Match Preview: Minnesota United FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC

by on 23 June 2017

There’s no place like home. Even a threadbare and struggling team like Minnesota United is able to claim wins against teams like Sporting Kansas City and now Portland when playing at home. Another chance to claim a victory against an old Cascadian enemy beckons when Vancouver visits on Saturday. Can Minnesota gain momentum and win its first consecutive games, and can they replicate the formula that yielded a consistent offensive performance against the Timbers?

Recent form

Minnesota W L L W L -14
Vancouver D W L W L +0

Previous meetings

The two clubs have met each of the last two years during Portland’s preseason invitational tournament, with United losing 4-0 in 2016 but drawing 1-1 this year. In the days of the Minnesota Kicks and the original NASL, the two teams battled twice yearly and were divisional rivals in the Pacific division. In the era of the Thunder, the two teams played dozens of times as USL foes including a playoff match in 2008 which Vancouver won on its way to the title. Saturday marks the rekindling of a soccer relationship between two cities with a deeper history in the sport than many realize.


Referee Jose Carlos Rivero
Assistant Jason White
Assistant Jose Da Silva
Fourth Baboucarr Jallow

At 4.7 yellow cards per game, Jose Carlos Rivero ranks second only to Sorin Stoica in terms of most yellows dealt. His six cards for dissent and three red cards also put him near the top of the league. However, he ranks below average in fouls given each game, suggesting that the gray area between a foul and a caution is much smaller for Rivero than for other referees. On a tangential note, Rivero was suspended from officiating in 2014 after being indicted for illegally claiming $14,000 in unemployment benefits while employed as an official, but returned to refereeing in 2015. That $14,000 in unemployment benefits was fully double the minimum wage for employed NWSL players at the time remains an article for another day.

Roster report

Minnesota United
F Abu Danladi (suspension) – Out
D Joseph Greenspan (concussion) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
D Marc Burch (hernia injury) – Out

Vancouver Whitecaps
D Sheanon Williams (suspension) – Out
F Yordy Reyna (broken foot) – Out
D David Edgar (PCL and MCL tears) – Out
M Nicolás Mezquida (high ankle sprain) – Out

Tactical outlook

Let’s dispense with the usual throat clearing and ask the obvious question: how do we do that again, and what was the difference between our Portland win and our Real Salt Lake loss?

The first answer comes in the form of a salve this article has suggested numerous times: a higher press from wingers who are willing to defend. Compare these maps of all defensive actions from wingers Miguel Ibarra and Abu Danladi in each of the last two games:

Ibarra and Danladi against Portland

Ibarra and Danladi against Real Salt Lake

Several points are immediately clear. First, the wingers committed many more defensive actions against Portland than they did against Real Salt Lake. If the reader is concerned about game states making the difference here, note that possession was fairly evenly split in both games, though against RSL United allowed 29 shots and only 14 against Portland. In other words, the opportunity to play defense was there against RSL.

Further, the position of the wingers where they are getting defensively involved is very different. Against RSL both wingers were defending much wider, closer to the touch lines. Compare that to the Portland map, which shows midfielders playing much more centrally. In the absence of a true No. 10, United is liable to have a hole in the attacking midfield. Bringing wingers in to play more centrally while using overlapping full backs to create width is one way to shore up that gap somewhat. It is no surprise that the full backs were more involved in the attack against Portland, as well.

Attacking higher up the pitch and with more players keeps the opponents’ midfield from establishing momentum and dealing well orchestrated passes. It also means getting the ball in transition much higher up the field, leaving opponents to rush to get organized and with space to run. It’s just one key way to keep the shots allowed column out of the 30s.

Guess what else looks different when guys are challenging for balls in advanced spots rather than sitting back and digging in? The opposing wingers’ charts. Here’s every pass made by the two wingers for both Portland and Real Salt Lake (I’m calling Joao Plata and Brooks Lennon wingers for RSL, which is about their best description):

Passes by Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Blanco of Portland

Passes by Joao Plata and Brooks Lennon of Real Salt Lake

Fun. Portland’s wingers were contained so as to be distributing from positions deeper than the box and more centrally. There’s not anything inherently wrong with that – Fanendo Adi is the one playing advanced – but it allows United’s defense to play more compact and does not subject them to the same barrage. Against Real Salt Lake, Minnesota were hammered from advanced positions and were pulled wider, creating bigger seams between the players on the back line. All that is to say nothing of the fact that those yellow passes – key passes, ones that resulted in a shot – spiderweb the RSL chart and are nowhere to be found on the Portland chart. The bottom line is this: Minnesota is an imperfect team, and the more it sits back and lets better teams play the way they want, the more those teams will be able to. United looks better on the front foot, and needs to play aggressively, tightly, and bravely whether at home or on the road.

How will it play out?

So much depends on lineups. Vancouver has a host of injuries that may or may not be ready for game time. Minnesota has no depth at all and choice starters would be playing on short rest. What is certain is that Vancouver is offensively a very bright team that likes to play attacking soccer even on the road. If both teams play to their attacking strengths, this could be a goal fest.

Vancouver will win if…

Guys like Fredy Montero, Christian Bolaños, even Alphonso Davies know how to score goals. No one should bet on Vancouver being shut out. The key will be if their defense can do enough that whatever goal total the Whitecaps can put up, it is enough for three points.

Minnesota will win if…

Play a high press, bring the wingers in more narrowly to help build up centrally with the lack of a real No. 10, use full backs all day long to create width,  and have every midfielder closing down ball carriers quickly when possession is lost. It’s a very athletic approach, a very American one. It also might be United’s best look.

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