|New York City||W||W||W||D||L||+11
With Minnesota having just leapt into MLS and with New York City having been built from scratch in 2015, there is no history between these two teams directly. United fans are no strangers to loathing New York teams, however, with recent NASL history against the Cosmos consistently siding against the Loons. Minnesota beat the Cosmos just once in eleven tries since the New York club was resurrected in the fall of 2013. In the original days of the NASL, the Minnesota Kicks would regularly do battle with Pelé and the Cosmos of old, memorably suffering a playoff loss to New York in the Conference Semifinal in 1978. Minnesota fans should have no issues dredging up a passion for cheering against still another New York City club.
Armando Villareal has a quiet place in Minnesota United history having manned the team’s first ever MLS win, coming in April against Real Salt Lake. Villareal is typically below the league average in terms of fouls and cautions awarded per game, and this year his eight assignments see him basically maintaining the same clip. He has issued only one red card this year and has awarded no penalties. For a team like United that does not have a lot of roster options sitting on the shelf, a lower likelihood of being sent off is very welcome.
F Abu Danladi (thigh injury) – Out
D Joseph Greenspan (concussion) – Out
M Bernardo Ańor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
D Marc Burch (hernia injury) – Out
D Vadim Demidov (knee injury) – Out
D Brent Kallman (knee injury) – Out
New York City
F Khiry Shelton (hamstring injury) – Out
M Maxi Moralez (calf injury) – Out
D Ronald Matarrita (hamstring injury) – Questionable
It would be lovely to talk strictly about X’s and O’s here, but the most pressing question is whether Minnesota can find eleven living, breathing human beings to play soccer for 90ish minutes. The Loons are not a deep team to begin with, and having crucial players like Brent Kallman, Marc Burch, and Abu Danladi out leaves the cupboards pretty bare. If Minnesota plays a four-man back line Thursday, they will do so with one nominal defensive substitute available to them. If Christian Ramirez leaves the game, there will be no choice but to put a midfielder in at striker (although playing no forwards at all and just building a wall around their own goal is an option, as well). This is a crisis level depth problem, and a road game against a great team is not a wonderful place to put that depth to the test.
The first decision to make will be what the defense looks like. Jermaine Taylor is all but a guarantee to start for the injured Kallman; any use of Taylor in a full back position after the first two games of Minnesota’s season would about be grounds for coach Adrian Heath’s dismissal. Francisco Calvo is a sure bet at left center back. Jérôme Thiesson will see the field, but whether he plays on the left or on the right depends on whom Heath has more faith in at the opposite defensive side: Kevin Venegas or Justin Davis. Venegas has been given the nod lately with Thiesson switching to the left side to make room. The results have been predictable enough. Venegas is a threat going forward and a liability defending. Davis last saw action in the US Open Cup dismantling at the hands of Sporting KC. It will be a tough decision that could have a major impact on the final score.
Unless Heath throws a serious curveball (there aren’t many surprises left to him right now), the front six should look familiar. The central pairing of Sam Cronin and Ibson has been too good to meddle with, and midfielders like Bashkim Kadrii, Rasmus Schüller, and the like are clearly lesser players than their starting counterparts. Perhaps Heath will use this game, one on short rest and with a victory unlikely, to actually start a rotational lineup and let the obvious starters take time to rest. It may not be a terrible idea, but the rest of this preview would need to look pretty grim in that circumstance. Because New York is good.
David Villa continues to make the case that he could be one of the best MLS players of all time. His goal and assist totals since joining the league in 2015 are staggering and showcase his ability not just as a still-elite finisher but as a playmaker and distributor as well. New York will be without Maxi Moralez and will miss his skill as a playmaker as well, but Tommy McNamara has been more than capable in his place. Contributors like Alex Ring, Ben Sweat, and Jack Harrison help make up the kind of well-rounded squad you need to compete in this league. Rather than the team of three stars and eight nobodies they were in their first season, the club has matured into a place of understanding how to find talent that is consistent. That is why they are one of the best teams in the league right now.
If New York does have a weakness, it in the defense. While the team is tied for second in MLS in terms of goals scored (31), they are a good-but-not-elite defensive team having allowed 20 goals. Center backs Maxime Chanot and Alexander Callens are exploitable, and if Johan Venegas is going to play second striker behind Christian Ramirez once again, it might be advisable to run at this central defense and force them to make fast decisions in an overload situation. Either he would end up drawing a defender to make room for Ramirez, or he may himself find some space if the defenders have been coached to watch Ramirez more closely. If that is the direction United choose to go, it would require Ibson to play a bit higher than normal and to have the wingers play fluidly and more centrally than usual to fill in the space where Venegas (or a No. 10, if Minnesota had such a player) would normally operate.
It would be tempting to play ultra conservatively this game. For a road game on short rest against an elite team, playing a squad of backups and asking them to park the bus would be an understandable impulse. But the Loons simply do not have the talent in defense to hold back and withstand a barrage. If Heath and company want to escape from New York with a point, it will only happen with United playing on the front foot, winning the ball back in advanced positions, and taking advantage of New York’s relative weak point.
New York will almost certainly own possession. That domination, and their strength in the middle of the park, is likely to overwhelm guys like Jermaine Taylor and whichever second choice full back earns the start. The Loons will be under a heavy barrage from the beginning. Whether they can do enough on the counterattack to keep the game competitive will be key.
There is any reason left in this world. A great team at home against a poor one just needs to play consistent and not lose focus.
New York’s own coach, Patrick Vieira was quoted this week as saying “if we don’t have the same concentration and focus that we had against Red Bulls we will not have any chance of winning against Minnesota.” That is probably generous from the coach, but let’s just say that if New York does have one eye on the next game already, perhaps fields a backup or two thinking this game is a sure bet, then Minnesota could pounce. Much needs to go right for that to happen, though.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Adrian Heath, Alex Ring, Alexander Callens, Ben Sweat, Brent Kallman, Christian Ramirez, David Villa, Francisco Calvo, Ibson, Jack Harrison, Jermaine Taylor, Johan Venegas, Justin Davis, Kevin Venegas, Match Preview, Maxime Chanot, Maximiliano Moralez, Minnesota United FC, MLS, New York City FC, Patrick Vieira, Sam Cronin, Tommy McNamara