A bit of luck and a bit of skill is as good a recipe as any for a healing salve, and the wounds of four straight losses and yet another season-ending injury were given a temporary balm by Sunday’s home victory against Houston. It was a victory that, if numbers mean anything, probably should not have come. But soccer is a fickle thing, in MLS more so than just about anywhere. So what will be the mix of luck and skill on display Saturday, when the Loons welcome a Vancouver team that applied a few bandages of its own heading into last weekend?
Minnesota and Vancouver tussled to a 2-2 draw at TCF Bank Stadium in June of 2017, and your memory of the game probably says more about you than it does about the game. The pessimists may remember the very “Minnesota” way the club went into a deep hole in the first half by giving up two goals before the half. The optimists may remember the way Minnesota clawed back with two second half goals to earn a point. The pedantic might note that it was two defenders that scored those goals for Minnesota. The passionate might recall that this was the game that spawned Jérôme Thiesson’s infamous loon celebration. Whatever your memory, we can all agree that we have erased the Loons’ 3-0 loss to Vancouver later in the year from our collective memory.
Nima Saghafi is in just his second full year of MLS refereeing and third overall and is taking his third assignment of the year. In that small sample size, he has averaged an out-sized five yellow cards a game and 29 fouls per game but has not dealt any red cards or penalties thus far. 2017 had Saghafi much closer to the middle of the pack across these metrics, so it is yet to be seen if he will start to regress toward a mean or if 2018 represents the turning of a new, more aggressive leaf for the official.
D Tyrone Mears (lower right leg) – Out
D Marc Burch (left knee) – Out
D Bertrand Owundi Eko’o (left hamstring) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
F Christian Ramirez (right hamstring) – Out
M Frantz Pangop (right ribs) – Questionable
F Abu Danladi (right ankle) – Questionable
M Cristian Techera (suspension) – Out
F Kei Kamara (adductor strain) – Doubtful
M Jordon Mutch (undisclosed) – Doubtful
Anyone trying to get a read on Vancouver for the weekend would do well not to look at the standings. Vancouver sits in third place in the Western Conference right now. However, there is also exactly one team in MLS with a worse goal differential than the Whitecaps; they have two games in hand over the fourth-place competitor, and they only just shut down a three-game losing streak. Their 6-0 loss to Sporting KC two weeks ago was a franchise worst. This team is reeling more than their standing suggests, and the club’s position is due to regress toward the mean.
The club also will have some key outages facing Minnesota. Still-potent-in-MLS goal scorer Kei Kamara, currently atop the team in goals, is unlikely to feature. Key midfielder Cristian Techera, who scored in last week’s 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake, will be out after suffering two yellow cards in four minutes in that game. Jordon Mutch started as the central attacking midfielder in that game, a position that continues to confound the Whitecaps, is unlikely to see action. The stage may be set for Minnesota to build momentum after its home win against Houston.
Vancouver is also a stylistically unique in a way that Loons coach Adrian Heath probably loves. In 2017, the Whitecaps made the playoffs as a third seed while holding only a bit more than 40% possession on average across the entire season. In their win against Salt Lake, Vancouver only held the ball 31.2% of the game despite playing at home. The club is all about bunkering and countering, ceding all the possession similar to the 2016 Colorado Rapids team that almost won the Supporter’s Shield (that team, however, had a historically good defense—Vancouver does not). When they earn the ball back, the Whitecaps tend not to run straight toward the goal but rather hit long balls to advance up the field and hit a lot of crosses from out wide; in other words, they make up for their lack of creativity in the middle of the field with volume from the flanks.
This could be a blessing and a curse for Minnesota. Heath enjoys playing a high possession style, and Vancouver looks likely to play straight into his hands. However, the Loons are less adept at breaking a bunker as they have typically lacked creativity themselves in the advanced center of the park (though perhaps Darwin Quintero can change the club’s fortune against the bunker). The fear is that this game against Vancouver becomes a replay of the Atlanta match, in which Minnesota dominates possession and spends the entire game trying to pound on a door that will never open.
The other double-edged sword the Loons will face is the nature of Vancouver’s offense. Minnesota is, of course, not great against a creative offense that spends the majority of its time in its attacking third. Vancouver, fortunately, is not likely to be doing that. What Vancouver does do—hitting prayer balls in from out wide—is only going to be tougher if Kei Kamara is not present to provide his trademark aerial threat. However, Minnesota continues to be poor at marking set pieces (something they have been poor at since their NASL days, somehow), and even without the danger of Kei Kamara, the Loons could be undone on the counter by poor marking and positioning.
It feels like the edge goes to Minnesota this weekend. It is often easy to feel that way against a team that plays such a negative style as Vancouver. However, Vancouver conquered doubters in 2017 by handily making the playoffs and is in third again, despite all logic suggesting otherwise. Soccer is a fickle thing in MLS more so than just about anywhere. All it takes is a bit of skill and a bit of luck to turn the narrative on its head.
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