For just about the entire season, Minnesota United has been unlucky. Shots that could have gone in did not, individual errors in defense were punished with goals rather than swept up and forgotten, and defensive injuries have meant a revolving door in the backline. It has overshadowed the fact that the club looks better than last year and has outplayed opponents for long stretches (especially in the last month) because the team had little to show for it.
Then Darwin Quintero turned the narrative on its head, taking a game in which Minnesota looked competent, but would have otherwise lost behind three goals allowed. Quintero carried the club to victory on the wings of three goals that had no business finding the back of the net. Is the 3-5-2 here to stay? Has Minnesota’s luck turned a corner at last? A chance to find out awaits in Houston.
The Loons and the Dynamo faced off in US Open Cup action less than three weeks ago, a night in which Minnesota actually looked very good. With better finishing, and had Quintero made good on a luckless penalty late in the game, they should have walked away with a result. Earlier in the season, Minnesota welcomed Houston to TCF Bank Stadium with a 2-1 victory, the auspicious day in which Ibson gifted us all a sly smile to the camera after a jumping, defender-nutmegging goal.
M Sam Cronin (head) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (suspended) – Out
GK Matt Lampson (right knee injury) – Out
F Abu Danladi (left leg injury) – Out
D Jérôme Thiesson (right leg injury) – Out
D Eric Miller (left hamstring injury) – Questionable
D Marc Burch (left knee) – Questionable
D A.J. DeLaGarza (torn left ACL) – Out
M Juan David Cabezas (left quad injury) – Out
F Mac Steeves (left him injury) – Out
M/D Andrew Wenger (left calf injury)
D Alejandro Fuenmayor (suspended) – Out
A lot of space (here and elsewhere) has been devoted to promising readers that Minnesota United is better than its record suggests, and those of us who choose to write about the team have had to sit patiently and wait to be proven right. A win against Toronto finally did that. Somewhat.
The Loons’ performance against the Reds was not as sharp as some of their recent games, but Minnesota finally enjoyed something they have had very little of this season: good luck. Darwin Quintero put on a masterclass in finesse shooting on Wednesday, but do not count on those three incredible goals sailing in each week. The defense cannot be happy shipping three goals, either.
But, whatever else happened, the game against the Reds confirmed some things that have been working well for the Loons lately, and the club should double down on those ideas against Houston.
1. Stick to the 3-5-2. It looked very good against Dallas and obviously helped Minnesota to three goals against Toronto. One of the Loons’ biggest weaknesses in defense this year has actually been that the midfield is not closing down fast enough,which leaves the back line exposed. The 3-5-2 adds an extra central midfielder and positions the wingers, in theory, in more of a wingback role, in which they should be active in defense as well as offense. It has worked so far and seems to make better use of the players’ natural skill sets.
2. Use wingbacks and/or wingers more centrally. Minnesota is not good on crosses, whether it is hitting a good pass, winning a ball in the air, or finishing. It was frustrating, then, to watch the team often take the safest route in advancing the ball upfield, dishing to a winger making a run down the sideline more as a relief valve than anything else. The winger would get the ball to the end line, run out of room, and then run out of ideas.
That tune has changed in recent weeks. Think of Miguel Ibarra’s easy pass to Christian Ramirez for the striker’s goal against Colorado. That goal does not happen if Ibarra does not receive his pass in the box, a result of him choosing to make his run centrally instead of along the touch line. Similarly, against Toronto, Ibarra’s goal came because he chose to make his run to the center instead of the safety of the corner.
It is not just about fielding long, speculative balls, either. When the team is building from back to front, it can be easier to place a series of well-executed passes when a player has multiple passing options that are at comparatively close range. More players nearby forces opposing players to make tough decisions on the fly about whom to mark, which can lead to finding players uncovered. This makes it easier to exploit spaces between the lines. Naturally, the opponent can defend without spreading its players as wide and it can create some congestion, but the pros outweigh the cons given Minnesota’s strengths and weaknesses.
3. Let Darwin Quintero shoot. Minnesota’s first ever Designated Player has made a career out of scoring goals in Mexico. One gets the feeling, then, that playing as an attacking midfielder is somewhat against type for Quintero. In a 3-5-2 formation, the Colombian’s role is truly as a second striker and an additional central midfielder waits behind him to help connect the dots from front to back. This gives Quintero more license to get forward, to take defenders on himself, and to take shots. Given Ramirez’s evolution in MLS into a more skilled hold up striker with passing ability, it only makes sense to let Darwin do what he does best.
If Houston has a strength, it is certainly in its offense. Consider that the Dynamo have exactly as many clean sheets as Minnesota (two) and have allowed two or more goals in more than half of its games this year. The opportunities will be there for Minnesota, as long as they can hold the fort defensively. The Loons just need to stay the course they have charted for the last month and start getting a little bit of luck along the way.
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