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Sounders vs Minnesota United: Three Questions

Seattle takes on the Loons Saturday night (7:39 PM PT/Apple TV - free).

All eyes on Nico this weekend
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

After a dozen meetings between Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United, there can be no doubt who owns this matchup. Brian Schmetzer’s team is 10-1-1, +17 against Adrian Heath.

Some of that is due to the first few years of the Loons existence, when they were awful. But they aren’t always awful. Over the last four seasons, they’ve made the playoffs each year, as well as an Open Cup final, yet they’ve still struggled against Seattle.

On Saturday night Heath’s side will look to take advantage of a Sounders lineup that will be greatly reduced in strength. They’ve tried that before.

For Northland Soccer, Alan answers Three Questions.

SaH: Early in the season Minnesota has an inverted home/road record, with a stunning three wins on the road in four matches played. Is this going to return to a more normal number or are the Loons just that much better away from home?

NS: It has been, in general, a very interesting 5-game series to start the season for MNUFC: an opening day win in Dallas, where the team hardly ever wins; a win on the road against St. Louis City, who were, at the time, the darlings of the league; with a bye, two home draws, and another road win in between. Since that opening, Minnesota has lost twice to Eastern conference teams: on the road in Chicago and at home against Orlando.

After last weekend’s game head coach Adrian Heath was asked a similar question to yours. “There’s different circumstances for each game,” he said, which is, at face value, correct. Each of the road wins was an unconvincing good result, while the home opening draw was played on a snowy field that was probably unplayable; the second home game draw was during the international break; and last weekend’s game was lost only after a series of questionable substitutions and tactical changes in the second half. We should probably assume things will even themselves out over the course of the season.

But if there is a more speculative answer to this question, an answer that wants to push into something more general, it might come by pointing down to your third question: this team has been most successful by sitting deep and absorbing pressure, doing just enough on offense to get the points. And that defensive posture might be easier to maintain on the road, without the home crowd encouraging the team to push, to open up and lose a little focus in defense. It seems too early to say for sure, but it does take a different kind of nerve to absorb pressure at home than it does on the road, regardless of how successful it might turn out to be.

SaH: Without Reynoso, Minnesota had to turn to other players to run the offense. Is the attack-by-committee from the early season the plan or will someone step up as the focal point?

NS: Nearly bottom of the table in possession (43%), shots (75), and shots on target (21), Minnesota’s xG of 8.9 and actual goal tally of 8 feels as generous as describing the team’s attack as ‘by-committee.’ But, the club’s first choice this season was to keep the Reynoso-structure and style to the team — 4-2-3-1 formation, six defending deep, three pushing forward quickly in attack, Reynoso bridging the gap — asking Robin Lod to replace Reynoso in the #10.

Lod is a very good player and should provide at least 15 goals+assists a season for Minnesota. He is not, though, good at that kind of #10, and was unable to bridge the gappyness of the team. The second option was to move into a more defensive minded 4-4-2 that was, at its best, opportunistic in attack. It was, on the whole, successful, even as most of the attacking committee struggled. Luis Amarilla is, it seems, suffering from a lack of confidence, a hesitancy on the ball that is exacerbated by his desire to play as a hold-up forward, a desire that the team’s style cannot support.

Ménder García and Bongokuhle Hlongwane will, given the opportunity and the training, be very good. At the moment, though, they are both still very young: Ménder having not yet developed the confidence to assert his presence into a game and Hlongwane too often dribbling himself out of options and mistiming his runs in behind. Apart from those who are struggling, Franco Fragapane has settled into his consistent self on the left wing, good enough for double-digit goals+assists in a season, but not the player to step-up and become the focal point of the attack. The remaining moment of optimism for the team is their most recent signing, South Korean Sang-Bin Jeong.

In his first extended shift last weekend the team returned to a 4-2-3-1 in which he showed quite a bit promise in the #10. Stylistically not a replacement for Reynoso, Sang-Bin seemed to possess the skill, quickness, and confidence to add a decisive element to the team’s attack. The club is still going through a Reynoso-less identity crisis, but it does that seem that any offense this season will come from through an opportunistic attack-by-committee, as each of the committee members overcomes their early struggles.

SaH: At the not-quite-quarter-pole it seems the Loons are a defense-first organization. What’s their structure like and will it hold against Seattle’s attack?

NS: At the moment the club is suffering a bit of a self-inflicted Reynoso-less identity crisis. In the first five games the team settled into a formal and functional 4-4-2, sitting deep, absorbing pressure, doing just enough in attack to get a string of good results. In their last two games they reverted to a 4-2-3-1; against Chicago it was a disaster; against Orlando, with a number of player changes that pushed the team forward into a more dynamic attack (most notably, Hassani Dotson for Wil Trapp in midfield, with Lod out right, Sang-Bin in the middle, Hlongwane switching to the left replacing Fragapane, and García alone up top), it was much better, until substitutions turned that shape defensive late in the second half.

So already and early in the season Minnesota has run out three different structures: a defensive 4-4-2 that got good, if unconvincing, results; a defensively minded 4-2-3-1 that did not work; and an offensively minded 4-2-3-1 that showed promise but was abandoned. In the past, Heath has tended to go more defensive on the road, and so Saturday might be a night to return to the 4-4-2, especially against a Seattle side that will not be at full strength but will also be looking to avenge a rivalry loss to Portland. This is, to be sure, still a league in which a stout defense and an opportunistic attack can get a shock result. But Heath is also quite committed to the 4-2-3-1, and so may, attributing the disaster in Chicago to effort rather than structure, run the team out in a defensive 4-2-3-1. Or maybe, with another week of training in the team, he will commit to the more attack minded 4-2-3-1 and try again.

That last one is pretty doubtful, but the young season has already been quite surprising.

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