The votes are in, and confidence in Minnesota United’s 2018 MLS season is officially low. Season-opening power rankings consistently put the Loons at or near the bottom of the table this year. But for all the challenges in 2017, some of the most memorable moments came from overcoming low expectations: beating the Grant Wahl mark, putting Montreal on its back with the playoffs on the line, ending Chicago’s impressive home streak, and dealing Atlanta United its first loss in its glossy NFL stadium. None of those memories would ring so clearly if Minnesota were not the perpetual underdog. So while optimism for the season may be low, we are reminded to remain ever-hopeful and to enjoy some wonderful moments as spoiler along the way. San Jose may be the perfect chance to get a head start.
In a memorable season finale, Minnesota United traveled to Avaya Stadium in late October with the playoffs hanging in the balance for San Jose. As leads changed in this game and others throughout the league, the final Western Conference playoff berth was passed around until finally, in stoppage time, substitute Marcos Ureña put away the goal that would win the game and secure playoff soccer for the Earthquakes. Jérôme Thiesson earned a goal that afternoon, as did Francisco Calvo on a late header that had looked to secure a draw. Earlier that season, Minnesota suffered a 1-0 home loss on an early Florian Jungwirth goal.
Baldomero Toledo is one of the longest-serving referees in PRO, having begun working MLS games in 2004. Toledo led all referees last year with 14 red cards; the next closest had only eight reds. He also was near the top in both penalties per game and yellow cards per game. Toledo was not part of the rise in dissent fouls offered last year, but when it comes to actual play on the field, he exhibits a low tolerance for sloppy play.
San Jose Earthquakes
D Marc Burch (ankle injury) – Out
D Harrison Heath (knee injury) – Out
M Sam Cronin (concussion symptoms) – Out
In a sense, San Jose and Minnesota enter the season facing opposite problems. San Jose was a playoff team in 2017 but now enters with an entirely new front office and young, mostly new first XI. Minnesota was a poor team in 2017, but features a lineup that is almost bizarrely unchanged. One of the questions ahead of this game and this season is whether the Loons will improve due to the chemistry of familiarity, or whether San Jose will regress as the club finds its feet.
For United, the preseason suggests that question may already be answered. Adrian Heath fielded lineups that were similar in formation, tactics, and personnel to what the club ended 2017 with. There was relatively little experimentation, our young draft-day haul did not get too much of a run, and the 4-2-3-1 appears here to stay. The results were telling. Minnesota had few truly dangerous chances on goal and the defense handed mental mistakes at a familiar rate. If the Loons are going to succeed on the strength of greater chemistry, it appears that chemistry has not yet coalesced.
San Jose, however, went undefeated in their preseason work. The results of such games are usually not as important as the experimentation and learning on display, but Quakes fans should be heartened that the team allowed only three goals through four games when the club allowed a stomach-churning 60 goals last season. They should be delighted at the savvy of moving their center back with a nose for goal, Florian Jungwirth, into a vacated defensive midfield role that allows him to excel with all of his tools. They should be optimistic at the gambit of putting newly-minted Designated Player Magnus Eriksson in a winger role rather than his preferred striker position, a move that allows the team to play with Eriksson, Danny Hoesen, and MLS legend Chris Wondolowski on the field at the same time and maintain a 4-4-2 lineup. The Northern European San Jose reboot may be a work in progress, but the “progress” factor is clearly on display.
The Earthquakes’ greatest strength is still in its attack. Minnesota’s weakness remains its defense. It may behoove the Loons to park the bus and hope for the best on the counter. Playing on the road (the Quakes lost only twice at home last year) and with an opponent with a relatively capable offense, United shouldn’t expect that it will exert its will around the pitch on Saturday. Better to let San Jose dictate the terms, and hope to steal a goal on the break against a defense that proved prone in 2017. It is not a recipe for inspiration, but it may be a recipe to grab a road point and avoid the early season humiliation of last spring.
The midfield battle will dictate the winner. It is easy to put down the Minnesota defense of 2017, but the midfield did not shield that backline as well as was needed. Expect the Earthquakes to advance the ball down the wings and take Minnesota’s central midfield out of the action. If Minnesota’s wingers can’t provide defensive cover against that approach, San Jose will have numerous chances to attack either through the air or hitting trailing runners on centering passes.
The talent is there for the Earthquakes to prevail if all else proves equal. The big question will be how a very retooled lineup performs as a unit out of the gate. If San Jose plays with some chemistry already, they could make a long evening for Minnesota.
On the road, against a stronger side, Minnesota needs to get a lot right to win this game. But there is opportunity. San Jose’s defense remains a poor one, if you can get past Florian Jungwirth to test it. If they win that midfield battle more often than they lose it, they’ll have their opportunities on goal. They will just need to finish them.
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