Of the many reputations Minnesota United might have, it should probably be most noted as the “yeah, but” team. It seems most losses are softened by a “yeah, but half the roster is injured” or “yeah, but they played on short rest” (such as the loss to Los Angeles FC). Many wins, meanwhile, are interrupted with a “yeah, but the opponent was shorthanded” or “yeah, but the opponent was Montreal.” Fans and media alike are still waiting to see whether Jekyll or Hyde will emerge as the true version of the team. With Kansas City missing key wingers Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez and Minnesota without Francisco Calvo, in addition to long term injuries like Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay, no one is likely to emerge from the weekend without a good reason to dismiss the result. If Minnesota is to be a playoff team, however, they need to start grabbing points they ought not to. No better time than against a crucial Western Conference and regional rival.
It has only been two weeks since these teams last squared off, a sunny afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium that was played to a 1-1 draw. Khiry Shelton scored off a header in the 8th minute, helping to snap a woeful start in front of goal this season. Darwin Quintero answered in the 19th minute when a powerful header, fed by a Miguel Ibarra cross, was fumbled by Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia and Quintero was able to clean up his own rebound. Much of the rest of the game was defined by Minnesota successfully weathering a storm of shots, no small feat for a team still working out its defensive issues. The teams remain evenly matched in MLS play with a 1-1-2 record.
Drew Fischer will manage law enforcement for Sunday’s match. The Canadian referee is currently on the lower end of the referee pool with 20.4 fouls issued per game and about middle of the pack with 3.7 yellows dealt each game. He has given no red cards this year and has awarded two penalties. These kinds of numbers can be indicative of a lenient referee, but can also suggest an official who does a good job of managing a game before any blowups occur. Fans will be hoping for the latter.
Sporting Kansas City
M Felipe Gutierrez (sports hernia surgery) – Out
M Johnny Russell (international duty) – Out
F Diego Rubio (back injury) – Questionable
D Jimmy Medranda (undisclosed injury) – Questionable
D Marc Burch (left knee) – Out
M Sam Cronin (head) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
GK Matt Lampson (right knee injury) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (international duty) – Out
This website has killed more than a few pixels this year discussing Minnesota’s choice to field two box-to-box central midfielders at most times, rather than deploying a stay-at-home defensive midfielder. It is unclear the degree to which this decision has been made. Does coach Adrian Heath simply feel that the double piston approach provides the best manifestation of his vision for the team? To what degree does this decision reflect the long-term injury to Sam Cronin? Does coach Heath have limited faith in Collen Warner and new signing Maximiano? In truth, the real answer probably lies somewhere on the continuum. Perhaps Heath wishes he could play a dedicated No. 6 each week, but sees what he has to work with in practice and feels the Ibson/Schüller midfield is just the best tactic given the pieces he has. Who can say?
In very modest defense of the decision to eschew a defensive midfielder, a true No. 6 would likely make the remaining box-to-box midfielder’s job just about impossible. If there were no formation change at all, it would leave that midfielder (likely Ibson) with an attacking midfielder in Darwin Quintero who plays more like a second striker, rather than a midfielder, increasing the amount of ground the No. 8 would have to cover in front of him. Obviously his other central midfield help is now well behind him. The other midfielders are ostensibly wingers. That leaves Minnesota’s lone No. 8 with about half the field to cover with little support.
This oversimplifies the way positions work on the field (positions are more fluid live, and a formation is just a way of understanding a player’s role, nothing more) and assumes that Heath could not simply adjust the formation, which he absolutely could! But formational alternatives only underscore the limited depth Minnesota United has available. If the Loons deployed a 4-1-4-1, there would once again be two central midfielders ahead of the defensive midfielder. One of those central midfielders would almost certainly be Darwin Quintero, who would either default to playing very high, as he is wont to do, and the formation becomes exactly the same as it ever was, Or Quintero plays deeper and is not really playing the position to which he is best suited to excel in. A 4-2-2-2? What is the difference between that and a 4-2-3-1 where the wingers are given license to roam? I am throwing out lots of numbers and getting abstract, but the overall point, I believe, is that there is less formational/tactical fluidity than viewers often suspect there is.
I say all these things to make a single plea: if there were any game in which Minnesota may want to experiment with a stay-at-home defensive midfielder, this should be the one. Sporting Kansas City plays with a full court press, forcing opponents into quick decisions that are either more prone to turnovers or more likely to be ineffectual and conservative. When Kansas City creates a turnover on the press, and they will, it is in that quick transition that opponents can be caught out of position, allowing Sporting to find acres of space to work with. How beneficial could a true No. 6 be, ready to clean up any messes that might occur?
Also, for as much grief as Francisco Calvo has taken this year (rightfully so) for individual errors, he will be replaced Sunday with a relatively unproven substitute. Brent Kallman enjoyed success in 2017, but has seen limited time this season. There will almost certainly be some rust from not playing at full speed regularly — there are always hiccups in cohesion when new players feel each other out on the pitch — and Kallman did not make a great case for his starting credentials in the limited time he was given earlier this year. A defensive midfielder could help to shield a central defense that may benefit from a mulligan or two.
As for the issues I mentioned previously (i.e., what happens on the field in front of that No. 6?), the biggest problem becomes someone for the No. 8 to play off of. What luck that Ibarra, though positioned as a winger, enjoys the most success when he is allowed to roam, find the game, and make runs when he sees them to create space for himself or others. Have Ibarra roam more centrally in support. If Alexi Gómez continues on the left wing, it is worth mentioning that Gómez appeared more stable in a deeper and more central midfield role than he did out wide against Montreal (I know, game states, but hear me out). Having Gómez play more centrally as well, with the same license to find the game as Ibarra would have, would result in a much more narrow formation, selectively utilizing the full backs to create the width. The result would also give players a lot of ability to make shorter, more accurate passes when pressed. It would help neutralize the problem of Sporting players attacking up the gut when the Loons do commit a turnover. Better to push that attack out wide and cede a cross than to create confusion right at the top of the box.
This kind of strategy is hardly watertight, and in soccer a decision to do one thing is always a decision not to do another. But, when choosing among pros and cons, this week, this one time, pretty please, give fans the No. 6 they crave. It is the right time and the right opponent.
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Tags: Alexi Gomez, Brent Kallman, Collen Warner, Darwin Quintero, Felipe Gutierrez, Francisco Calvo, Ibson, Johnny Russell, Khiry Shelton, Match Preview, Maximiano, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, rasmus schuller, Sam Cronin, sporting Kansas City