Minnesota United’s preseason kicked off in earnest on Tuesday with a match against New England. It has been a whirlwind past couple of months as players and coaches were brought into the fold. With its roster nearly assembled, the preseason is a crucial first step.
We’re finally getting to the good stuff.
Yesterday closed the door on the third full month of Minnesota’s offseason. We know the familiar faces that will stick to the cause with the Loons. We’ve had time to analyze how the new faces (from within MLS and beyond) will fit into the fold. Finally, we can start to see how these players will function on the pitch for Adrian Heath’s side.
Before we get too carried away, though, it’s important to recognize what the purpose of the preseason is. This isn’t a month where United fans will puff up their chest and start talking “MLS Cup” after a 2-1 win. Further, bigger questions surrounding individual players and if they’re ready for MLS won’t be answered.
Instead, the preseason gives Heath and his staff a chance to figure out how to best deploy the players they have in their stead. Aside from a notable contingency of returning veterans from the NASL days, there is very little pre-existing chemistry between players. It will be massively important for the club to hit the ground running, form those bonds, and reach a point where familiarity works to their advantage.
I’ll cull a list of questions before the regular season to cover some of the more pressing concerns about this current side. However, here are the five points of interest that I’ll be following over the next month. Finding answers to these will be crucial to understanding Minnesota’s prospects in 2017.
1. How will the club get the most out of its attack?
While Minnesota’s defensive acquisitions (namely the capture of Francisco Calvo) caught early attention, it’s possible that their attack is more imposing. Minnesota was able to snare club icons Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra. The two had one and a half extremely fruitful years of playing alongside each other. The link-up ability they possess is hard to find and both figure to start in the first regular season match.
From there, the core of the attack is filled with players without a steadfast position. Acquired on the day of the Expansion Draft, Costa Rican Johan Venegas is hungry to show that his lackluster days in Montreal were due to playing in a system that did not suit his strengths. Deployed most often on the wing with the Impact, Venegas profiles best as a second striker — something of a pseudo-No. 10.
Of course, the biggest capture of the offseason has been former Orlando dangerman Kevin Molino. One of Heath’s favorite players, Molino scored 11 goals and added eight assists in 2016 while playing the right wing. However, one can point to Molino’s 2014 USL-Pro MVP campaign as reason to readjust his positioning. That year, the Trinidadian attacker scored 20 goals while playing centrally as an attacking midfielder. Having been blocked at that position by Kaká with his former club, there’s every reason to believe he’ll play centrally in 2017.
Then, there is Minnesota’s first-overall pick in the SuperDraft: Abu Danladi. The former UCLA man was selected over capable defenders and other attackers because the club feels he has the highest ceiling of any prospect from the draft. While Danladi spent some time on the wing with the Bruins, Heath affirmed that he sees Danladi solely as a center forward. Still, the flexibility Danladi possesses will ensure he sees the field sooner rather than later.
The talent is there. The question is how to best utilize it all.
2. What kind of tactics will be utilized in the midfield?
Traditionally, Heath’s sides play with a three-man midfield. While the No. 10 role gets the glory, the two midfielders playing further back on the pitch are equally vital. Some clubs (such as the Seattle Sounders) tend to anchor one as a defensive midfielder, with the other moving box to box. Other sides (think Columbus Crew SC) will have their midfielders trade off defensive and attacking duties.
As currently constructed, Minnesota’s midfield fleet consists of four key figures. Only one of them — Collen Warner — is a true defensive midfielder. The other three — TAM-purchase Rasmus Schüller, expansion draftee Mohammed Saeid, and former-NASL Best XI honoree Ibson — are each at their best when shuttling as a box-to-box player.
Does this mean that one of these three will have to shift to a primarily-defensive role if Warner isn’t able to start? Of course not. There’s no guarantee that the club will have a No. 6 (defensive midfielder) and a No. 8 (free-roaming central midfielder) on the field at all times. In fact, given the talent that Minnesota has at the position, it would be advantageous to keep the midfield flexible.
In this case, the onus falls on the players and coaches to get the quartet comfortable working with each other. It’s more important that the players lining up alongside one another know each other’s tendencies. As long as each knows how their counterparts operate, it’ll keep the game plan running at a smooth clip. In turn, this could make United harder to defend against as its tactics subtly change in the middle.
