There is a lot of positive energy around Minnesota United this week. They defeated NYCFC 2-1 last weekend, their DP striker notched a pair of goals, and new defensive midfielder Fernando Bob is returning to suspension to grace Talen Energy Stadium with his wonderful name. Additionally, this week the Loons’ CEO announced that he was happy with the jobs that both General Manager Manny Lagos and head coach Adrian Heath have done, and expects a playoff push in 2019.
But all that positivity runs headlong into a stark reality this weekend: Minnesota United has been a no-good-very-bad team on the road in 2018. A win and two draws means Heath’s men have the fewest road points in the league this season, and their one win came in the first trip of the season to Orlando City.
Still, the Union cannot afford to overlook Minnesota. With a (very) big new striker up front, superstar Darwin Quintero playmaking, and a potentially fortified midfield, the Loons can still spring a trap. Just ask NYCFC, which sleepwalked through a 2-1 loss to Quintero and company last weekend.
A defense that can be undone
The major issue undermining Minnesota’s success under Adrian Heath has been defensive solidity. Although United now has enough firepower up front to threaten with regularity, they have never found a way to close the back door. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, the overall quality of player in back is below what Minnesota need given how little they possess the ball. The Loons concede a lot of ground defensively, and this means they are often stuck defending their box against more possession-oriented sides like the Union. To control the final third, then, a team that sits deep must keep fairly tight lines — minimize the spaces between players — so they can’t get pulled apart and penetrated. Montreal, when in form, does this well. Minnesota does not.
The Union can exploit this first weakness by looking to pull Minnesota apart horizontally. The Loons center backs don’t like to leave the center, so forcing the fullbacks to defend wide can create gaps in the back line for a player like Ale Bedoya, who is excellent at sniffing out those spaces.
Second, Minnesota does not recover their defensive shape well after losing the ball. Last weekend’s match with NYCFC featured a lot of back-and-forth play because neither side appeared that interested in slowing the other down in transition. Minnesota’s opener came from a transition that moved from left to right and front to back, and if NYC had shown any interest in helping Ismael Tajouri-Shradi up the left, they could have threatened with far more regularity.
Finally, Minnesota tends to start their defensive plan one way and end another. That’s another way of saying that they can press as a team when they want to, but it’s rare that all ten field players are on the same page after the first half hour.
The result, recently, has been Angelo Rodriguez pressing from the front while Darwin Quintero wanders and one or both wingers try to figure out if it’s worth joining the high press. For the Union, this means there should be opportunities to build out of the back and progress the ball into Minnesota’s half. Then it’s a matter of reading the Loons’ shape — are the wingers back or are they caught up? — and deciding whether to rotate the ball or look for an incisive pass up the wing to isolate Fafa Picault or CJ Sapong.
Big day for the big guys
Philly’s big three in midfield need to dominate this match. Minnesota’s defensive style means Haris Medunjanin should have all the space he needs to dictate the pace of the game, and the Loons’ poor defensive spacing should provide ample opportunities for Borek Dockal to link through the center.
Ale Bedoya’s key role will be as the late runner that finds spaces in Minnesota’s back four, and these runs must be supported by smart possession defending from his teammates. That means when Bedoya goes high, the fullbacks, central defenders, and Medunjanin must be aware of Darwin Quintero.
Quint stop me
Quintero is a baller. He one of the league’s best 1v1 attackers and since his attacking support has increased he’s increasingly become a creative force for Minnesota. Everything goes through the Colombian, and he’s good enough to handle that load. Slowing down the Loons means keeping Quintero facing his own goal. On the wings, both Ibarras (not related) can be dangerous, but they are mostly straight-ahead players. Quintero is the one that adds a second dimension to Minnesota’s attack and spies the gaps that allow a team that only pushes four forward to truly become scary.
Watch for Minnesota to try and beat the Union’s high pressure by playing long ground passes from the back line into the feet of Quintero, who checks back into the pockets of space between fullbacks and center backs. With Rodriguez pinning a center back and a winger keeping the fullback honest, this often grants Quintero room to turn, and at that point he’s a frightening weapon.
Also pay attention to how tight Minnesota’s lines are when they retreat. Often, the back four will drop without the midfield, leaving huge spaces for a team that plays on the front foot, as Philly wants to do. Additionally, once they drop, Minnesota’s two lines of four (the back four and midfield) tend to be loosely linked, leaving the types of spaces Borek Dockal loves to burrow into as he tears apart a defense.
Minnesota comes to Talen Energy Stadium Saturday at 7:30PM ET. If the Union knock them off, the postseason beckons!