Minnesota travelled to Houston on April 15 and emerged with an unlikely point. United remains one of only two teams to earn a single point on the road in Houston this year. The game started poorly for Minnesota, with Houston earning two first half goals and sending both Rasmus Schüller and Bobby Shuttleworth off with injuries. Early in the second half, Christian Ramirez and Johan Venegas leveled the score. Stand-in goalkeeper John Alvbåge posted the Loons’ first half of shutout soccer in MLS to end the game 2-2.
Silviu Petrescu is not interested in your extracurriculars. The Canadian official ranks second among MLS referees in fouls per game (28.8) and fourth in yellow cards per game (4.3). He has also dealt seven cards for dissent — tied for second in a year in which a heavy emphasis has been placed on player conduct toward referees. If United is forced to play a number of backup players and perhaps an experimental formation, it could leave the Loons chasing the ball on missed coverages; a hasty tackle may be hastily punished.
M Johan Venegas (international duty) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (international duty) – Out
D Jermaine Taylor (international duty) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
D Marc Burch (hernia injury) – Out
D Vadim Demidov (knee injury) – Out
G John Alvbåge (thumb injury) – Out
F Abu Danladi (thigh injury) – Out
D Brent Kallman (knee injury) - Questionable
M Boniek García (international duty) - Out
F Alberth Elis (international duty) – Out
F Romell Quioto (international duty) – Out
F Erick Torres (international duty) – Out
D George Malki (ACL injury) – Out
M Eric Alexander (undisclosed) – Out
The good news is that personnel absences fall on the just and the unjust alike. Though United will be without numerous players, Houston will be visiting with its attacking corps gutted by international duty.
Let’s begin with those Loons, though, starting with the back line. It remains unclear whether new defender Michael Boxall will be able to participate. At last check, travel paperwork continued to be a hang up, so it may be best to assume he will not be ready for Wednesday. On the outside, the solution amid injury and absence lately has been to play Kevin Venegas at right back and move Jérôme Thiesson to the left side. Venegas, as good as he can be getting forward, remains a defensive liability and the mental lapses he has committed — particularly against New York City — have turned directly into goals. Justin Davis probably didn’t earn many all star votes with his few appearances this year, but he is a firmer presence on the back line and, if we are making like-for-like replacements, he needs to be restored to the left back role.
At center back, things are no less murky. If Brent Kallman is available, it will almost certainly be he and Joseph Greenspan in the middle of the park. If he is unavailable, just about any scenario becomes available. Perhaps the team opts for the 3-5-2 formation it deployed against Columbus Crew and rely heavily on a busy midfield to shield the defense. More creatively, Sam Cronin could be moved to the center of the defense and Collen Warner could replace Cronin as a No. 6. This path seems like the highest gamble, and I would hope to see the club changing formations to suit the personnel it has rather than squeezing square pegs into a 4-2-3-1 shaped hole.
Up top, any hand-wringing over Christian Ramirez not making the Gold Cup roster has turned into hands clasped in grateful prayer by this point, as he is a slam dunk atop the formation. Miguel Ibarra is all but sacred on the left, and Kevin Molino will play somewhere in midfield as long as he can stand upright. With Sam Nicholson far from a sure bet to feature on Wednesday, expect Bashkim Kadrii to see time — probably switching to the right flank, with Molino moving to center— and hope to build on a solid friendly performance against Atlas FC.
A tough roster situation does not mean Minnesota can’t, or shouldn’t, play for the win. At home, every game is winnable. This week looks especially winnable, as Houston faces some challenges of its own. First, it bears mentioning that while the Dynamo have been the best team in the league at home this year, they have yet to earn a single win on the road this year.
Further, their highly vaunted attack has been pulled apart due to international duty. Boniek Garcia, Romell Quioto, and Alberth Elis each play for Honduras, which has qualified for the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup. Erick “Cubo” Torres has turned his scintillating MLS form into another opportunity with the Mexican side. Each of these names is key to Houston’s success, and each is a starter. Elis, in particular, has been one of the best new additions to the league this year and has been key not only in producing but in providing the service from the right wing.
In their places, expect Andrew Wenger — mostly used as a super sub this year and with one goal to his name — to get the start on the right wing. Mauro Manotas is a quietly excellent player on the left side who can play either as a winger or in a deeper box-to-box role, and he should start somewhere on Wednesday. The biggest question, though, is who replaces Torres as the central striker. If Houston starts the players I’ve just mentioned, they will be left with two nominal forwards with a combined five appearances this year, none of them starts. The club could break out of its traditional 4-3-3 formation, but that is something it has been loathe to do this season, even when stretched thin.
No one is going to be framing their video of this match. With so many replacements, coupled with an away team that is lousy on the road and a home team that is just not great anywhere they play, European scouts will probably skip this match. The difference could be in a key instance or two of aloofness from either side, where chemistry breaks down and players playing unfamiliar positions show their inexperience in a single game-changing moment.
If the Dynamo can defend well and keep the Loons to one or fewer goals, they have a great shot at winning. Minnesota will make its errors and give Houston its chances. It is simply up to the defense to make sure those goals are enough for the win.
If Adrian Heath is wise, he has spent much of the squad’s training time having players get accustomed to different formations and different partnerships. The talent he has to play with is good enough to get a home win. But that ability of players to instinctively read each other’s movements and know when to step up to a tackle and when to fall back comes only with experience as a unit. If Minnesota can play with very few seams among the replacements, it might just win. If not, it will be looking to smuggle Nicholson and Boxall into the United States in a suitcase.
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Tags: Alberth Elis, Bashkim Kadrii, Bobby Shuttleworth, Boniek Garcia, Brent Kallman, Christian Ramirez, Collen Warner, Cubo Torres, Houston Dynamo, Johan Venegas, John Alvbåge, Joseph Greenspan, Justin Davis, Kevin Molino, Kevin Venegas, Match Preview, Mauro Manotas, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, rasmus schuller, Romell Quioto, Sam Cronin