On a day where even the great Juventus rear guard played poorly (in the UEFA Champions League final), the Loons put in their weakest defensive display since April. The loss of Francisco Calvo and Sam Cronin proved too much for United to overcome.
Starting in a 4-4-2 formation, United clearly hoped to limit Sporting Kansas City and defend solidly with two banks of four, while being able to attack directly via Kevin Molino and Christian Ramirez up top. This conservative, but understandable, approach was intensified when United lost Miguel Ibarra early in the game. The introduction of Rasmus Schüller led to a shift in formation, and United were forced into a 4-1-4-1. This would naturally push any team back, and Minnesota spent the remainder of the game under pressure.
In this formation (4-1-4-1) the shield in front of the defense must be solid, but the Loons were too easy to break down, too easy to play through, and were completely dominated.
Ramirez, isolated up top, was unable to contribute significantly and United was fortunate to only lose 3-0 in the end.
On an admittedly hot day in Kansas City, the Loons appeared to lack the conviction to press. The act of pressing as a group of 11 in such conditions is obviously very difficult, but individually players can still influence or pressure the ball. Absent that pressure, SKC had too much time on the ball and picked United apart.
No pressing or pressure on the ball meant the United defense had to be compact. It was important for every Loon on the field on Saturday to encourage Sporting to play around them. SKC needed to be pushed to the outside, but consistently, it was too easy for Sporting to play through the center of the field.
When a lack of pressure meets the ability to penetrate centrally, it is a recipe for disaster for the side without the ball, and United paid the price. The Loons were lucky to hang on to a 0-0 scoreline until the 47th minute, and Sporting should have put the game away before the break.
Allowing Sporting to have the ball in its own half, and for United to choose areas of the field in which to defend was a good tactical concept. However, when conceding territory and allowing the opponent to have the ball, United forgot to execute on two key points:
If neither of the above happens for a side defending deep, they are in big trouble. In the 47th minute, United dropped deeper than it had generally, allowing Ike Opara to stroll forward with the ball. The big center back, with all the time in the world, banged a shot from 35 yards that ended up in the net. Bobby Shuttleworth should ask questions of his positioning and footwork, but the fact that the defense had dropped off so far allowed the ball to get through and unsight the keeper.
Few Minnesota fans and supporters realistically expected the Loons to go to Kansas City and come home with three points. However, to expect the team to work, hustle, harry, and make life difficult for Sporting was a reasonable, and unmet, expectation.
At different points in the leadup to second goal of the game, United had four opportunities to stop Sporting’s attack.
At the MLS level, teams can make a mistake and they may get the chance to get out of trouble, but make four mistakes and the result is a goal.
Firstly, Schüller had the chance to stop the counter attack at the halfway line, and at least should have slowed the attack down. Instead, the Finn simply fell over.
This led to a retreating defense hoping to get back and a fatigued Ibson being muscled off the ball and committing a foul.
The tired players then make another schoolboy error by stopping and waiting for the whistle, which never came. SKC continued to play on and another unpressured shot almost broke the bar and went in. Four clear opportunities to stop the game, make it hard for Kansas City, and keep the game at 1-0, missed.
The Loons had, early in the second half, given up on the game and their travelling support. Yes, United were missing important players. Yes, United struggled with injury. Yes, Sporting are a quality team but effort and willingness to work should go without saying. A team that represents Minnesota needs to understand this before anything else.
A welcome break before the next league game versus Real Salt Lake on June 17 will be appreciated by the players and coaching staff. It gives them time to gather themselves and push on into the long summer schedule. The additional practice and rest should ensure that when United get back on the pitch, it plays better than it did this past weekend.
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