Coach Adrian Heath will have some difficult lineup choices to make in the Lone Star State on Saturday. It is easy to overlook how relatively stable the lineup choices have been over the last two months, with few additional injuries, suspensions, and other outages to contend with. Player swaps have largely been by choice rather than necessity. Now the Loons have at least two big holes to fill, and with just one point out of their last three games and still believing they can make a late playoff push, there may be questions elsewhere, as well.
Most recently these two clubs squared off on Minnesota’s Pride Night at TCF Bank Stadium, as the Loons dropped all three points despite having the better run of play on the evening. In 2017, Minnesota lost 2-0 on the road on the back of a team of the week performance by Dallas’ keeper Jesse Gonzalez. The Loons earned some revenge by whomping the Hoops 4-1 on the return leg in the midst of Dallas’ historic collapse in the second half of the season.
|VAR||Kevin Terry Jr.|
F Santiago Mosquera (left hamstring strain) – Out
D Reto Ziegler (suspended) – Out
M Sam Cronin (cervicogenic dysfunction) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
M Maximiano (right knee injury) – Out
D Francisco Calvo (suspended) – Out
M Collen Warner (suspended) – Out
D Jérôme Thiesson (right leg injury) – Questionable
Late on against the Galaxy, Heath made two crucial substitutions that helped put Minnesota back in the match. One change was to bring on winger Romario Ibarra for wingback Eric Miller. Miller did not enjoy a strong evening and was specifically culpable on one of Los Angeles’ goals, so bringing on a more attack-minded player to replace him made sense. The second substitution introduced Abu Danladi in place of Collen Warner. Many have taken shots at Heath’s substitution strategies this season, but these two replacements made all the sense in the world and ultimately paid dividends, with one sub feeding the other for the equalizer.
What is even more important is how those substitutions were put to use. It would have been possible to ask Ibarra to play the same wingback role Miller had been playing. It would have been possible to push Ibson back deeper in the midfield where Warner had been and stick Danladi roughly where Ibson was, trying to create an attacking midfielder out of him while retaining the status quo in terms of shape and formation. But neither of those moves would have played to the two subs’ strengths. Ibarra is not a defender by trade (or at the very least, we haven’t seen it out of him), and Danladi is not a possession and passing dynamo.
Instead, Heath shifted the formation to something like a 3-4-3, with Ibarra and Danladi playing true winger roles on the left and right, respectively. Miguel Ibarra, a much more flexible player than just about anyone on the pitch, fell into a more traditional box-to-box midfield role. The tactics were aggressive (the team needs points, however and wherever they can get them, if they want to challenge for the postseason), they showed an understanding of the players’ skill sets, and Heath should be commended for getting it absolutely right.
Thus we turn an eye to Dallas. Minnesota will already be without the services of Collen Warner (too many yellow cards in one season) and Francisco Calvo (half that many yellow cards in 25 minutes). Further, Heath strongly hinted in interviews this week that he feels just about ready to give Romario Ibarra his first start soon. All together, some changes will need to be made. If any lesson has been learned from Los Angeles, it should be that simply making like-for-like replacements and hoping the new guys can just do what the old guys did is a mistake.
I would actually advocate for a return to the 3-4-3 out of the gate against Dallas. If Heath is set on playing Romario Ibarra on the left, it would be unwise to ask the player to go from playing just as a substitute to playing potentially 90 minutes as a true wingback, which is about the most physically demanding role in soccer. His fitness just won’t be there, to say nothing of his skill for the job. So play him as a winger, where he has been excelling, and double down on his strengths.
With both Warner and Maximiano out, the Loons don’t have a solid defensive midfield replacement. Collin Martin is a prime candidate to occupy Warner’s spot in the line up, but is not likely to be the guy shielding the defense all game. Putting two midfielders to task, Martin and Rasmus Schuller, who can share that responsibility and close down on balls quickly is the safer bet for filling that role. In a 3-4-3, that still leaves two midfielders to play more attacking and set up roles. Ibson and Darwin Quintero would have those roles on lock.
If Danladi is going to get any minutes this season short of a loan or as a result of an injury to a teammate, it is going to be as a substitute or as a winger. So give the kid the minutes on the right side and see if perhaps the theory that he is exclusively a No. 9 has been wrong the whole time. This would have the added benefit of giving Miguel Ibarra a night without starting; the man has a great motor but even great motors can wear down. The thought of bringing Ibarra on as a late game substitute is enticing because you can play him in a number of spots, depending on how the game has played out, and he can likely add value there.
3-4-3 sounds like an aggressive set up on the road. It is. But unless the team specifically opts to throw in the towel on this season and prepare for next (which it hasn’t, and shouldn’t) then the team needs to win road games, not just hope for a point. The club also is very opportune on defense, so hanging back and absorbing pressure is likely a recipe for disaster even on the best nights. The Loons have a better chance winning road games 4-3 than it does 1-0. So be it. Set up for the attack, attempt to put Dallas on their heels as much as possible, and in doing so play the players you have to their genuine strengths.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Collen Warner, Collin Martin, Darwin Quintero, Eric Miller, FC Dallas, Francisco Calvo, Ibson, Los Angeles Galaxy, Match Preview, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, rasmus schuller, Romario Ibarra