Minnesota United FC won the North American Soccer League (NASL) Spring Championship which gives the team a home game to start the playoffs at the end of the Fall season. It might seem strange that the NASL is already crowning a champion only nine games into the campaign, but there is a method to the madness.
Unlike other American soccer leagues, but similar to some Central and South American leagues, the NASL is divided up into two seasons, the spring and fall seasons. This allows the league to take a break for the World Cup.
The Spring Championship also creates some excitement during a time of the season it can be tough developing story lines for teams in the league. The league was able to promote 3 of its games this weekend, including one involving the Cosmos, the league darlings, as having implications for the Spring Championship. The final three teams in the playoffs at the end of the season will be decided during the Fall season, one the team with the best record in the Fall season, and the last two spots to the remaining teams with the best records over both seasons.
Manny Lagos, coach of Minnesota United FC, put out a line-up with a couple of interesting changes. First, Watson got the start over Bracallello on the left wing. The Italian Bracallello, a long-time player for Minnesota, has been trading the starting spot with Watson all season, but after starting a couple games in a row, looked like he had the spot locked down.
However, with the team struggling to create offense against Carolina and a very weak Atlanta, Lagos gave the nod to Watson. I’ve written before about the difference between the two, I look at the difference in play style and talents that each player brings to the team.
The second interesting lineup choice was starting Thiago Calvano and sitting Dias. The Brazilian Calvano had been injured, but travelled with the team, and got the surprise start.
The real suprise was that the big Dias, whose head has proven vital to get balls out of the box or off the goalline, did not start. Instead, Captain Pitchkolan started next to Calvano, giving space in the defensive midfield for fan favorite Greg Jordan to get the start along side Vicentini. This defensive choice ended up costing the team at least 2 of their 3 goals.
The Formation and Tactics – The Offense
Minnesota started in a 4-2-3-1, with the league goal leader Ramirez at the top and Ibarra beneath him, and Watson and Mendes on the wings. The two fullbacks, Davis and Brian Kallman provided a lot of support for the team, coming way up the field, including Davis who had a goal from just outside the box.
Against the 4-4-2 of Tampa, with a straight line midfield, the team found a lot of success with quick passes into the midfield and then out to a player making a run along the wing. The Rowdies pushed up the field, looking for changes on goal, and that left them exposed on the wings.
After Davis’s first half goal, Minnesota found the back of the net in the second half with two great team goals. On Mendes’ goal, it starts with great pressure on the goal kick, causing the Rowdies goalkeeper to kick it into touch. After a long throw from Kallman which was first headed by a Rowdie, Ibarra makes a quick pass to Ramirez who crossed it to Watson on the far side of the goal, who found Mendes at the penalty spot who slotted it home.
The third goal was set up by great midfield pressure and a quick counter. Miguel Ibarra made a nice pass to Mendes along the sideline, who found Ramirez in the middle of the field, who made a quick flick on to Ibarra who had kept running up the right side, who shot it through the legs of the goalkeeper.
These goals displayed two aspects of Minnesota’s offense that has played a part in Minnesota’s success this year. The first is that the front 4 players, while with assigned positions, are given a lot of freedom to move around the field. Ibarra, the center attacking midfielder, took his shot from the right side, while Mendes, the right winger, scored from the front of the goal.
This interchange and movement allows Minnesota to make use of space and also causes matchup issues for the back four of the opposition. It also is reliant on the players to be very selfish. Watson had a shot, but it was from a difficult angle. Mendes knew that Watson would see him in front of the goal, and it was an easy shot for Mendes after Watson made the pass.
The second is that the team relies on good pressure to create offensive opportunities. Both goals came on pouncing on balls in the midfield that Tampa Bay had done a poor job of controlling. The front four sees these opportunities open up, and are already making runs down the field and finding space to receive a pass. The press of Minnesota is a big part of the success that they have with their offense.
The first two goals were poorly defended. On the first, Pitchkolan, the converted defensive midfielder missed a chance to intercept a pass, which gave the Rowdies the ball on the endline, then Brian Kallman moved inside to sandwich the Rowdie in front of the goal, leaving Wagner open on the far side to take the shot. Hildebrandt got a hand on the ball, but that was not enough as the ball went just inside the far post.
The second goal was a product of a back line that hadn’t played together. Tiago Calvano kept Mkosana onside, and Hildebrandt was slow coming off his line. No one was able to make it back to the goalline in time to keep it out, and the Rowdies led 2-1 going into the half. This was reminiscent of last year, when Minnesota would let in goals near the end of the half, not playing the full 45 minutes. This was the first one of the year.
The final goal also was vintage 2013, with Minnesota letting in a goal on a corner kick. A Rowdie was left open to go up to head the ball right in front of the goal, and while he missed or just touched the ball, his teammate was able to shoulder the ball in on the far post.
With the game at 3-3 late in the game, Dias came on for Watson, and Minnesota parked the bus in front of the goal, with 5 or 6 in the back line to preserve the tie and give them the Spring Championship. Dias was his usual self, heading at least two balls out of the box, and keeping the Rowdies unable to find another goal.
A great game since it was the result they needed and included lots of offense, and a great end to the first half of the season. Hopefully they can continue to play well and beat Kansas City in the Open Cup on June 18th.