This will be the first meeting in MLS between the two teams.
Robert Sibiga is officiating his fifth game of the MLS season. He ranks near the middle of the pack in terms of fouls per game and yellow cards per game, although he has yet to issue a single red card. He has, however, handed two penalties this year, something Minnesota has not been shy about earning this year. Also of note is Felisha Mariscal, one of two female assistant referees the league uses in MLS matches.
D AJ Delagarza (right calf injury) – Out
D Agus (left hamstring) – Out
D George Malki (ACL injury) – Out
D Leonardo (right hamstring) – Doubtful
F Romell Quioto (dislocated shoulder) – Questionable
M Juan David Cabezas (concussion) – Questionable
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (injury) – Out
Minnesota will once again be making roster decisions not based on panicked need but rather on choices of tactics and best fit. United has as few injuries to deal with as it has all year, and though a 2-0 loss last week never feels great, the team was playing one of the league’s best teams on the road and put up a very competitive fight. Head coach Adrian Heath will simply need to decide if there is a tactical or formation tweak that could be more effective, or if more time to gel as a cohesive unit necessitates as few changes as possible.
The biggest decision facing the team is whether to return to a formation featuring two defensive midfielders. Playing with two No. 6s is not uncommon in MLS, and a defense performing like Minnesota’s has may mean that damage control is paramount. However, the Loons’ biggest struggle in the first half against Dallas was connecting the ball from the defense to the offense. The club seemed to be relying on wingers Kevin Molino and Bashkim Kadrii to cover their entire half of the field to not only provide width but to fill in the vacuum in the advanced space of the central midfield. Coupled with their defensive responsibilities, it proved too much ground to cover and transition was a challenge.
In truth, though United played with two nominal defensive midfielders, Collen Warner tended to play a bit higher up the pitch than his counterpart Sam Cronin. Given the lack of play in the opponent’s half of the central midfield, Heath may send out a more traditional box-to-box midfielder to play alongside whomever he chooses to be the lone defensive midfielder. This would make the formation roughly a 4-1-4-1 or 4-1-3-2. As with all tactical choices, it is a game of tradeoffs, and a lot about the choice will depend on how Houston plays.
Houston has surprised many this year, and its ability to overcome its injury problems has only made it that much more surprising. The injury list above, which features a lot of the letter “D”, is only a partial list of the injury woes the club has faced this year. Coupled with international duty for guys like left back DeMarcus Beasley, Houston has shown strength in depth this year.
One player instrumental to that depth has been Mauro Manotas, who has filled in for both left and right wingers during various injury spells. Manotas has a reputation for excelling best as a central attacker, but has shown he can be very effective as a particular type of winger this year. Manotas will play very centrally, almost around the edge of the 18 yard box, and draw in the full back and center back toward him. This creates space for overlapping runs not just from a full back but from guys like Alex Lima in the central midfield. It is no coincidence that Alex leads the league with four assists this year: he is given the space to operate through this type of play.
For Minnesota, that means it will be important to consider how the outside center midfielders are tracked. If a defensive midfielder follows the winger, it needs to be because a Minnesota full back knows to stay home and watch for overlapping runs. If the full back will follow the winger, then the opposite must happen for the defensive midfielder. The criticality of the No. 6 role in countering Houston’s attacking approach may mean Heath opts for two defensive midfielders once again this week.
If Houston has an opportunity for United to take advantage of, it is in defense. The club is tied for third-to-last in goals allowed this year, is playing with a host of second-choice players, and will likely have an issue or two in chemistry and decision making. A high press by Minnesota could force errors with this defense and help ensure the ball stays in dangerous parts of the field for longer.
Houston prefers to play quickly out of the back with longer and aggressive passes to connect with attackers. If Minnesota plays with two defensive midfielders and cedes a lot of space in center midfield, it may play directly into the Dynamo’s style. However, this double pivot approach could neutralize the overlap of Houston’s center midfielders.
It is all a long way of saying both teams could choose a path that turns what, on paper, looks to be a shootout and turn it into mutual bunker-and-counter approaches. That can be a lot of fun, and it can be painfully boring. It depends on who’s making the mistakes.
Houston is very good at home this year and has performed well in spite of its injury problems. This article has also managed to make it to the end having barely mentioned Cubo Torres, currently leading the Golden Boot race in MLS. Houston has only to put the ball at his feet and they have a great chance. There is no better way to do that than to create confusion for Minnesota’s defense – still learning to play as a cohesive unit – via overlapping runs and positional fluidity.
Minnesota earned a draw in another tough place to play against Colorado. Constant pressure on the ball helped create that success, and could be effective against Houston as well, particularly their back line of replacements. Force them to make errors and limit their ability to connect on the hero ball out of the back and – as they say – you’re telling me there’s a chance…
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Tags: Alex Lima, Bashkim Kadrii, Collen Warner, Colorado Rapids, Cubo Torres, DeMarcus Beasley, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Kevin Molino, Match Preview, Mauro Manotas, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Robert Sibiga, Sam Cronin