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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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  • Jacob

    It’s good to hear that Schuller is showing signs of life. I really like the player that he is pitched to be but I’ve grown wary.

    I thought the 4-3-3 might be a way to squeeze another winger onto the field but I can see how that calls for a 6 who can cover a lot of ground. Which is another potential plus coming from the Luiz Fernando news. I must confess that I’m getting my hopes up about him.

  • Troy Kadlec

    Schuller, Martin, and Calvo all had good games. I was particularly impressed with Schuller. He’s looking more like the player he was billed to be. He showed some good defensive chops and a knack for getting to the ball and challenging. He also started to show some good instincts on his attacking passes and he made the right moves when he drew the penalty. He had a good chance to shoot if he hadn’t been taken down. The midfield was better than game one, but as Alex noted, they struggled to hold any kind of possession.
    The team is still struggling to find the link between the defensive and offensive half of the field. There were signs of purposeful attacks and movement designed to isolate and free up an attacking player. I also really like Ibson moving into a more attacking position. The good news is that the team was not stretched too often and held their shape much better than the first game. The bad news is that we still look vulnerable to defensive letdowns. An in-form Atlanta would have made us pay more dearly.
    If we can grit out games like this, it’s good. We may turn L’s into T’s and have a shot at a W, but we can;t play this way all season and hope to improve over last year.
    I’m worried about the attack, we were stymied many times last year in similar situations and the team struggled to make anything positive happen offensively. Atlanta won the second ball frequently and almost every long pass we sent forward was handled pretty easily.
    Danladi needs to shake off the rust and improve his touches. He blew several golden opportunities. In addition, he needs to get better control over his body. He’s flinging himself around with little regard and he’s not durable enough to get away with it. It also leads to stupid fouls. The kid has talent, but he needs to up his soccer IQ to match to take that next step.

    • Bruce J McGuire

      “still struggling to find the link between the defensive and offensive half of the field”

      I think this has been the Loons biggest deficiency under Heath.
      When you have 3 guys on the field (Martin, Ibson and Schuller) who all want to play the same position that happens a lot. My feeling has always been that you are then lacking in defense and confusion leads to playing like you only have 10 men – somehow 1+1+1 = 2.

      • Troy Kadlec

        If the players are on the same page and know how to work with each other, you don’t have the problem. I love Ibson, but he doesn’t seem to communicate well with the rest of the team. He’s all over the place and expecting others to automatically do things that they obviously don’t. I don’t know who is really at fault, but I suspect it’s Ibson as I don’t see the same issue when he’s not on the field.
        I’m not saying he’s not a good player, but he’s almost as disruptive to our team as he is to an opponent.
        I thought Schuller and Martin played fairly well together.
        I do agree that the coaching staff and the players seem to be at odds over positioning on the field and a player’s tendencies on the pitch.

  • lusophone

    It looked like ATL was going through offensive drills all game. The only reason it was a tie was because ATL just wasn’t hitting their targets.

    • Bruce J McGuire

      So no credit to Lampson then?

      I think Lampson deserves a lot of praise for keeping that net empty until late. (As does Calvo for 2 clearances off the line.)

      • lusophone

        As individual players, sure. But low marks for the team effort that necessitated those heroic performances in front of the net.

        • Bruce J McGuire

          I know we all use hyperbole regularly, but you did say “The only reason…” and I think you missed out on giving credit where it is due.

          • lusophone

            Maybe so, but I still think a sharper ATL team would’ve made that an ugly game. You can give a defender credit for good positioning if he blocks a shot hit right at him, but ultimately it was the shooter who didn’t hit his target. To me, it felt like ATL had more misses than Lampson had great saves.

      • Troy Kadlec

        I saw one quote that said “MNUFC has a way of making goalkeepers look great by giving them so many save attempts per game”. Bobby looked great last year and Lampson looked good in this match. The problem is, we give out so many chances, inevitably we give up the W and, more often than not, end up with an L. Lampson was clutch, but he would have allowed 2 more in without Calvo’s heroics. (Bobby wouldn’t have done any better.) But if we allow teams to tee off like Atlanta did in this match, we are in trouble. An in-form Atlanta teams could have easily repeated the snow opener scoreline even with the heroics.