was also behind the offside trap. That gave Martinez just enough space to sneak past and create his chance.

Taylor’s immobility at the full back positions has been a recurring theme through two weeks. At this stage of his career, he’s best equipped to play centrally. While Francisco Calvo played left back plenty with Deportivo Saprissa, he’s been Minnesota’s best defender. Don’t play your best players out of position.

Meanwhile, NASL regular and opening-day starter Justin Davis was riding the bench on Sunday. If it’s me, I’m putting Davis back in. Davis did well to partner with Calvo on the left half of the Loons’ back line. The pair looked a promising passing tandem and held a steady line at the back. Furthermore, Davis has much better mobility, and his ability to get up and down the flank would provide extra breathing room on the left. More on that in a second.

Vadim Demidov’s legs just aren’t what they used to be and he’s unable to give chase, boxed out by Yamil Asad. I’d give Brent Kallman his debut against Colorado. Kallman has a tireless motor and is comfortable with the ball at his feet. With Davis, Calvo, Kallman, and Jérôme Thiesson, Minnesota would have four players with good stamina and ability on the ball.

A reassignment for the skipper

So where, then, does this leave Demidov? Brought in as a TAM-player, the captain hasn’t looked able to keep up with the likes of Martinez or Portland’s Fanendo Adi.

I don’t think this is an indictment on him as a player. It’s merely a sign that he’s best equipped in the midfield. When he was signed, Kristan Heneage said this about the Norwegian:

“I prefer Demidov maybe at CDM, especially in a league like MLS. Demidov isn’t really an athletic presence, and I could see him being exploited by some forwards with pace in MLS. He’s not very quick, but he is a big guy that can pass the ball. At least at CDM, you have the benefit of his good passing and vision, but also someone that is a good defender at heart.”

Always trust a soothsayer. In fact, Demidov showed this vision against Atlanta just before their second goal. Atlanta has another clinical passing sequence rolling and Demidov sees one ball with less on it than the rest.

With freedom to roam, Demidov could be an effective defensive midfielder, sweeping up in front of his back line to help control the center of the field. Putting him alongside Rasmus Schüller would also give him a creative passing mind to partner with. This minimizes the logjam we’ve seen when Minnesota rolls out Schüller, Collen Warner, and Mohammed Saeid. Speaking of Mo…

Four is greater than three

Saeid was called into action as something of a left midfielder. Playing a level behind Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino, he still was deputized out wide. At heart, Saeid is a central midfielder through and through. In one attacking chance at the end of the first half, this absence was glaring.

Saeid gets the ball in his natural midfield position. However, there’s no left winger ready to take advantage of a lot of space. Taylor heads up the field and puts in a cross from behind the 18-yard box. While the ball finds Venegas, it is too far from goal to pose much of a threat. Meanwhile, the Loons’ back line was again left vulnerable by a lack of numbers.

Adding a left winger like Bashkim Kadrii or Miguel Ibarra could help with these spacing issues. Both are capable delivering a cross, and a major point of contention from my initial tweet was that fans wanted to see Ibarra start.

A few notes on this. First, the U.S. international has 104 fewer minutes than Kadrii through two games, showing Heath’s preference for the Dane. Second, Ibarra is a two-way player, while Kadrii is comparatively more attack-minded. If I’m trying to improve spacing and catch Colorado on the counter, I’d give Kadrii a try. Finally, Ibarra struggled for time in León and is still working back toward regular minutes. He’ll get his chance and it’ll be sooner than later.

Utilizing subs

One-time FiftyFive.One Podcast co-host and aficionado of all things Finnish (Finnophile?), Adam Jarvi landed the tweet of the week.

Snark aside, Jarvi has a point. In both matches, Heath didn’t use a substitution until around the 70th minute. Meanwhile, the Loons’ head coach declined to use all three subs in either of MNUFC’s first two games. For a team that has leaked late goals in both matches, turning bad results into embarrassments, this shouldn’t happen again.

So with the lineup I set out earlier, I’d sub in Ibarra for Kadrii as soon as the Dane seems to be tiring. I’d put in Collin Martin for Schüller at some point to get him into the side. A former D.C. United Homegrown, Martin has great vision and could become a clinical passer, either at the No. 8 or the No. 10. Finally, I’m using the third substitution to replace Demidov with Warner if the midfield needs an infusion of bite. Warner has looked steady in the first two matches and is a reliable player. Martin-Warner is a fine second unit if both Schüller and Demidov need a breather.

So there’s my blueprint to get this train on the rails. With my luck, eight of these 11 won’t start on Saturday against Colorado. What changes would you make? Sound off in the comment section below.

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  • I would like to see Demidov in the CDM role, but is it worth sitting Warner who was been solid? I agree with the rest though.

    When will Gatt be available, would that change some of your choices?

    • Jeff Rueter

      It’s a matter of weighing dropping a steady player like Warner or your captain. Despite early miscues, the team still rallies behind Demidov, and dropping him from the XI altogether is a very risky idea.

      Gatt is still a couple weeks away from being integrated into the side. That said, until int’l callups bork the wing depth, he’s a spark off the bench for me.

  • Alex Schieferdecker

    For me, one of the keys is that we need to force teams to play further back by presenting more of an attacking and especially more of a counter-attacking threat.

    One reason why it always feels as if we’re outnumbered in all areas of the field is that Portland and Atlanta were able to involve their fullbacks in the attack and get them into the midfield. If we have a threat, on either wing, to run behind the defense, then they have to play us honest. But in both games, the opposition knew they could cheat on us by playing forward, and they were right to do so.

