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Match Preview: Minnesota United FC vs. Sporting Kansas City

by on 18 May 2018

Minnesota really should have lost against Los Angeles last week, playing on short rest, with some new starters, and on the road against one of the league’s best teams. The loss to San Jose, however, was a deflating head scratcher. Key errors were punished, and the league’s worst team snapped a seven-game winless streak on the road to a team that has tickled the playoff line most of the season. It is not time to hit the panic button for the Loons, but it may be time to hit the reset button and forget the last week. At home, against a genuine rival, would be a perfect time to climb back into the race.

Previous meetings

The Loons enjoyed what would be one of their most complete wins of the season in 2017 against Sporting KC, a 2-0 home victory with a national TV audience in early May. The game marked the first MLS instance of a Miguel Ibarra – Christian Ramirez connection, as Batman fed Superman an assist from wide left for a first-half insurance goal. Later occasions would be less friendly to Minnesota. A 3-0 loss in league play was followed by a 4-0 loss in Open Cup play just eleven days later. The two clubs tied 1-1 at TCF Bank Stadium later in the year in the league play rubber match. Though the two mid-season losses will stand out in the minds of Loons fans, it is important to remember that the overall league record between the two clubs is 1-1-1. A rivalry, indeed.

Officials

Referee Jair Marrufo
Assistant Corey Rockwell
Assistant Jose Da Silva
Fourth Marcos DeOliveira
VAR Allen Chapman

Jair Marrufo will be conducting business for this match. He is a referee that typically calls few fouls but controls a match well (though his 24.4 fouls per game this year is slightly ahead of the league average of 22.9). Marrufo is right around the average this year in yellow cards issued, having given 3.4 per game against the average of 3.6. The veteran referee will be headed to the World Cup this summer, so just as the players do, Marrufo will see the next month as something of a warm up ahead of the big show.

Roster report

Minnesota United
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 Tyrone Mears (lower right leg) – Questionable

Sporting Kansas City
M Felipe Gutierrez (sports hernia surgery) – Out

Tactical outlook

It occurred to me as I prepared for this week that my tactical previews typically are very reactive from a Loons point of view. “X team is weak in these areas, so Minnesota should directly try to exploit them.” It’s a very simple approach to tactics, and is easily predicted and countered. Thank goodness I’m not the coach.

Considering tactics in this manner always has Minnesota responding to another team, almost like giving away the first move in a chess match. Then again, there are reasons for taking the approach of simply focusing on key opponent weaknesses and trying to take advantage. For one, the Loons do not appear to have the talent required to assert their will over a game against any given team. That is not to say they never exercise control over a match; in fact, most games feature at least stretches where Minnesota is doing what they want, how they want, and being successful at doing so. But there is no team against whom Adrian Heath can count on his men simply spending the entire match doing what they do best – a heavy possession attack utilizing speedy wingers, the coach would assert – and knocking on that door until the opponent surrenders.

Here are two alternate ways to think about this issue. First, imagine Sporting KC planning for this week’s match from a purely reactive standpoint, trying to find a chink in the armor to slip through, experimenting with some way to find Minnesota’s weakness and hammer it heavily. That would be an absurd way for head coach Peter Vermes to plan. His concerns will be about how to help Khiry Shelton find the back of the net, something he has not done well this season. He will be planning how to get more production out of newly signed Designated Player Yohan Croizet in the center of the park. Sporting KC will be planning on how to optimize its strengths, and its focus will be on its own matters. There will of course be video review and analysis of Minnesota’s strengths and weaknesses, but suffice to say that the team is not going to stop giving Johnny Russell the ball on his side of the flanks just because it thinks it sees a weaker full back on the other side of the Minnesota defense.

But that is exactly the kind of planning that would make sense for Minnesota United.

Another way to conceptualize the issue is to look at the Loons’ starting roster from top to bottom (let’s assume the team has no short-term injuries and can play with a preferred XI) and ask which individual players could reliably assert their will over a match? Who could put the game on their back when the team is struggling collectively? Does Minnesota have a center back one could feel comfortable pitting against just about any striker man-to-man? Does Minnesota have a member of the attack one would feel comfortable throwing at just about any defender, knowing that the Loons’ attacker would find the right runs, the right passes, and dribble out of trouble in tight spaces? Perhaps Darwin Quintero. Maybe Ibson on a good day. For the most part my opinion is no, that on a player-to-player basis, Minnesota’s men would get beat at least as often as they wouldn’t, and this means that simply trying to play the best version of our own game is inadequate.

This is (hopefully) not just a lengthy way of saying “Minnesota is not a great team.” They are better than many gave them credit for, and they have left points on the field this year that they probably deserved. But tactically, it means that the focus must be reactive. It means that the whole must be better than the sum of the parts. David did not slay Goliath by just beating him at his own game, by overpowering him. Nor shall the Loons win many games that are not primarily focused on exploiting the opponent’s idiosyncrasies.

I have defended my thoughts around predicting tactics just to bring some bad news. Short of a talented, Marcos Ureña-type striker who is having a drought and a No. 10 whose production metrics are not quite there, Sporting KC does not have any glaring weak spots. They have scored more goals than any team in the Western Conference and have been the best team in the west defensively for the last two months. The defense is filled with elite veterans, the flanks covered by wing-back style full backs that are every bit as good attacking as defending. Offensive production from the wingers has been elite this year. Even Shelton, despite his goal scoring drought, does wonderful work off the ball in his best imitation of Miguel Ibarra by pulling players around and creating space for others.

Thank goodness I’m not the coach.

 

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