The Loons will return to the relatively safe harbor of TCF Bank Stadium for the first time in seven weeks on Saturday, aiming to salvage a bit of pride and assess its options for 2018. The club will have most of its preferred options available and will be playing a tough Portland Timbers side. With that in mind, the lineup and tactics Adrian Heath chooses to field will be an intriguing look into his psyche as the club turns an eye toward Allianz Field and the future.
Minnesota lost its first match against Portland this year 3-2 at Providence Park. The match was a bit of a template road loss for the Loons, giving up multiple soft goals early and leaving itself too much of a mountain to climb despite a great second-half effort. The match marked Darwin Quintero’s first-ever appearance for the team and Minnesota’s transition into the Designated Player era. In 2017, Minnesota played its first MLS match in Portland, a sobering 5-1 loss.
M Sam Cronin (cervicogenic dysfunction) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
D Eric Miller (undisclosed injury) – Questionable
D Roy Miller (right thigh injury) – Out
GK Jake Gleeson (bilateral tibial stress fracture) – Out
GK Jeff Attinella (hamstring injury) – Questionable
If you are sitting on two points per game at the end of the season, you will be in the Supporter’s Shield race. If you are sitting on two points from seven games…you are on a slower pace. With the playoffs all but out of the picture, it is probably time for Adrian Heath and company to focus on a few key questions and and see how they will play out for the 2019 season. These are the essential questions, as I see them, to chisel away at for some answers in the final month or two of the season.
1. What is the optimal midfield shape?
The Loons were working with two central midfielders that played a type of box-to-box midfield role for much of the season. Two No. 8’s would work to quickly close down the ball in an attempt to make it difficult for the opposition to build up an attack properly, and having won back possession they would typically distribute the ball quickly on the break. More recently we have seen three central midfielders in the 3-5-2 formation, operating similarly to the example above, but with a more dedicated defensive midfielder present. Finally, over the last couple of weeks, two players we had expected to play as defensive midfielders have carried the main burden of central midfield duty. I suspect they had been coached to operate more like the first example above, though their abilities in build up and distribution have been found wanting.
Though it has been my opinion since before the start of the year that the club needed a true stay-at-home destroyer at defensive midfield, I also understand that such a player is not an automatic fix for a struggling defense. Defense begins in the midfield, and I believe that the 3-5-2 was successful because it not only plugged more people into the central midfield positions, but because the wing backs were tasked with equal defensive and attacking duties. The 3-5-2 era this season represented the best balance of defensive and offensive focus, and the club looked excellent in the formation.
Is there a way with this current roster to make the 3-5-2 successful? What additional pieces would be needed to excel full-time in this formation (one answer has to be more players that can play wing back, as we have not had a settled left wing back this season and Miguel Ibarra cannot play every single minute every single week for all of time)? Similarly, is there enough talent on the roster to make a 4-2-3-1 work? Does the club need a Darwin Quintero-type player to add to the midfield, one who can maintain possession under pressure without needing to dump a prayer ball out to the wings (the answer is yes, regardless of formation)? Expect to see some experimentation in the central midfield for these final weeks, even to see some perplexing lineups, as the club attempts to answer this question.
2. Who is good enough in defense, and who is not?
Much of the tactical prognostication this year has come down to figuring out the best possible alchemy given the pieces available. With the offseason looming, the question must turn to those pieces themselves. Forgetting personal favorites and knowing anything is possible, is Jérôme Thiesson the caliber of starter you want in a full back role (assuming he is healthy)? Who among Francisco Calvo, Brent Kallman, and Michael Boxall are truly starting-caliber MLS center backs (my personal, controversial opinion is that they are all great depth at the position and not more)? What on earth is going on with the left side of the field? Might Thiesson and Calvo make better wing backs than defenders (my opinion: yeah, totally)? Among youngsters like Wyatt Omsberg, Carter Manley, and Bertram Owundi Eko’o, to whom should the team be willing to give minutes to develop? Similarly, who should the club either give up on or admit it just cannot give minutes to and try to liquidate to help fill needed roles or plan for the future?
Save that the club avoided the nightmare beginning of the year that haunted the 2017 season, the defense has been every bit as bad this year as last. Even against the backdrop of coaching and tactics, the simple question of who is good enough has to be a pressing one.
3. What is a winger, and who should be one?
Too often soccer fans mistake the formation (e.g., 4-2-3-1) with the tactics, and hold a rigid understanding of how the different pieces of a line up work that is glued to their understanding of the nominal formation. In truth, the formational listing on paper is just a way to help simplify the way we talk about players and tactics that are, in practice, very nuanced, messy, and flexible.
One great way to think about this is to consider Alexi Gómez, Miguel Ibarra, Romario Ibarra, and Abu Danladi. Each has occupied what is nominally a “winger” role this year, but each has played it in very different ways. Gómez is more likely to keep to his side of the field and not cut in, while Romario Ibarra is more likely to cut to the inside and in on goal, while Miguel Ibarra plays his absolute best when he is allowed to wander and find the game. In another example, Abu Danladi is best running onto a ball hit in front of him, Romario Ibarra is more likely to be able to receive a ball in traffic and hold it up, and Miguel Ibarra is more likely than any of these players to actually take opponents on with the ball at his feet (though this part of his game has waned in MLS compared to NASL).
It is not just down to an individual player’s skill or preference. A coach might want to keep the game very narrow and central by pulling the wingers inside and creating more tiki-taka passing situations in traffic around the box. A club like Vancouver has built itself around ceding possession, allowing speedy wingers to run onto a long ball wide, and then to hit cross after cross into the box. If you have players that can hit good crosses and players that are good at getting on the end of them, it is a decision you can afford to make tactically.
What the Loons do with their wide attackers should proceed from what they choose to do with their defense as much as anything. If a 3-5-2 seems the best bet to close up shop both defensively and in terms of midfield possession, it is almost a certainty that deploying wing backs is necessary and they will often stay wider. If a four or even five man back line is chosen, wide attacking options become not only more diverse to choose from but also more fluid to adjust in the course of a game. Another factor to consider is the strike partnership of Quintero and Ángelo Rodríguez. Currently Rodríguez shows the ability to use his body to retain possession in attacking spaces but he has not really found his scoring boots yet; Quintero has emerged as a master of using skill to dribble around the opposition and make build ups dangerous. Those combined abilities have not translated into putting the ball in the back of the net as much lately. How can ostensibly wide players help combine with these two to turn moments of attacking promise into goals?
Any wildly lucrative signings will have to wait until the offseason at this point. The final weeks of this year, then, will need to focus on playing with the pieces already on the table. That might mean some interesting tactical choices, and it could also mean some worse results than the club could otherwise cash in. Those phases are so tough for fans to go through. However, in the long term, it would be a much worse decision to try to scrape out an additional six points than Minnesota would have otherwise earned, all while rolling out the same players with the same ideas. And who knows…maybe in the course of experimentation the team strikes gold.
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Tags: Abu Danladi, Alexi Gomez, Angelo Rodriguez, Brent Kallman, Darwin Quintero, Francisco Calvo, Jerome Thiesson, Match Preview, Michael Boxall, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Portland Timbers FC, Romario Ibarra, Vancouver