Much like D.C. United had a compressed period to prepare for today’s clash with Minnesota United FC, yours truly only had three days to do all the normal life stuff while making sure this piece was well-researched. On the plus side, while Minnesota has changed plenty of their personnel since these teams last met, they haven’t changed their style of play much, and their problems from last year are still pretty much the same. The Loons are among the most dangerous attacks in MLS, but are also among the weakest sides defensively. Same as it ever was.
Let’s get into what Adrian Heath’s club is made of:
Goalkeeper: Vito Mannone
Mannone, a Premier League veteran who spent time with Arsenal and Sunderland, was brought in to shore up a position that had been a problem throughout Minnesota’s time in MLS. It hasn’t really worked, at least per some advanced statistics. Per American Soccer Analysis, Mannone’s goals vs. expected goals split is the third-worst in MLS this season.
Divining how much of a difference he’s made in terms of organizing the defense in front of him is tougher in terms of individual stats, but 15 goals against in 8 games backs up the eye test from any given game you might pick out: Mannone hasn’t yet proven that he’s a difference maker in MLS in this department either.
Right back: Romain Métanire
The first Madagascar international to play in MLS, Métanire is a TAM acquisition after spending his playing career mostly in France’s Ligue 2 (though he did have a one-season stopover in the Belgian top flight with KV Kortrijk). Métanire has 3 assists already and looks dangerous going forward, but his defending has been iffy.
He’s almost certainly the starter today, having played every minute of the season so far for Minnesota, but Heath has the option of giving Eric Miller or Carter Manley a start in his place if they’d like to give him a rest.
Center back: Ike Opara
Opara was, like Mannone and Métanire, a pricey acquisition made with the thought that the Loons gave up goals in 2017 and 2018 because their individual defenders weren’t good enough. We know Opara is a good player from his years with KC, but so far he (along with the other newcomers) hasn’t been able to overcome Adrian Heath’s apparent inability or disinterest in a level of defensive organization that we’d expect from other MLS clubs.
Center back: Brent Kallman or Michael Boxall
Boxall was the starter up until a couple of weeks ago, but Kallman appears to have pushed him aside. That’s probably reasonable, as Boxall has never appeared to be an MLS-caliber defender, but Kallman (whose wife Kassey played for the Washington Spirit a couple of years ago) has weaknesses of his own. He’s not particularly agile or quick, and is more comfortable defending in the air than on the ground. United’s attack should be able to make him pretty uncomfortable.
Left back: Francisco Calvo
Calvo is well-rested, but not for good reasons. He picked up 2 yellow cards in the space of a minute against TFC about a week and a half ago, getting sent off for a silly foul in stoppage time. Still, Calvo has played this role for Costa Rica and is quite comfortable on the left despite playing most of his MLS games in Minnesota’s first two seasons in the middle. He’ll get forward frequently, and in fact averages about one shot attempt per game (59 shots in 60 appearances) partially because of how aggressive he is during open play.
Defensive midfield: Osvaldo Alonso
By now, you know who Alonso is: tough as nails, good anticipation and vision, but maybe lacking the acceleration he had in his younger years (which explains why Seattle let him go). So far, Alonso has been healthy in Minnesota, but as with the other notable defensive pick-ups, the scheme in place is too wide open for him to have the anticipated impact in terms of keeping chances conceded to a minimum.
Sometimes Alonso will drop between the center backs in possession, allowing the fullbacks to push up and add width to the attack.
Box-to-box midfield: Jan Gregus
Add Gregus to the list of players who cost a bundle (he’s a Designated Player) but haven’t yet made a significant impact for Minnesota on the defensive side of the ball. Gregus has good technical ability and has been pretty good as MNUFC’s set piece taker, but at this point he seems more in the “attack-first no. 8” mold rather than someone like Russell Canouse.
That said, the Slovakian is a pretty good player, racking up 1.7 key passes per game and an 87% pass accuracy on the season while rarely giving the ball away. He sees more of the ball than anyone else in the Loons lineup, so United is going to have to put him off his game to slow their attack down.
Right wing: Ethan Finlay
Finlay only played three minutes or so in Minnesota’s midweek game, so he should be fit to start this one. Finlay is who he always was: fast, direct, loves to put in low crosses from where the edge of the 18 yard box meets the endline. With United probably playing with wingbacks again, his style of play might be a challenge for whoever gets the nod on the left, and Steven Birnbaum might end up having to make a few tackles on Finlay as a result.
Attacking midfield: Darwin Quintero
Quintero is Minnesota’s answer to Wayne Rooney. Since being signed at the end of last year’s early-season transfer window, Quintero has played 34 games. In that time he has 16 goals and 18 assists, which is just a hair off the kind of pace Sebastian Giovinco and Carlos Vela have managed to set in their best seasons here. That’s not a fluke or a product of Heath’s system, either; Quintero is that good.
I’m listing Minnesota as playing out of a 4231, but really they defend in a 442 (Quintero joins the other forward in those moments) and attack out of something in a murky area between 4231, 442, and 4411. That’s down to Quintero, who has total freedom to play as a withdrawn forward, or as a 10, or to go wide.
Stopping Quintero is often about knowing what he’s going to do off the ball, and making sure he’s not able to receive the ball facing goal. Once he’s looking towards your goal, you’re in trouble, because he can beat you almost every way a player can beat defenders in soccer.
Left wing: That’s a tough one!
This has been a bit of a mystery position for Minnesota. Rasmus Schüller, a defensive midfielder by trade, has gotten numerous starts here despite having few of the traits you’d expect out of a winger. He functions as a sort of point of reference in possession, and is responsible for filling in when Quintero roams.
That’s assuming he gets the nod, though. Romario Ibarra might make more sense given that United is likely playing with wingbacks again, but we could see Miguel Ibarra get the nod (though he’s only just back from injury), or maybe even Kevin Molino? The latter is doubtful after playing his first MLS minutes since the very beginning of the 2018 season on Wednesday, but Heath has rolled the dice before.
Striker: Angelo Rodriguez...but maybe not
The big, fast Colombian is Heath’s preferred starter, but since he played 90 minutes at TFC and 78 on Wednesday, he could be rotated out. In that case, Heath could go for Abu Danladi, though the UCLA product went 90 out on the right wing midweek. Romario Ibarra could also play this role (he replaced Rodriguez against the Galaxy and went up front), but it’s not a natural fit.
If Rodriguez starts, United need to prepare themselves for a busy, straight-to-the-point sort of striker who can both mix it up when play gets physical, or beat you with raw speed. He’s not the most clean player on the ball, but he’s starting to figure out how to overcome that by giving himself more time and space off the ball.
Danladi and Romario Ibarra seem to be the most likely candidates for this role. Both bring additional speed, and since both can play wide or up top, they give Heath some real options to change how his team goes about its business. If Schüller doesn’t start, we could see him come in as well, but probably only if the Loons have a lead and are looking to kill the game off with possession.
This 4231-ish shape is probably going to hold, and Heath generally wants his team to own possession and attack. So really, there aren’t too many things to look out for here. Heath is a dogmatic coach, and his teams will win or lose based on their ability to outscore teams rather than grind games out.