In the second game of the Carolina Challenge Cup Minnesota United took on last year’s fellow expansion side Atlanta United. The first half turned out to be a little bit chippy as both sides tried to establish themselves after disappointing first games, but the second half settled down a little bit as both teams made some changes and played the ball around a little bit more. Both teams struggled with the slickness of the field, but in the end the spoils were shared. Good United: 1, Other United: 1.
So what did we learn from this game?
First of all, 35-year-old Tyrone Mears still has some juice in his legs. The veteran right back, who played for Atlanta last season, put in a good shift against his former club. For most of the game he was matched up against a player half his age in Eziquiel Barco. Not only did he have the legs to track down the young Argentine, but Mears was able to keep him quiet once they were level. On the other side of the field, Jerome Thiesson had a relatively quiet game, not necessarily a bad thing when facing a fearsome offense like Atlanta’s. Francisco Calvo and Michael Boxall did well for the most part to command the box, aside from the several times that Josef Martinez was allowed to run free and attack the ball in the box. For the most part the first ball into the box was dealt with well, especially late into the game when Calvo lost the ball and presented Atlanta with a golden opportunity to even the score. The first boot on the ball when the cross came in was a Minnesota one. The Loons struggled when it came to winning the second ball and almost let in Miguel Almiron in the first half when Kevin Molino pulled off a a bouncing ball in the box forcing Matt Lampson into one of his many saves.
Speaking of Lampson, the new man between the sticks had an impressive game. In preseason you want to get a lot of practice in, and he as afforded just that tonight. Twice he was saved by Calvo’s goal line clearances and once he was beaten by a stunner from Barco, but take nothing away from his performance. He came out and claimed a few crosses and looked like he was able to command the box well. Only time will tell if a consistent center back pairing will take some of the pressure off, but so far he looks more capable of pushing Bobby Shuttleworth for the starting spot.
Most of the game was spent with Atlanta camped in front of the Minnesota goal. The Loons started with what appear on the screen as a 4-1-4-1, but the midfield trio of Collin Martin, Rasmus Schuller, and Ibson looked flat across the middle, essentially in a 4-5-1. The game plan was to defend with numbers and attack with pace. Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino both put in shifts on the wings and came back to provide cover on the wings as well. Several time the Loons were able to win the ball in the midfield or in front of their box and play the ball out of defense and through the midfield through that midfield trio. This isn’t something we saw much of last year. When playing possession wasn’t on, they were more than happy to clear the ball upfield in the general direction of Abu Danladi and eventually Christian Ramirez.
Another thing we didn’t see much of last year was the pressing that led to the goal. The combination of Danladi, Schuller, and Finlay forced a turnover in front of Atlanta’s box and Schuller was able to latch onto the pass from Finlay before being taken down. One thing we did see a lot of was Molino slotting away penalties, which he did with aplomb. The Loons had several more opportunities through Danladi, Miguel Ibarra, and Molino, but all came to nothing in the end. Danladi was isolated for much of the game and while he had the pace and trickery to trouble the Atlanta backline, there was rarely anyone close enough to him to provide support.
Late in the game Atlanta got a goal back through 18-year-old Barco. He was able to cut inside against Mears for the first time all game and curled a beauty inside the top corner. It was no less than Atlanta deserved, having the bulk of the shots and possession, and if you have to give up a goal, that’s not a bad to do it.
The last bright point for the Loons this evening was the play of Ibson. If he showed his age against the Charleston Battery, he looked 10 years younger tonight. On defense he took of the space he needed to in order to clog the middle of the field and slow down the Atlanta juggernaut, and on offense he look brilliant at times. His interplay and dynamic short passing brought Minnesota United close on a number of chances. The Loons were lacking that final pass on every attack tonight, Ibson included, but lets chalk that up to rust for now. In the end, 1-1 is more than fair and the Loons can hold their heads high tonight.