3. Who steps up as the de facto third center back?
Along with the aforementioned Calvo, Minnesota United made a savvy pickup in the capture of Vadim Demidov. The Norwegian international has captained sides in promotion battles, logged minutes in the Bundesliga and La Liga, and at 30 years old has plenty left in the tank. The two internationals seem a perfect match to anchor the back line.
From there, however, things are less certain. Woodbury native Brent Kallman earned his place on the roster by submitting an NASL Best XI-worthy campaign. Kallman has continued on a logical progression in his career as he’s moved from prospect to starter to first-division player. Given his ability, Kallman is certain to be hungry to see the field in 2017.
That said, the club traded a SuperDraft selection (and reached a hush-hush agreement to not select any other Rapids in the Expansion Draft) for Joe Greenspan. The 6-foot-6 center back had military commitments in 2015 and 2016, but recently transferred to the Navy Reserve and was allowed to join Minnesota for the season. Having scouted him at D.C. United, Amos Magee called Greenspan one of the best center back prospects he ever worked with.
In a move that slid under the radar, Minnesota also brought in MLS veteran Jermaine Taylor. The Jamaican international has six years and 129 MLS appearances to his name, bringing veteran poise to the rotation. As the roster is currently set up, Taylor seems the likely choice to make the 18 every week as the chief backup. However, the young pair of Kallman and Greenspan will be nipping at his heels.
4. Is there enough in the cupboard at goalkeeper?
For the past month or two, United fans had been in total despair at the lack of goalkeepers. While notable field players were joining the cause, the fact remained that the club hadn’t acquired a goalkeeper until the SuperDraft, with their selection of Alec Ferrell. The Wake Forest product is unlikely to see the field in 2017 and there was a true feeling of panic among the fans. For what it’s worth, I did my best to calm the Twitter crowd with ferret gifs.
However, household pets can only do so much for a rabid fan base. Instead, the acquisition of Swedish veteran John Alvbåge was the real panacea. The 34-year-old joins United on a six-month loan, with Minnesota holding a purchase option once the summer transfer window hits.
On paper, the move feels like Sporting Kansas City’s acquisition of Jimmy Nielsen in 2010. Then 33, Nielsen started nearly every match across four years with SKC. He ultimately won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2012 and led the club to an MLS Cup title in 2013. If Alvbåge can have even half of that level of success, Minnesota will have a true top-10 goalkeeper in the league. Of course, glass-half-empty types might instead see a parallel to Donovan Ricketts, the senior citizen goalkeeper who Adrian Heath’s Orlando side brought in for their first year, and who looked every bit his age in ten appearances with the Lions.
Between Alvbåge and Ferrell on the depth chart is Patrick McLain, who was acquired along with Molino from Orlando City. The Eau Claire, Wisc. native has spent time with Chivas USA and Chicago but has just two MLS starts to his name. Among the invitees for the preseason is former Vancouver Whitecaps prospect Marco Carducci. The 20-year-old Canadian international developed under current Loons goalkeeper coach Marius Røvde. If there are any doubts about Ferrell or McLain, (or if the club wants a GK for the future to loan out) the club would be wise to add Carducci to its roster.
Lunchtime #MNUFC poll: Are you satisfied with Alvbåge/McLain/Ferrell as the goalkeepers going into the season?
— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) January 30, 2017
5. Has Heath’s system changed at all since his Orlando days?
This question is likely going to be best answered in the regular season, if for no other reason than that we can rarely watch preseason matches from home. Heath’s teams were known for playing simple, effective football, leaving two or three choices for the player in possession. In 2015, this led Orlando to a postseason chase that ended in the final week of the season.
On paper, the move feels like Sporting Kansas City’s acquisition of Jimmy Nielsen in 2010. If Alvbåge can have even half of that level of success, Minnesota will have a true top-10 goalkeeper in the league.
However, with a new club could come a new look for Inchy. His Orlando sides were often caught in despair on opposing counterattacks, leaving some to wonder if there would be more of a defensive focus from the Englishman in 2017. Perhaps Heath’s inclusion of former assistant Mark Watson into his coaching staff is part of that focus. During his playing days, Watson was a tough-as-nails defender.
Much of the preseason is impossible to watch (though if last year was the norm, the Simple Invitational will stream on YouTube). However, these are my five biggest story lines to follow over the next four weeks. What are yours? Sound off in the comment section below.
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