These two teams met in their very first preseason matchup of 2017, a 1-1 draw featuring the type of experimentation and heavy use of substitutes typical of preseason games. As such, that result will likely suggest very little of what might happen on Saturday. That January match featured goals by New England Revolution’s Kei Kamara and Minnesota trialist Eugene Starikov.
Ricardo Salazar has been one of the busiest head referees in MLS over the last five years, though he only put in 15 appearances last year. Statistically, Salazar tends to call fewer fouls and fewer cautions. However, since 2013, he has dealt more red cards than all but three other officials. Tough to get a read on this exactly; one can only say that statistics suggest Salazar likes to let the play unfold but has a much larger “orange card” area than some of his peers. With five United players gone and the team travelling with only 17 players, the Loons will not have depth to fall back on if they find themselves in foul trouble.
GK Brad Knighton (concussion) - Questionable
M Zachary Herivaux (right ankle sprain) – Questionable
D Justin Davis (suspension) – Out
GK Patrick McLain (concussion) – Out
D Joseph Greenspan (concussion) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
GK John Alvbåge (knee laceration) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (international duty) – Out
M Johan Venegas (international duty) – Out
M Rasmus Schüller (international duty) – Out
M Kevin Molino (international duty) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (injury) – Out
Predicting Minnesota’s lineup and tactics is as hard this week as it was last week, though for very different reasons. After finally fielding a lineup that saw some success against Colorado, United will be without five starters from last week in addition to the continued absence of John Alvbåge due to injury, to say nothing of a host of injuries to backup players. This means that some new faces may need to make an instant impact against the potent attack of the Revolution.
Justin Davis’ suspension complicates Minnesota’s lineup choices the most, as left back may be the Loons’ position of shortest depth. One likely approach would be to start Jermaine Taylor at left back, a position he started at once already this season (let’s not relive the moment here) and a role for which he is probably better suited than previous deputation at right back.
However, as suggested by Jeff Rueter in his weekly rewind and Wes Burdine in this week’s FiftyFive.One podcast, Jérôme Thiesson may be a good fit (and he may personally even prefer to play) as a left full back. If head coach Adrian Heath does opt for this move, it is possible that Brent Kallman would make the move to left center back, which needs to be filled anyway and could benefit from the strong partnership Kallman and Thiesson showed last week. That would leave either Taylor or Kevin Venegas to fit in at right back. Though Taylor has not had a strong season so far, Heath had shown faith in the 32-year-old and may go that way again. Finally, this leaves a hole in right center back, which could allow Vadim Demidov with a chance to redeem himself.
The attack is just as cloudy. A simple replacement for Schüller would be Mohammed Saeid, with Saeid providing less in clinical ball distribution, but better serving as a box-to-box No. 8 whose defensive support may be crucial against New England’s offense. Elsewhere, Bashkim Kadrii, once pegged as a starter on the right wing, could find that opportunity in the absence of playmaker Molino. That would leave Miguel Ibarra to start on the left once more. United fans will be hoping Ibarra has a bit more license to chase the game than he had against Colorado. Finally, Christian Ramirez is a lock at striker and Abu Danladi may come in as a second striker behind him, a position he played as a substitute last week.
What does all this lineup talk mean tactically? The first thing that stands out is the lack of a playmaker. Schüller’s passes connecting the back line and the attacking corps will be missed, Molino’s quick interchanges on the right side cannot be replicated, and Danladi as a second striker is not a like-for-like replacement for Johan Venegas. As a result, and by necessity, Minnesota may have its best attacking luck working up the flanks and, facing a New England team that is light on talent on the wing, United will hopefully not be made to pay for any costly errors down the flanks.
All this assumes that positions are not a relative term this weekend. If Kadrii and Ibarra are both allowed to roam a bit and find space centrally, Minnesota could still pick its spots as it works up the pitch. Ibarra, in fact, may be best when he is all but positionless and is allowed to make dangerous runs at the defense. However, it is perhaps more likely that the two wingers will be asked to support a defense that will be low in chemistry, high in players playing out of position, and which features players fans have already seen struggle. That would mean United would be playing a bit more rigidly with regards to its shape. It does not suit Heath’s offense-first, possession-oriented style, but for one week it might be optimal.
New England, conversely, will be mostly unaffected by injuries and national team call-ups. Minnesota will still be staring down Kamara, two seasons removed from winning the MLS Golden Boot, as an imposing striker. Always reliable Lee Nguyen and once-mercurial midfielder Diego Fagúndez man a midfield that knows how to retain possession and do something clever with it. Juan Agudelo, another once-and-future Freddy Adu, is still young with a ton of pace and skill on the ball up top. In short, the Revolution’s attack looks devastatingly potent. On paper.
In reality, New England only has one goal in two games and that goal came from the penalty spot. In 2016, with essentially the same attacking players except only having Kamara for half the year, the Revolution scored a confusingly-low 44 goals, better than only one team in the Eastern Conference. One of the biggest questions heading in to Saturday will be whether this high-potential offense can finally achieve against a team using all but caulk and electrical tape to stick together a defense.
New England started its game against FC Dallas last week playing a high press and this worked well early on. The Revs won a number of corners, and one of which led to the foul that gave Lee Nguyen his chance from the spot. Given the success New England saw with its high press, and considering the error-prone defensive players that will likely see the field for United, I think viewers can expect another busy night in the Loons’ defensive end. Collen Warner will be crucial, not just in defending, but also in providing a quick outlet should the Loons’ back line need to move the ball swiftly out of the back.
Perhaps the opening to this article is wrong. Tomorrow’s matchup against New England could have provided a perfect window into just how good (or bad) United really is. But as depleted as Minnesota is, the game will likely be another exercise in measuring Heath’s crisis management skills.
One can expect the occasional missed defensive assignment and some errant passes out of the back; these are just hallmarks of work-in-progress chemistry potentially made more reactive by an aggressive New England press. It would be foolish to assume that the Revs will not capitalize on at least one or two of these opportunities, and probably be awarded a sizable handful of free kicks and corner kicks along the way.
The bigger question is: what will Minnesota do at the business end of the field? There is still enough talent available to the Loons to take advantage of New England’s relative weakness in defense. Ibarra and Kadrii may be expected to support the defense, but in attack Minnesota still needs to use the full width of the pitch to keep the Revolution spread out. The performance of Saeid in the runs he makes and the through balls he attempts will have a lot to do with whether United pulls that off.
Maintaining a press could be a great way to force United to make errors in the back. It is also a sure recipe for tired legs around the 70th minute. If New England maintains its ability to pressure high up the field, and maintains its pace for 90 minutes, its odds look good against the visiting Loons.
It is sometimes said that the best defense is a good offense, especially when your best defense is bad. The Loons had some success playing a press of their own against Colorado. By using that tactic again, they might be able to earn a bit more possession and take some pressure off their defense. If United accomplishes as much, and if Ibarra and Kadrii are not too pinned to the sidelines to find the game, Minnesota has a fighting chance.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Adrian Heath, Bashkim Kadrii, Brent Kallman, Christian Ramirez, Collen Warner, Diego Fagundez, Francisco Calvo, Jermaine Taylor, Jerome Thiesson, Juan Agudelo, Justin Davis, Kei Kamara, Lee Nguyen, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Mohammed Saeid, New England Revolution, Thomas de Villardi, Vadim Demidov