Minnesota United has spent much of the season at least tickling the playoff line. That is officially no longer the case. The Loons are six points back from the Western Conference playoff line (22 points, where two teams currently sit) and will need a hot streak, in combination with some stumbles by the teams directly ahead of them, to re-enter the conversation. Hardly impossible, and the Western Conference is decidedly weak this year. But, to accomplish it, the club will need to win the games it is supposed to win. Against a deeply struggling Colorado Rapids team with a league-worst record, this weekend qualifies as such a game.
Minnesota enjoyed its first ever taste of MLS points against Colorado in 2017, earning a draw on the road in the third week of the season. After serious defensive struggles the first two weeks of the season, Minnesota put out its legacy NASL players, including a back line with Justin Davis and Brent Kallman and winger Miguel Ibarra. Despite going down a man, Minnesota was able to hold on for a 2-2 draw. A month later the Loons pulled in their second MLS victory via a 1-0 home win that marked the team’s first clean sheet in MLS. Miguel Ibarra’s first MLS goal was the difference, a diving header following the pinballing of Ibson hitting the post and Johan Venegas heading the ball across goal.
For what it’s worth, the article on www.proreferees.com, which details the referee assignments for the week, features an image of Ibson pushing his own teammate Maximiano. Grajeda may need blackjack shoes to deal as many cards as he will need to if Maximiano earns the start.
D Kortne Ford (left MCL sprain) – Out
D Axel Sjoberg (concussion) – Out
D Marc Burch (left knee) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
D Jérôme Thiesson (right leg injury) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (international duty) – Out
GK Matt Lampson (right knee injury) – Questionable
I have suggested before that, because Minnesota United lacks the overall skill to exert its will over most games, and trusting all other things being equal, the club can expect to win a game by doing what it does best better than what the opponent does best. United’s tactics often need to be exceptionally reactive. Any good team makes plans based on the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses to some extent, but, suffice to say, Sporting Kansas City probably does not blow up their strategic plan just because they are about to play the Loons. They make some tweaks but are otherwise looking to refine their own game plan and force Minnesota to deal with it. Minnesota must usually plan much more reactively than that.
Perhaps not so against Colorado. The Rapids are dead last on points, second to last on goal differential, and second to last in goals scored (poor, poor Seattle). Their defense is not criminally poor, but the Rapids are also without their best defender, Axel Sjoberg, due to concussion. This is the exact type of game and opponent that Minnesota should be able to simply focus more on its own strengths and tightening the screws.
What exactly does such a style look like? Formationally it is likely very familiar: a 4-2-3-1 with two central midfielders, two wingers, and not so much an attacking midfielder as a withdrawn second striker. I maintain my belief that the team would be better with a good stay-at-home, skull cracking defensive midfielder to compliment a box-to-box No. 8, but I fear that none of the team’s obvious defensive midfielder options is good enough. Thus, we should see coach Adrian Heath’s default double-piston midfield, using two No. 8’s to chew up ground and win balls, then distribute quickly out of the midfield.
All of this is familiar. One tactical change I feel necessary for the club is to play more narrowly. Far, far too often Minnesota relies on a wide ball played in front of a rushing winger to get the attack into the final third. This is a problem for a few reasons. First, Minnesota is just not a good team winning balls in the air and scoring off crosses. Second, the Loons lack a winger that has a proclivity for cutting inside (so long, Sammy Nicholson), meaning that a diagonal ball out wide is almost guaranteed to force Minnesota into a crossing situation. Third, because opponents know those first things to be true, it is utterly predictable and simple to defend: concede the flanks, pack the box, and break on the counter. Minnesota could not look dangerous playing half a game up a man at home against Atlanta earlier this season, who did exactly this. It is all the easier playing at even strength in a non-defensive game state.
Colorado, in fact, may be a perfect team against which to bring things more centrally. Colorado has played with a 3-5-2 formation this year (as I’m fond of saying, the only difference between a 3-5-2 and a 5-3-2 is whether or not you have the ball). It will be that much harder to put good passes out wide to these wingers since the midfield/back line will be spread wider, and the spaces between defenders may be more narrow.
The hope here is not just that the team will play more narrowly in general, but that the three attacking midfielders will be given absolute license to roam. Miguel Ibarra is always better at finding spaces, creating overload situations, and pulling people around with his runs; let him do it where he sees the opportunity rather than being glued to the flank. Darwin Quintero’s 1v1 mastery is wasted if he is positioned as a static funnel atop the midfield. He is better at making his own magic, not at pulling strings for others. Alexi Gomez has not found much success on the team, and Gomez refuses to move centrally, as I’ve described. This may be the game where Franz Pangop, who had a great shift against Houston, earns his start.
Ideally, by letting these attackers wander a bit, things can become more centrally focused on average. It becomes easier to crack the code in the final third because the passes are short and quick rather than relying on hero balls that cover acres of space. Collecting errant passes becomes simpler with a few more faces close by. It also puts opposing midfielders and defenders into tough decisions more frequently. To cover this man or that man, when different runs are made close by at different angles, is a tougher decision to make than when the opponent is making runs in predictable places and without a lot of support nearby.
This can be our strength, and this is the opponent against whom it may work. Minnesota United need points. United are far from being out of the running, but if the wins cannot come against Colorado, where will they come from?
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