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Match Preview: Minnesota United FC vs. San Jose Earthquakes

by on 11 May 2018

Minnesota played, and predictably lost, against a formidable Los Angeles team, on the road, playing on short rest, with what seemed like a M*A*S*H* episode of injuries. Fans should shed few tears over the loss and instead rejoice that Minnesota did not suffer any further injuries, save to their pride. San Jose, however, is not LAFC. San Jose is bad. Very bad. Fans should forget what they saw on opening day against this squad on the road; that was a seven-game winless streak ago for the Earthquakes. But amid the injury turmoil, can Minnesota United get the job done against a team that put them 3-0 in the hole two months ago?

Previous meetings

The final score line of Minnesota’s 3-2 2018-season-opening defeat at the hands of San Jose gives the impression the game might have been a nailbiter. It was something less than that. The Loons did something they have had a habit of over their two seasons in MLS, giving up the first goal and then immediately conceding a second goal to dig an insurmountable hole. The match also perpetuated a misleading-but-common narrative about the Loons that they are a second half team. The only reason Minnesota is a second half team, historically, is because it falls behind early and opponents let off the gas and cede possession for the entire second half. So it was against San Jose. After falling behind 3-0, Minnesota clawed back into the match with two very late Kevin Molino goals. The hole was too deep, however, and San Jose earned 3/5ths of the total points it would have ten weeks later on that night.

Officials

Referee Victor Rivas
Assistant Corey Parker
Assistant TJ Zablocki
Fourth Sorin Stoica
VAR Ramy Touchan

This is Victor Rivas’ first MLS match. Because I have no statistical information to provide about Rivas, I’ll wildly speculate that he will get into a pedantic argument with players about what “offsides” really means, having just received his sheepskin from the grad school of refereeing. He will also either refuse to award any cards or will award everyone the same number of cards throughout the game, understanding fouls to actually be a construct, a story we tell ourselves, and that by dividing players among those with cards and those without, we perpetuate an institutionalized caste system applied by a yellow-shirted police force against whom the soccer proletariat has little legal recourse. This is just carefully-informed speculation, mind you.

Roster report

Minnesota United
D Tyrone Mears (lower right leg) – Out
D Marc Burch (left knee) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
F Abu Danladi (right ankle) – Out
D Eric Miller (lower left leg) – Questionable
F Christian Ramirez (right hamstring) – Questionable

San Jose Earthquakes
M Tommy Thompson (illness) – Out
D Yeferson Quintana (ankle) – Out
M Eric Calvillo (knee) – Out

Tactical outlook

Rather than typing “San Jose is not a good team” hundreds of times, though the writing siren calls me to those still waters, I will try to explain what I think is going on with the team. Much of how United should approach them is inherent in San Jose’s flaws.

It is worth calling out that the Earthquakes made numerous changes in the offseason, including the installation of a new head coach in Mikael Stahre, a number of European imports to various other coaching positions, and some major turnover in the back line. The amount of change San Jose has gone through always requires adjustment and some bumps in the road, but as once wisely penned by Coldplay, “nobody said it was easy, but no one ever said it would be this hard.”

Along with personnel changes came the establishment of a box 4-4-2 formation. This is a new look for the Earthquakes and one that probably does not play to the strengths of the players at hand. First of all, this puts Jackson Yueill and Anibal Godoy in the center of the park. These are players who are not No. 10-style maestros, but play stronger in a deeper-lying position. They are also both not elite talents right now (Yueill is only 21 and still has time to blossom; Godoy is 28 and pretty much is what he is), whatever their utilization.

This would not necessarily be the end of the world if the two “wingers,” Vako on the left and Magnus Eriksson on the right, pinch in to provide a bit more inside playmaking ability centrally and to ensure everyone has a quick passing outlet during buildup. However, they have not succeeded in this, likely for two reasons. First, they simply are not getting the job done in the moment. Vako, especially, does not seem to be making the right decisions on his side and is not connecting with teammates well enough, reading their runs and knowing when to pass, dribble, or shoot. Eriksson has been bette,r but is also less effective for the second reason: the Earthquakes’ fullbacks are not succeeding at giving the team enough width up high. With a passing outlet along the flanks, it is much easier for the wingers to play that central role. Put bluntly, Nick Lima and Shea Salinas are not going to unlock things for San Jose.

So with Yueill and Godoy succeeding better from a deeper role, and the wingers not able to effectively cut in centrally, a team might still perform decently if one of the two strikers plays deeper and can be an effective playmaker. Between Chris Wondolowski and Danny Hoesen, neither of them is that type of striker. Wondo is a poacher with a special eye for being in the right place at the right time and for finishing the chances he has (save your 2014 World Cup jokes, I’ve heard them all before). Hoesen is a striker’s striker who does not know how to finish, and those writers who had him pegged as a dark horse for a Golden Boot winner are growing fat on the crow they must eat.

The wingers are staying wide, the central midfielders play deep, and the forwards will not drop back. Not an effective box 4-4-2. When all that comes together, you get passing charts like this one:

Successful passes by all San Jose midfielders and forwards against Portland, May 5th 2018

San Jose actually played one of its better games against Portland last week. However, among all its forwards and midfielders, the team played three successful passes from within the final 25 yards all game, and those passes were two impotent passes to the touch line and one deep back pass. The successful passes that entered the final third were mostly searching diagonal balls, though they did have six successful passes into the box. The real story here, though, is how deep all these passes are coming from. There is a 25-yard shield around the goal in all directions where no one is executing passes. A team does not need a No. 10; there are ways to play around it. But this is a team that has left a big hole at the top of the box strategically, and it is not working.

The results for San Jose will come eventually. Despite their recent form of LLDDLLL, they only have a -4 goal differential after eight games. They are never losing by more than one goal, and neither their offense nor their defense is exactly tragic. But if Minnesota has any illusion of being a genuine playoff team, then this match, at home, against a team as down and out as the Earthquakes, absolutely must be three points. Nothing less will do.

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