    • I think Thiesson will help with that as he gets more comfortable with the team and he doesn’t have to worry about the CB pairing as much.

  • Wes

    I think one tendency is for us to get so freaked out by the results and call for wholesale changes, when that doesn’t help build chemistry, which is part of the problem. So it’s almost an exercise in asking: how can we make the fewest amount of changes that would affect the results? The Demidov shift would be pretty big and maybe that big change is what we need, but you don’t want too many other moving parts beyond that.

    • Dave DuJour

      Sometimes a big change in the short term is just the thing to promote “chemistry” in the long term. Shaking things up isn’t always a bad thing. And really, can a change as big as moving Demidov to CDM be worse? The results so far have been really, really bad. Historically bad.

      • Wes

        You’re totally right. But if you think, for example, that Demidov is far and away your best option and you believe in him then you need to figure out how to keep faith with him and set him up to succeed. Fans have 90 minutes to evaluate players and the coaches have 5 days a week. So I think that wholesale changes may not be the best answer. But as you point out, if you think these other players are comparable and can pull it off, then making a big change could work.
        What happens though if you make the change and the new lack of chemistry gives you another terrible result?

        • Jeff Rueter

          Demidov to CDM isn’t nearly as big a decision as, say, benching him like others seem to recommend. If anything, it gets him involved in more of the game by pushing him higher up the field. If he’s more at-ease in that role than he is at CB, that’s a no-brainer.

          Wholesale changes implies a virtually fresh XI. In reality, Kallman is the only field player in the lineup who hasn’t started at least one match in the first two weeks. This lineup is very similar to the one that was run out during the Portland Invitational. I think it’s certainly worth revisiting.

  • Garth Grawburg

    Love this lineup, thanks for sharing. Two guiding principles for MNUFC lineups in the coming weeks:

    1. Keep the back 4 as consistent as possible
    Pick your best players along the back 4 (I would argue the 4 players featured in your lineup). Stick with them as much as injuries & national team duty will allow, gaining cohesion and comfort as quickly as possible. If someone really proves they aren’t up to the task, put in the next best alternative and stick with that player. For most matches, the starting lineup should feature 3 of the same 4 defensive players from the prior week.

    2. Keep players in the ‘natural’ positions
    Again, the team needs to learn each other’s natural tendencies quickly. JV is not a target forward, Saied is not a winger, and so on. Players need to be in positions that suit them, even if as a consequence MNUFC does not field the top 11 players in terms of talent, or not matching up well against the opponent.

    • Jeff Rueter

      Nailed it. There has to be some kind of consistency before this team can really start showing signs of progress.

  • Ian Y

    I don’t agree with taking out Warner, he has been the standout on the team the last two games and despite what Heneage says I can count the number of completed passes Demidov has had for MNU on my hands and a midfielder can’t be giving balls away constantly. I feel Saeid and Schuller are pretty equal so for now they should be rotated until one steps up to earn the spot. Finally the person I would sub in is Ibson because he can control the pace of the game. If we need a goal he can provide the spark or if we are up he can slow the play.

    • Jeff Rueter

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Warner has been “the standout” through the first 180 minutes. He’s been steady, but he hasn’t changed the game one direction or the other. That isn’t a knock on him – it just isn’t his role in the lineup.

      I’d be curious to see how Ibson adapts to MLS, but in 2016 he was a liability. He held the ball for far too long, didn’t play a minute of defense, and took shots when he could’ve easily set up his teammates for a goal of their own. I’d rather see what we have with Martin first than revisit Ibson, though I think both will get their day this year.

      • Chris RB

        I’d love to see Ibson as a sub when the opposing defense is more tired.

        I do think Warner has made more good plays than bad, but that’s hard to evaluate after 180 minutes, especially when the team has been trailing for well over half that. I wouldn’t say he’s been a standout, but that also means he hasn’t stood out in a bad way either *coughTaylorDemidovcough*

  • Offensive Loons Fan

    Warner’s fine, leave him at CDM. Chemistry is going to end up mattering. Bring Kallman on for Demidov (yes, a TAM level dude on the bench for now…we did it with Ibarra). Joe Greenspan is on concussion protocol so there’s a decision made. Davis at left back was fine if occasionally scary against Portland, so bring him back in.

    Ibarra has the two way motor and ability to support the defense that we could probably benefit from, put him in. I like your suggestion of Christian up top with JV as a second striker. Probably Martin in for Schuller since Schuller is on international duty at the moment.
    Jesus Christ.

    • Jeff Rueter

      First, Ibarra isn’t a TAM guy, but I see your point. Second, dropping someone that local fans love is different than benching your captain. The team sees him as a true leader and the implications of benching him over two bad matches would stretch out for the rest of the season. It just isn’t worth it.

      • Offensive Loons Fan

        Thought we’d parted ways with some TAM on Ibarra, my bad. We’ll have to agree to disagree on the benching Demidov move. Doesn’t have to be a permanent benching, either, just a message benching. I don’t see soccer players as such fragile beings that they can’t contextualize the move and they’ll just lose all faith in Demidov for life. Maybe I’m naïve, though.

        • I think moving Demidov out of the position in which he started the first two games of the season is a pretty strong message, almost like a “this is a second chance, don’t mess it up”

  • Tim Larson

    I am going to go way out on a limb here but I think we could really use Ismaila Jome’s athletic ability in the midfield. When he played in the preseason he was a constant presence on the ball and the team was more dynamic and threatening. He is young and his soccer IQ and first touches are not where they eventually will be once he gets more experience. However, I think he has the raw talent to become a real stand out in MLS.