The Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United will meet at Lumen Field on Monday night with a trip to the 2020 MLS Cup Final on the line. In a profoundly weird and difficult year, both sides have faced adversity and unprecedented challenges to reach this point, but only one can move on. At this point we have a pretty good idea of who the Sounders are and what they have to offer, but you can be forgiven for not knowing much about Minnesota United, especially considering the two sides have not faced one another.
The Loons have gone from an MLS lightweight to a team that’s a match away from playing for an MLS Cup in the span of four seasons. They’ve done so on the back of two straight 3-0 wins in the playoffs, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Let’s take a look at the side that stands between Seattle and their quest to defend their crown as MLS Champions.
What they do well
Minnesota have done a decent job of shoring up the defensive struggles that plagued them in the past. Even without injured players like Tyler Miller and Ike Opara, they put up the fourth best goals allowed in the Western Conference as they allowed 1.24 goals per game during the regular season. In the playoffs they’ve taken that to another level with two consecutive shutouts on the back of solid play from their promising young goalkeeper, Canadian showstopper Dayne St. Clair — with the help of some poor finishing and fortunate bounces. Head coach Adrian Heath has his side well-drilled and his back-six outfield players are all committed to their roles on the defensive side of the ball. It’s paying dividends.
The defense is better than it once was, but Minnesota’s true strength is in the attack. If you’ve watched the Sounders in recent years, Heath’s attacking plan will be a familiar one. From a strong defensive base he’s built a team that is full of technical players who read the game well and like to create and operate in space. With the addition of their new star No. 10, Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso, Minnesota have become lethal on the counter. Reynoso can pick out killer passes and work intricate passing sequences with the players around him to create chances that are more likely than not to be finished off by Kevin Molino.
They’ll press all over the field, and when they create a turnover they go straight for goal. According to American Soccer Analysis, Minnesota had the seventh highest average vertical distance for completed passes at 6.69 yards. While they may be most dangerous in transition, they’re also capable of creating the same sorts of chances when in possession through metronomic ball movement from Ozzie Alonso, smart movement from their attackers, and seemingly omniscient passing from Reynoso.
What they don’t do well
Improved as Minnesota’s defense may be, that doesn’t mean that it’s good now. Without Opara, who has been injured for much of the season and has only made two appearances in 2020, the Loons have relied on veteran New Zealand center back Michael Boxall and 31 year-old Bakaye Dibassy who joined the club in August as a TAM signing from French club Amiens SC. Alongside the CBs, Heath’s preferred choices are Romain Metanire on the right and Chase Gasper on the left. Both are solid fullbacks capable of covering the length of the field and helping in attack, but neither is exactly a shutdown defender. The defense is particularly susceptible to quick passing sequences and overlapping runs behind the fullback.
Minnesota have kept clean sheets in both of their playoff games so far, but they’ve been outshot both times out. As the home team against the Colorado Rapids they took 16 shots to Colorado’s 18, with 15 of those coming from inside the box. Sporting Kansas City were the home team in the conference semis, but still they outshot Minnesota 19-13 with 12 of those coming from inside the box. St. Clair has picked up 10 saves in those two games, but the shutouts seem to have more to do with poor finishing than his shot stopping ability.
How they can beat Seattle
Sounders fans are well acquainted with Alonso and his ability to blow up opposition attacks and move immediately into an attack of his own. We’ve seen him flick balls into the cracks and corners of the field like a pinball player deep in a trance, and we know how much better he can make the players around him on both sides of the ball. Alonso’s work in midfield is the sofrito that serves as the base for all of the other flavors to be layered on top of and amplified by in Minnesota’s recipe for success, but that’s not how Minnesota can beat Seattle. If Minnesota beat Seattle it’s going to come from their star attackers, Kevin Molino and Bebelo Reynoso, and goals like their second against SKC.
Credit where credit is due, that’s a great goal by Molino and it comes from excellent vision and a better ball from Reynoso. That goal doesn’t happen if the SKC backline is playing cohesively and stepping together. Seattle’s backline has looked good so far in the playoffs, but the four players in those spots over the last month weren’t necessarily the ones you would have expected to be there two months ago — Alex Roldan wasn’t really in the conversation as a starting right back until the LA Galaxy game, and all things equal Xavier Arreaga is the first choice over Shane O’Neill. With those changes comes an increased potential for disorganization or miscommunication, and we’ve seen O’Neill in particular get pulled out of position or step out of sync with the rest of the defense. Whoever is playing along the back on Monday will need to be in constant communication and working together for the entire game, or Reynoso & Co. will absolutely pick them apart.
How Seattle can beat them
Minnesota isn’t a pushover by any means, but Seattle’s team seems particularly capable of neutralizing their strengths and taking advantage of their weaknesses. As noted above, Minnesota give up chances, and they give them up in dangerous areas. Watch the highlights from either of Minnesota’s games in the playoffs and you’ll see plenty of chances that you’d bet money on the Sounders turning into goals. No disrespect to either Colorado or SKC, but Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and Raúl Ruidíaz are better players and more likely to put the ball in the back of the net than anyone who took the field in those games for either team.
Going the other direction, Minnesota took great advantage of SKC’s use of a single defensive mid whose primary job is dictating tempo and using the ball rather than disrupting the opponent’s possession. Brian Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1 won’t allow them that luxury, and a double-pivot of João Paulo and Cristian Roldan offers two players who are both equally capable of stopping an opposing player with a tackle and using quick passing and confident dribbling to beat a press. Their ability to cover ground on both sides of the ball, amplified by Lodeiro’s ability and willingness to do the same, will help limit Reynoso’s ability to run the game while also creating a their own opportunities to get out in transition. Add to that Yeimar Gómez Andrade and his commanding presence, plus his occasional forays into midfield to either disrupt a play or dribble and hit a pass to start an attack himself, and Seattle have what they need to control the game on both sides of the ball.
As a final point, Seattle and Minnesota met for the first time as MLS teams about 3 years and 4 months ago. The Sounders won that game 4-0 in Minnesota, including lovely goals from both Will Bruin and Jordan Morris. Michael Boxall was on the field doing an impressive traffic cone impression for the full 90 minutes, and in the intervening years he’s only gotten older. Can he put in a repeat performance on Monday?