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Preseason Match Two: Loons Get Lucky Early and Often Against Atlanta

by on 22 February 2018

After a failure to launch in their first match of the Carolina Challenge Cup, Minnesota United showed a much improved effort in their second game of the preseason tournament, gutting out a 1-1 draw against Atlanta.

But just as the 0-1 loss to Charleston last Saturday didn’t properly reflect the balance of play (which favored Minnesota), neither did Wednesday’s split of the spoils. Atlanta’s level of dominance waxed and waned throughout the ninety minutes, but there was no sustained moment of the game where the Five Stripes did not have the game well in hand. The Loons at times looked like they were on the penalty kill—bunkered deep in their box and content to just clear the ball instead of building momentum of their own. That was especially true in the first half, when it took until the 39th minute before Minnesota was able to string a series of passes together and force the Atlanta block into their final third.

And yet, the score was even. Thank goalkeeper Matt Lampson for that. The former Columbus Crew homegrown and Chicago Fire No. 1 had a superb night, making at least eight impressive stops. He benefited from a few Atlanta shots that lacked finesse, but his positioning was faultless on each occasion. Only a stunning curler from 15 million-dollar-man Ezequiel Barco beat him.

The most concrete takeaway from the night was confirmation that Minnesota have a goalkeeping battle on their hands. Lampson is a league veteran who was never truly given a chance with the Crew before landing in Chicago and having the starting spot drop into his lap. Like last year’s starter, Bobby Shuttleworth, he is the kind of goalkeeper who MLS teams will always be trying to improve upon, but probably shouldn’t. Now with two such goalkeepers on their roster, Minnesota United should be set, even if few analysts or fans will ever consider the position to be a strength.

It would be nice to see a bit of Alex Kapp on Saturday, just to complete the picture. Kapp, who had a small knock during training and missed out on the preseason matches against the college teams, has not (to my knowledge) played any game action for Minnesota this preseason. Perhaps he and Bobby Shuttleworth could split the 90 minutes this weekend.

Miscellaneous notes

5. The Loons got absolutely hammered in the first half, but the second half was substantially better. Whether Atlanta just got tired or the Loons were urged forward, the ball spent a lot more time at the feet of Atlanta defenders, and a lot less time pinging around the edges of the Minnesota box in the second forty-five minutes. In particular, a higher defensive line bore some fruit for Minnesota in the second frame. Their only goal of the contest came after pressure forced a wayward pass out of the Atlanta defense, which was scooped up by Rasmus Schüller. The Finn drove straight into the box, where he was clumsily challenged, resulting in a Minnesota penalty. While the Loons were not able to replicate the same level of success of that one play, they pressed intelligently throughout the rest of the match. If they could defend further forward and win the ball further forward from the opening whistle, that’d be even better.

4. The Loons made tactical adjustments, although the natures of the opponent and the game were so different, it’s hard to say how much they paid off. The team played a 4-3-3, with a midfield trio of Schüller, Ibson, and Collin Martin (Collen Warner in the second half). Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino played on the wings, with Finlay more often on the left. In particular, Schüller and Martin impressed with their defensive effort, but the midfield unit as a whole has to be faulted with an inability to win and hold the ball. Molino was noticeably improved from the previous match, having moved back to his best position on the wing. His weak first touch was less of a liability with more space, and the state of the game, with room to counter-attack, also helped. In contrast, Finlay struggled.

3. Abu Danladi had a night where his influence was heavily felt, even if he made a mess of virtually every opportunity he was given. The pacey forward spent most of the game doing thankless work chasing the ball alone. But he had three occasions where he could’ve done damage. The first two, he lost the ball with a poor touch. The last, he blasted a shot into the darkness. Still, he forced Atlanta to play him honestly all night, won a few balls well, and made some smart runs. His brain was working, even if his feet were not.

2. Minnesota have reportedly, but not officially, made two moves in between the Charleston and Atlanta games. They have taken Brazilian No. 6 Luiz Fernando on loan, and picked up Jamaican winger Simon Dawkins after he was released by the San Jose Earthquakes. It’s hard to see where Dawkins fits, given the team’s glut of wingers. Four played on Wednesday night, and still two more sat on the bench. But Fernando would’ve been a nice player to have. The Loons have just a single natural No. 6 on the roster, in Sam Cronin. Against Atlanta, Adrian Heath played defensive midfield by committee, with Martin and Schüller on frequent defensive duty, and Ibson with some responsibilities in that area as well. How much nicer it would be to have a player used to playing that position, freeing the central midfielders to think a bit more carefully about keeping and playing the ball.

1. Saturday’s upcoming match against the Columbus Crew may again feature a version of this starting group that Heath has deployed throughout preseason. The formation and a few players may change, but the basics have remained the same. On the flip side, we may see a different group get game time, after the hard work and 90 minutes played by many of the starters. There is certainly a lot to work on for the first group, but reason to question whether driving them into the ground with a third game in a week is the right way to go. We will see. On Wednesday, Heath made just four subs, treating the occasion almost as a regular season match. Here’s hoping Saturday has a bit more of a preseason feel. The second eleven was fun last Saturday, and it’d be nice to see them get a go against an MLS team from the first whistle.

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