How you view Minnesota United’s season so far probably says a lot about you as a person outside of soccer, as well. The Loons are perched near the peak of the Western Conference after two confident victories. Those wins, however, came against two sides missing key players, and who may not be very good anyway. Should we be believers? Cautious optimists? Cynical misanthropes? Saturday’s away game against New York might provide some clues, as Minnesota themselves will be without several key players and facing their first depth test of the season.
The Loons faced the Red Bulls only once last year, a tough 3-0 loss at TCF Bank Stadium. Fielding only two outfield substitutes and playing in near 100 degree heat, the Loons were forced to play then-new signings Sam Nicholson and Michael Boxall after less than a week with the team. Minnesota will not be at full strength once again this weekend, and will be hoping that a somewhat deeper roster will mean more success against the cross-conference foes.
|Fourth||Jose Carlos Rivero|
Hilario Grajeda will be tasked with maintaining order in New Jersey. It is something he does not mind doing. Grajeda was far out in front in 2017 in fouls per game at 28.8 and was tied for third with seven red cards. He also dealt seven cards for dissent last year, so he will try to keep things under control and does not want to hear much grief about it. Mason Toye has been warned.
New York Red Bulls
M Tyler Adams (international duty) – Out
D Fidel Escobar (international duty) – Out
D Kemar Lawrence (international duty) – Out
D Michael Murillo (international duty) – Out
M Sam Cronin (neck injury) – Out
F Abu Danladi (left hamstring injury) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
D Michael Boxall (international duty) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (international duty) – Out
M Rasmus Schüller (international duty) – Out
D Tyrone Mears (right calf injury) – Questionable
D Jerome Thiesson (left hip injury) – Questionable
There were some lonely days in the middle of 2017 when Minnesota was churning out makeshift lineups as they worked through injury and absence. A 3-0 loss to the Red Bulls was one such example. Will Saturday’s fixture against New York prove to be another?
Minnesota will certainly be without its starting center back duo, as Francisco Calvo and Michael Boxall are both with their respective national teams. Both starting full backs, Jerome Thiesson and Tyrone Mears, will be questionable with minor injuries picked up over the last week. Further, the defensive midfield shield in front of the defense, Rasmus Schüller, will also be out for international duty. The best case scenario is that Thiesson and Mears feel up for it this weekend and provide some stability and leadership among the backline. The worst case scenario is that every one of the five players in front of the goalkeeper will be making his first start of the year, with potentially as many as three of those players making their first MLS start ever.
Let’s not head to the rope store just yet. The center back pairing will almost certainly be Brent Kallman, who was a surprisingly consistent player in 2017 after emerging from the NASL, and Wyatt Omsberg, who would be making his first professional start, but looked promising in preseason work. Bertrand Owundi Eko’o would be another central option, but he has been with the team a shorter time and it is unclear how match fit he would be. On the outside, Marc Burch is a veteran left back who helped stabilize a hemorrhaging defense last year, and Carter Manley is another rookie defender who was promising in preseason. No one will mistake Sunday’s defense for the 2017 vintage of Sporting KC, but it is a crew that could get the job done.
All of this assumes that there is not significant formational upheaval, which cannot be ruled out. Coach Adrian Heath did attempt a five man backline a few times last season when challenged for depth, and we could see the return of that. However, with the success the front five enjoyed last week, it might be a mistake to toy with that chemistry just as the experiment is showing signs of success. Miguel Ibarra’s talent as a late-era, free-roaming trequartista not only can throw off opposing defenses with direct and unpredictable runs, but also means the Loons have another central midfielder that can be active in defense. It may be better in the long term to let players gel at positions they are best aligned with than to try to steal a point in a low-stakes game on the road and ruin steadily improving teamwork in doing so.
Bradley Wright-Phillips will work hard to exploit the positioning of the central defenders, finding the creases and taking advantage of the newly made defensive partnership there. New York excels at playing a high pressure approach, and it could make for a few nervous moments in the back. Minnesota, meanwhile, will do what it does best, using Ibson and Schüller’s replacement (Collen Warner, for my money) to spray the ball out to the flanks and let speedy wingers get on the end of it. I would not expect the ball to pinball around the center of the pitch messily. The play will be end-to-end, though perhaps with a lot of time spent in New York’s attacking end, and Minnesota’s wide game will run up against New York focusing on the middle of the park.
With some outages of its own, including Tyler Adams and Kemar Lawrence, New York will need to do some learning on the fly. One big question will be whether they end up playing too centrally with the loss of guys they rely on for width, particularly Lawrence. If New York can position itself to use the whole field, it will free up more space in the middle of the pitch, where it undoubtedly can unleash havoc on Minnesota’s new faces. That could be enough space to get the job done.
A team’s defense starts with its midfielders. Even if Minnesota has a fill-in back line, players like Ibson, Miguel Ibarra, and Collen Warner are still quality players that can work both sides of the ball. With enough pressure and disruption, those players could make life a little easier for the Loons in the back. We know the Loons have enough talent going forward to grab a couple of goals. Can the team make two goals enough?
FiftyFive.One is now on Patreon. Do you like the independent coverage of soccer news from Minnesota and beyond that FiftyFive.One offers? Please consider becoming a patron.
Tags: Bertrand Owundi Eko'o, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Brent Kallman, Carter Manley, Collen Warner, Francisco Calvo, Ibson, Jerome Thiesson, Kemar Lawrence, Match Preview, Michael Boxall, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, New York Red Bulls, rasmus schuller, Sam Nicholson, Tyler Adams, tyrone mears, Wyatt Omsberg