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Match Preview: Minnesota United FC vs. Real Salt Lake

by on 13 July 2018

The Loons followed an exciting 4-3 win over Toronto, a victory that had some feeling the tide had turned, with a 3-0 loss to Houston, among the club’s worst showings this season. It now falls on the team, and all of us, to figure out exactly who Minnesota United is and who it wants to be. New signings like Romario Ibarra and Designated Player Ángelo Rodríguez suggest the front office still believes the team can compete for a playoff spot this year. If there is any hope of that, the Loons need to pick up points at every opportunity. A stretch of four games out of five at home, starting with Real Salt Lake, is crucial.

Previous meetings

Minnesota earned its first MLS win at home against Real Salt Lake on April 1, 2017. Former Minnesota player (from the NASL era) Luke Mulholland gave the visitors an early lead, but four goals from the Loons, including two in the second half from Christian Ramirez, sealed a 4-2 victory. RSL secured a measure of revenge in winning the June rematch in Utah 1-0. This will be the clubs’ first contest of 2018.

Officials

Referee Alan Kelly
Assistant Matthew Nelson
Assistant Andrew Bigelow
Fourth Fotis Bazakos
VAR Katja Koroleva

Roster report

Minnesota United
M Sam Cronin (cervicogenic dysfunction) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
D Jérôme Thiesson (right leg injury) – Out
F Abu Danladi (left leg injury) – Questionable
D Marc Burch (left knee) – Questionable

Real Salt Lake
D Shawn Barry (knee injury) – Out
D Tony Beltran (right knee surgery) – Out
D David Horst (Achilles surgery) – Out
D Demar Phillips (ankle injury) – Out
M Jordan Allen (knee surgery) – Out
M Luke Mulholland (back injury) – Out
F Ricky Lopez-Espin (knee surgery) – Out
GK Alex Horwath (Achilles surgery) – Out
GK Connor Sparrow (knee injury) – Out

Tactical outlook

In some ways, Houston’s front three was perfectly set up to counter Minnesota’s 3-5-2 formation. Talented goal-scoring wingers that aren’t afraid to cut inside to the box can help neutralize the defensive effect of the wing backs in that formation, and especially without a dedicated defensive midfielder to clean up spills, a team can basically be left with three defenders facing three attackers. It was ripe for exploitation.

I mention this because a poor game against Houston (and it was poor) is not the reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon the 3-5-2. Better execution and the replacement of one central midfielder with a defensive midfielder is probably all it takes to have this formation be successful for the Loons. The lineup theoretically allows the defenders to play closer together, hopefully making it easier to avoid marking issues and to recover defensively on errors. It adds midfielders that should be (again, in theory) as dedicated to defense as they are to offense, and the struggles of the team’s defense this year is as much due to inadequate shielding from the midfield as it is due to defensive lapses. Finally, this lineup allows Darwin Quintero to move a bit higher and play as a second striker, a role he is probably more acclimated to fulfilling.

The formation suits the team, and I hope to keep seeing it. It may work better with a dedicated No. 6, but if coach Adrian Heath wasn’t willing to run out Maximiano for even a look in a meaningless friendly with short rest on either side of the midweek match, it is unlikely he will have been struck by a change of heart in the last two days.

Which is too bad. The tactic in the 4-2-3-1 had been to use a double pivot approach with two box-to-box midfielders who cover a ton of ground and try to win balls back all over. The idea (again…in theory) would preferrably be to have one playing higher than the other, depending on the position of the ball or a tactical choice to attack on one side instead of the other, then have that vertical positioning shift as the ball shifts, creating a sort of piston effect. With three central midfielders, I haven’t seen much of a change in the strategy with the exception of having three people doing the same thing instead of two. This can be good insofar as each player has less total ground to cover, but it doesn’t solve the problem of shielding the defense, always a critical need, and connecting the ball from back to front, which has been a serious but less visible issue this year as well.

Even if none of these tweaks happen, it is still wise to give the 3-5-2 lineup another go. That’s on the team to figure out. For fans, the only thing to do is gather collective thoughts and prayers that new signings pan out, that defensive reinforcements are on the way, and that Christian Ramirez’s career goes everywhere it ought to, whether that means in Minnesota or elsewhere.

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