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Resolute play and a hyper-defensive formation sealed three points for ten-man Minnesota against Vancouver

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Minnesota United FC
Bobby Shuttleworth makes one of his seven saves against Vancouver, 5/5/2018
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Think all the way back to 2014. It was a simpler time: ISIS hadn’t declared itself a caliphate yet, Robin Williams was still around, and it was still acceptable to like either Taylor Swift or Kanye West. It was also the last time Minnesota United FC lost a game where they were down a man outside of stoppage time, thanks to noted “Guy who loved a good red card in a U.S. Open Cup game” center back Cristiano Dias getting a straight red against Sporting Kansas City and the Loons subsequently gifting goals to Soony Saad and Alex Martinez.

Minnesota’s had a sterling record in games where they play 10v11. In MLS, they’re 1-0-1 and haven’t conceded in 61 minutes, and following a disastrous 2010 season where the NSC Stars gave up full points in four games when they went a man down, the Loons and their Stars ancestors have gone 5-1-3 when playing significant minutes 10v11, scoring four goals and conceding five in 265 minutes. That record of 1.7 goals per 90 minutes is actually better than their 1.77 overall in 2018. What gives?

Saturday’s game between Minnesota and Vancouver is a prime example of what happens to a team that goes a man down. After a fairly nondescript first half that went roughly how it should have—Minnesota exercised their comfort playing the ball out of the back and possessed accordingly, while Vancouver’s skill on the wing and allergy to ball control showed in both their time on the ball and their amount of shots—Mason Toye made what could charitably be described as a rookie mistake in the 49th minute. Backing into the veteran center back Kendall Waston, Toye threw an elbow straight to the stomach.

This might be a shock, but it’s not wise to put an unprovoked elbow into a two-time MLS Best XI defender. It’s especially unwise to do so when the referee is in close proximity and can immediately issue a red card. It’s particularly unwise to do so when such an act can be reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for further suspensions. It’s hilariously unwise to do so when you’re the only healthy striker on your team.

However, Toye’s red card forced Minnesota to make some wise decisions. Vancouver showed right away in the second half that they would look to assert control over the ball, pressing a higher line and attempting a number of long balls over the back line. As it was, Darwin Quintero was regularly getting dwarfed between the midfield and defense in the first half, where between Waston, Jose Aja, and Aly Ghazal, each player had a foot of height on him. Between accommodating the increased pressure and withdrawing Quintero in front of Vancouver’s defensive midfield line, the Loons got a channel to switch the field and attack on the counter.

Goal Chain for Minnesota’s Goal Versus Vancouver Whitecaps, 5/5/2018
MatchCenter.MLSSoccer.com

That gap between Rasmus Schuller and Darwin Quintero’s passes? That’s the run through midfield. That space between Ibarra’s passes in the defensive third and the attacking six? That’s 16 seconds of running all the way down the field. The dynamism shown to get that completed is part of why Miguel Ibarra’s been the MVP of the side so far this year. And those touches? Well, save for an unsuccessful run that Quintero made six minutes later, that’s all the Loons did in the attacking third until successfully winning a corner in stoppage time.

It’s hard to overstate this: Vancouver dominated play in the second half. They came into halftime with 41% of possession and completed the game with 57.2%. The x-axis for their average touch in the second half was at the back of the final third. They completed ten key passes to the Loons’ one. And, naturally, they had ten shots, with three on target.

Possession Per Five Minutes, Minnesota United FC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

What might be a better gauge, however, is just how the Whitecaps were unsuccessful. Minnesota kept the ‘Caps to five shots in the box and forced three of them to be headed over. They forced twenty crosses to go uncompleted. They limited completed balls into the box to eight via 19 clearances, three recoveries, and two interceptions. They limited the work that Bobby Shuttleworth needed to make, forcing him into two saves—and excellent saves they were—and five recoveries. This was shoulder to the pump defending.

Minnesota United FC chalkboard of all touches after Mason Toye’s red card vs. Vancouver Whitecaps, 5/5/2018
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

This isn’t necessarily the hardest thing to do when you’re down a player. Minnesota saw this on full display against Atlanta United in March following Leo Gonzalez Pirez’s red card. Atlanta dropped their wing backs to play strict defense, slotted Jeff Larentowicz (and eventually Kevin Kratz) to play center back instead of holding midfielder, took forwards off for defenders, and did nothing but hoof cleared balls away and fall on the ground for 60 plus minutes. How different, really, is Minnesota’s chalkboard from Atlanta’s second half?

Atlanta United FC’s Chalkboard of all second half touches at Minnesota United, 3/31/2018
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

Well, the goal, for one. But more importantly, Minnesota made the same type of work of Vancouver’s cross-only play into the box as Atlanta did. They accepted that they wouldn’t maintain any possession, took the only chance that came their way via the counter, and shifted their focus entirely toward defending. They pulled Alexi Gomez and Miguel Ibarra, their two wide players, in favor of an additional defensive midfielder in Collin Martin and a center back in Wyatt Omsberg with the knowledge that they wouldn’t really need to possess the ball going forward. The best chances Vancouver had were defended crosses and long shots like this:

Jesus Shuttleworth saves Brek Shea’s shot against Vancouver Whitecaps FC, 5/5/2018
Matchcenter.MLSSoccer.com

For us to not credit much of Minnesota’s success in this game to Bobby Shuttleworth would be intellectually dishonest. Three incredible saves, four more straightforward stops, and ten recoveries were enough to limit Vancouver’s effectiveness to a frustrated shutout. To rely on Shuttleworth to hit that level regularly might be a bit much, but the experts at American Soccer Analysis show him having saved 2.6 more goals this season than what their expected goals model projects. With the small sample caveat that, like him, three of the top five have fewer than 300 minutes in net, Shuttleworth ranks top of the league in effectively stopping .86 expected goals per 96 minutes. There’s no doubt that he’s on fire at the moment, and Minnesota’s performances of late reflect it.

Regardless, the tactic of bunkering and relying on Shuttleworth to save long chances might, by default, end up as the strategy against LAFC on Wednesday night. Minnesota isn’t blessed with healthy depth at the moment, a fact reportedly exacerbated by injuries to Brent Kallman, Bertrand Owundi Eko’o, and Frantz Pangop during a scrimmage against Minneapolis City. Toye’s suspension comes at a time when Christian Ramirez and Abu Danladi are coming back from respective hamstring and ankle injuries. Darwin Quintero, Alexi Gomez, and Eric Miller all had layoffs of a month or more before coming into the Loons’ squad and could struggle to make a full 90 in a midweek match. Oh, and according to the Pioneer Press’s Andy Greder, Ibson didn’t travel to Los Angeles due to enforced rest. That doesn’t even account for the four long-term injuries to Marc Burch, Sam Cronin, Ethan Finlay, and Kevin Molino.

Where there’s some modicum of depth is in holding midfield. Maximiano and Harrison Heath have yet to make debuts, while Collin Martin and Collen Warner have seen some time. I envisage Adrian Heath taking advantage of that depth with at least Maximiano and Martin alongside Rasmus Schuller—maybe with Harrison instead—in a 4-3-3. If healthy, I’d love to see something of a 5-3-2 with Quintero and Ramirez up top and either Kallman or Wyatt Omsberg flanked by Francisco Calvo and Michael Boxall, with the substitute able to spell whichever center back falls dead first. If the hyper-defensive team is able to keep it scoreless through 60 minutes, an injection of starting talent in Miguel Ibarra and/or Alexi Gomez could help, for the third match running, steal three points in a disadvantageous time.