Let’s start with some good news: D.C. United is playing a Minnesota United team that is in horrible form, with no wins in their last five and no goals in their last 351 minutes played. On top of that, injuries and a suspension have left them almost absurdly short-handed. On top of Brent Kallman’s suspension, there are twelve players currently listed as out or questionable for the Loons.
The bad news, of course, is that we’ve talked about this sort of scenario numerous times this season. United has faced plenty of unusually short-handed teams this year, which is just one more reason this awful season tends to stick in our collective craw. The opportunities to pick up wins against weakened opponents have been there all year, and it just hasn’t helped United much at all.
Adrian Heath, despite for some reason maintaining the respect of the national press, has struggled all year to put together a lineup that can defend anywhere close to competently. Despite near-constant changes to the back four, early-season trades, and even the occasional formation switch (back on July 4th, the Loons started in a 3412), nothing has worked.
Despite all the chaos, it’s pretty easy to sort out that Heath’s team will line up in a 4231 for this one:
Despite the fact that Minnesota has given up 45 goals in 21 games, Bobby Shuttleworth has actually not been too bad. He’s actually kept Minnesota from being blown out several times in part due to his speed coming off his line and his bravery in stopping strikers one-on-one. The Loons give up that kind of opportunity a lot, but that’s also the area of goalkeeping that Shuttleworth is strongest at.
Jerome Thiesson, signed after the season was underway from Swiss club FC Luzern, has taken over as the starting right back. He didn’t exactly have to see off stern competition, as NASL holdover Kevin Venegas (a two-time Best 11 right back in that league) and several others proved to be a disappointment. Thiesson is a stable, well-rounded defender, though he lacks any real eye-catching qualities. He’s solid, but can be beaten. Patrick Nyarko has a definite speed advantage over the 29 year old.
On the left, Burch’s injury has left Minnesota in the lurch. Justin Davis, another player who made the move up to MLS with MNUFC, has struggled much like Venegas has. Plenty of players have been given a shot here before Burch arrived via trade and since he had sports hernia surgery last month, but no one has convinced. Ismaila Jome - a winger/forward who began the year as a long-shot trialist - appears to be the most likely starter. Jome, as you’d expect from an attacker filling in as a fullback, will look to get forward on the regular. However, he’s not a natural defender, and it shows in transition.
At center back, Francisco Calvo’s return from the Gold Cup is crucial for the Loons. Their record defensively is not really his fault, and the Costa Rica international has done a lot to keep their defensive woes from being worse. Still, their lack of defensive structure from front to back means he’s often having to scramble to put out fires. Though he’s good at that, there’s only so much he can do.
Kallman’s suspension means that Heath will have to choose between Jermaine Taylor - fresh from starting for Jamaica in their run to the Gold Cup final - or new signing Michael Boxall to pair with Calvo. Taylor is fast and strong, but over the years has been increasingly revealed to struggle at thinking the game quick enough to start.
Boxall, meanwhile, was nowhere near good enough in MLS during his prior stint with Vancouver in 2011 and 2012. Since then, he’s played in the top flight in Australia and South Africa (both a step below MLS) and even had a stint on loan with an Australian 2nd division club. He is a regular for New Zealand, but there’s no hiding his lack of speed or agility, and that resume makes his signing a puzzler.
Either way, United needs to expose the starter from this pair if they’re going to keep up their recent, modest goalscoring streak.
In defensive midfield, Sam Cronin is questionable with a neck problem. Cronin has not played anywhere near the level he did for the Rapids last year, but he’s still easily the best #6 on the Minnesota roster. If he can’t go, Heath will choose between Collen Warner and former United homegrown player Collin Martin. Normally, I wouldn’t expect Martin - a natural playmaker - to be in consideration for this job, but Heath gave it a shot in a 3-0 loss to the Red Bulls last week. Warner is by far the more natural choice, but Heath seems to have lost faith in the 29 year old.
Ibson, a 33 year old Brazilian who started the season buried on Minnesota’s bench, has emerged as a key player for Heath. He has been entrusted as the tempo-setter for the Loons, linking their defense with their attack. Shutting him down is imperative for the Black-and-Red. On a 90 minute basis, Ibson - who has played for Porto, Spartak Moscow, and three of Brazil’s top clubs in a long career - averages nearly 20 more pass attempts than any other regular on the Minnesota roster. Teams that contain him tend to also find the Loons robbed of any sort of rhythm.
On the left wing, new signing Sam Nicholson (until recently, a teammate of Perry Kitchen’s at Hearts in Scotland) seems to be a probable starter. The 22 year old is a true winger who tends to stay wide and look to create rather than posing much of a scoring threat. However, with only one game - that disastrous 3-0 loss to NYRB mentioned earlier - to judge, it’s hard to say exactly what United should expect out of him.
Provided that his being listed as questionable with an ankle injury doesn’t keep him off the field, Kevin Molino remains a major threat despite Minnesota’s struggles. His numbers are a bit off from his 2016 season with Orlando, but he’s still the kind of scheme-breaking player who can create or score in a variety of ways. Molino has significant tactical freedom, and his link with Christian Ramirez is pretty good at this point. Tracking him and shutting down zone 14 - a major flaw for United due to a clear issue at defensive midfield that remains unaddressed - is an important task for the Black-and-Red tonight.
On the right, it’s not at all clear who will get the start. Abu Danladi only just came back from a hamstring strain last week, playing 30 minutes off the bench. The #1 overall pick that Heath claimed could become the best player in all of MLS one day had only pushed his way into the lineup on the right flank in May, and though he’s clearly a big talent, he hasn’t put it all together just yet. If he’s the starter, he’ll be drifting inside, exchanging spots with Molino and/or making late runs to be a forward partner for Ramirez.
Still, there are no guarantees he can start just yet. Miguel Ibarra (also questionable, ankle) has seen plenty of time on the right side despite being a natural left winger. He’ll slash inside as well, but more as a creator than a scoring threat. Johan Venegas (yet another questionable player) seems to have fallen out of favor a bit, but he’s hurt United before and is very comfortable exchanging roles with Molino during play. Finally, Danish loanee Bashkim Kadrii could get a look if Danladi, Ibarra, and Venegas are all short of the fitness required to start.
Up top, Ramirez has shown that NASL success can translate at the MLS level. He’s one of only ten MLS players to have 10 goals on the season thus far, and one of just two to get there without taking a penalty kick. Ramirez is good in the air, but he’s hardly a one-dimensional target man. While he’s not outright fast, he’s got good quickness over short distances, and he’s got a classic goal-poacher’s knack for being where loose balls and deflections are going to end up.
Off the bench, the assortment of players vying to start on the right wing are all possible options. We may also see Martin replace Molino if the Trinidad & Tobago playmaker can’t play the full 90. Brandon Allen - who went to Georgetown before joining the Red Bulls on a homegrown deal - has recently joined the Loons on loan, and could make his debut if Heath decides he needs a true target man to partner Ramirez for a late push. Allen has barely gotten a sniff in MLS thus far, but his USL goalscoring totals for NYRB 2 (30 goals in 47 appearances) indicate that he’s got the potential to make an impact.