This will be the rubber match of the three games the teams will play this year. So far it has been a stalemate, with the Loons becoming the first team this year to leave Houston with a point after a 2-2 draw in April and then a forgettable 0-0 draw at TCF in July. Fans will remember the April match as the first time Minnesota played an entire half of soccer without allowing a goal. They did so with John Alvbåge in net after Bobby Shuttleworth left the game after being struck in the head at the end of the first half. Christian Ramirez and Johan Venagas each scored in the second half to erase a two goal deficit from Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis strikes in the first half.
|Assistant||Jose Da Silva|
Ismail Elfath has overseen more Minnesota United drama this year than just about any referee, having officiated the opening day loss to Portland and the last gasp, shoving-defeat-back-into-the-jaws-of-victory loss to Seattle on the road. Elfath has given out more fouls than all but five referees this year, but is fourth from the bottom in terms of yellow cards given. The referee began the year awarding a number of red cards but has mellowed as of late, totaling seven on the year for second only to Baldomero Toledo, who has been brushing up for his late career move to blackjack dealing.
D George Malki (torn ACL) – Out
M Charlie Ward (dislocated right patella) – Questionable
D Philippe Senderos (right adductor strain) – Questionable
M Boniek Garcia (right knee injury) – Questionable
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head injury) – Out
Coming off of two straight road wins against teams with everything to play for, and with two straight weeks of relative lineup stability, it would be foolish to propose that Minnesota fields anything other than the lineup that thrashed Dallas 4-1. But there are a couple of keys to making that work.
In his great piece on the narrow tactical approach bearing fruit in the form of the Miguel Ibarra one-timer last week, Alex Schieferdecker writes about how keeping midfielders closer together allows for greater passing options and more easily creates man advantages for the Loons. In addition to the many observations he makes, I will add a couple. First, Minnesota succeeds in the buildup to that Ibarra goal specifically because of the speed at which it unfolds in the key moment. The Loons do not have the playmaking talent to cleverly outmaneuver most teams, but the quick decision to pass one-time from Ramirez coupled with the knowing and direct run from Ibarra makes a goal here possible. More often than not, that play will actually not result in a goal; it took a miracle dish from Ramirez and a precise finish from Ibarra for it to work. But the speed and directness of the attack puts defenders on the back foot and leaves them chasing. Knock on the door enough times in a game with that approach and the team will get their goals.
The other reason this play works is because of Ibarra’s positioning itself. Ostensibly a left winger, he begins that buildup in the middle before moving out to the right side. That positional fluidity does a few things. First, it is easier to create man advantage situations in certain zones when you allow players to see the opportunity and chase after it. Second, it creates havoc against teams using man marking defenses. If Minnesota observes, for instance, that Ramirez is being man marked by one particular person, it is fairly simple to use Ramirez as a decoy to drag defenders out of position and create room for others. Finally, it plays better off of the strengths of the players the Loons have at their disposal. Kevin Molino is not a No. 10 and has had less success there, but give him the freedom to find the game and he can use his ability to work in tight spaces to still do some playmaking. Ibarra himself is not the playmaker he was in his NASL days, but he has speed to burn and has a knack for running at the seams between defenders and forcing those defenders into tough choices. Keep him positionally rigid, and the opponent sees this coming a mile away.
The last reason the play works in addition to what Shieferdecker outlines is that Ramirez actually drops back to become the facilitator on the play. For all of his success scoring goals this year, one aspect of Ramirez’s game that continues to need polish is that he often has trouble finding the game when it isn’t finding him. On this play, Ramirez checked back to both give an additional outlet for an Ibson forward pass and also to unlock an opening for someone else to make a run. Ramirez dropping back in support is key to the team’s success, especially given that defenders will be paying more and more attention to him as his notoriety grows.
Ultimately, the Loons have a successful recipe for the attack moving forward. What complicates matters slightly is the match congestion of the coming week. Minnesota will play on Saturday and then play in Atlanta on Tuesday, the club’s shortest turnaround of the year. This is ok. One of the goals to close out the season needs to be to continue to assess all the pieces of the team, find out which ones work best together, and plan for 2018 and beyond. A game with Abu Danladi and Sam Nicholson on in place of Ramirez and Ibarra, Collin Martin on for Kevin Molino, and other swaps make for interesting experiments that could be telling.
Houston is great at home, and boasts an excellent front four. Expect Houston to own possession for long stretches of the game, forcing the Loons to play on the counterattack. The Dynamo are on the outside of the playoff picture right now, and will be looking to score early and put the game out of question as quickly as possible.
Houston needs to break the Loons early. Each of Minnesota’s last two games held a moment – interestingly, both were penalty saves – where Minnesota could have found themselves down two goals, which would have changed the complexity of the match entirely. If the Dynamo can play on the front foot and succeed in forcing Minnesota to play desperate, they will be better for it.
Defense is a ten man job. It is easy to criticize the back four for giving up goals, but if no one is shielding the back line at all points on the pitch, even the best defenses will crumble. Houston has a great offense, and Minnesota’s midfielders will need to play both sides of the ball to keep the game in hand.
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