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Match Preview: Chicago Fire vs. Minnesota United FC

by on 25 August 2017

With playoff hopes looking extremely slim, now appears to be the time for Minnesota to pull on the lab coats and start experimenting. The team has restocked its shelves over the last month with a glut of midfielders and a couple of defensive options. It is time to begin thinking beyond just this season and look for what pieces are worth keeping and how they might fit together in the long term. The good news: they might be hitting the right team at the right time. Chicago has lost five of its last six and many of those losses have come by embarrassing score lines. Is this the week the Loons break through on the road?

Recent form

Chicago L L L W L +12
GD
1.64
PPG
Minnesota L L W L D -21
GD
0.92
PPG

Previous meetings

Chicago and Minnesota have never met in MLS play but have had a on and off soccer history since the days of the original NASL. The Chicago Sting would occasionally play the Minnesota Kicks in NASL play and were grouped together in NASL’s Central Division in 1981 before the Kicks folded. Some lower league dust ups, such as the 2009 Open Cup victory by the Thunder over the Fire’s PDL team and the Minnesota-based “Fire SC” loss to Chicago-based AAC Eagles in the 2011 edition of the tournament. As Minnesota United, the current club travelled to Chicago for a 2013 preseason friendly, which it won, and also in a preseason tournament in Portland in 2016 where the Loons suffered a 4-0 loss.

Officials

Referee Kevin Stott
Assistant Jeffrey Greeson
Assistant Kyle Longville
Fourth Juan Guzman
VAR Dave Gantar

Kevin Stott is MLS’ most tenured referee, having debuted in 1996 and overseen 309 MLS matches. Stott has given the fewest fouls among referees with at least ten games this year (20.5) and is well behind the pack in yellow cards per game (2.1). This is all pretty standard for Stott, who has been consistently last in both metrics over the last six years. Hopefully the bitter blood feud of a rivalry week game can be contained by a strong game manager like Stott.

Roster report

Minnesota United
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
D Joseph Greenspan (concussion) – Out
F Christian Ramirez (hamstring injury) – Questionable

Chicago Fire
M John Goossens (ankle injury) – Out
GK Jorge Bava (elbow injury) – Out
D Brandon Vincent (quadriceps injury) – Out
M Daniel Johnson (knee injury) – Out
M/D Matt Polster (knee injury) – Out
D Joao Meira (undisclosed injury) – Out
D Matej Dekovic (adductor injury) – Out

Tactical outlook

It was with a heavy heart that I trudged toward the conclusion that perhaps Minnesota United could be a better counterattacking team than front-footed, possession based team last week. The road performance against Seattle might have clinched that opinion.

Some of the difference between the Loons’ first game against Seattle and their second game can be attributed to playing at home versus playing away. Some of the difference can be attributed to game states: Seattle plays more conservatively with a big lead in the first game than without one in the second. Finally, Seattle simply had a worse night last week than they did earlier this month. Still, the tactical shift was clear, and it clearly produced better results.

In the first game against Seattle, Minnesota made 510 total passes and completed 81% of them. The team sounds like tiki taka until you look at the passing chart among Minnesota’s starting defenders:

Every successful and unsuccessful pass made by a Minnesota United starting defender in game one against Seattle.

The defense contributed many of these passes, and many of them were simply impotent passes horizontally in the defensive half as United tried to figure out a possession oriented way to pick the lock on Seattle. It never happened.

By contrast, this last week, United made only 347 total passes and completed just 72% of them. The mode of activating the offense from the back, however, shows the intention:

Every successful and unsuccessful pass made by a Minnesota United starting defender in game two against Seattle.

Gone are the hesitant passes across the middle, feeling for the right seam to break an attack. When possession is gained, the ball is moved straight forward, swiftly (the length of these passes demonstrating the counterattacking speed they were going for), and the team seemed all too ready to spray a few more errant passes for the chance to beat a Sounders team on flat feet.

The result of the strategy was that Minnesota only took three fewer shots this week despite making over 150 fewer passes, and the attack was even poor in game two; better finishing and positioning and the picture looks even rosier.

There are lots of statistics that bear out that United played a much more efficient second Seattle game than first, but my favorite one is this: the Loons didn’t ship four goals this week.

The short version of it all is this: Minnesota gained a huge boon in defense by making it a priority, but really did not lose much in the attack as a result of the choice. On a better night, with a little luck, and against someone other than the hottest team in the league, that counterattacking play might be enough to earn some wins. It isn’t Heath’s preferred strategy, and it can be a white knuckle experience for a fan, but there just might be a net gain with that shift in focus.

How will it play out?

Against a high-powered attacking offense like Chicago, and on the road, Minnesota probably will end up bunkering out of sheer necessity whether or not Adrian Heath gets all his coaching ideas from reading my articles. Chicago will pepper the defense with attempts. Whatever the final score line, United fans should temper their nerves of steel for this one.

Chicago will win if…

If Chicago can open up a cramped United defense, it has the talent to make the most of its chances. The problem is that this offense is great when running straight at a defense with just four in the back, but is much poorer when opposing teams park the bus and create overloads in the zones around the goal. Solve that problem, and Chicago can get back on its feet.

Minnesota will win if…

The Loons need to finish the chances they get, and they need to figure out how to defend a set piece. All the bunkering and improved defensive positioning in the world is meaningless if the opponent will just earn goals off a dead ball and a momentary lapse in reason.


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