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Preview: Loons at San Jose Earthquakes

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The Loons look to win consecutive road games for the first time in their MLS history against last season’s Wooden Spoon winner

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Romario Ibarra concentrates heavily on the ball during the Loons’ win against Vancouver on March 2. Minnesota takes on San Jose Saturday evening.
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Last week was awesome, wasn’t it? The Loons won their first road game against a conference foe since joining Major League Soccer, only getting beaten on set pieces in a 3-2 win against Vancouver. If the team wants to make a run at getting their first road winning streak in MLS, the trip to San Jose might be the best route to it.

San Jose come in with a couple of big similarities to Vancouver. For starters, new head coach Matias Almeyda has worked to install a new tactical identity to the Quakes, focusing on a 4-2-3-1 highlighted by an organized attack and strict man marking in defense. For another, if the first game of the MLS season is any indicator, it’s definitely a work in progress, as Montreal was largely able to run around their defenders and get in behind with relative ease in a 2-1 road victory.

The big difference between the Loons’ foes, however, is that San Jose return the bulk of their team from last year.

You can take this either of two ways. On one hand, San Jose was the worst team in MLS last year, allowing the second-highest goal total in league history en route to winning just four games. On the other hand, San Jose best Minnesota both home and away last year. A team that needs confidence as they press into a new identity could just hope to get back to what worked against Minnesota last season.

The Loons

Minnesota United come into this game off of a performance that was more dominant than the scoreline displayed. The Loons out-possessed Vancouver, out-passed them (both in volume and accuracy), out-shot them, and came up with more defensive stops than the home Whitecaps, pushing the home side into just 19 touches in the Loons’ box. The performance was rampant at times, particularly as the second half went on.

That said, there are some lingering questions:

  1. Who defends set pieces? The big drawback from the game against Vancouver was the inability to control shots on dead-ball situations, with both goals headed in as players broke through gaps between defenders near the post. The concern last season on set pieces was that the Loons failed to defend the air well enough to stop chances, but against Vancouver it was just slipped marking. To clean this up, Minnesota should look to identify marks and stick to them, rather than playing zonally; additionally, just to be on the safe side, they should ensure that Jan Gregus’s 6’2” frame is available to block out the sky.
  2. Who starts up top? Minnesota rolled the dice with Romario Ibarra in the lone striker role against Vancouver, and while he did end up with the team’s third goal, he didn’t necessarily look comfortable with the role, drifting all over the attacking third to find the game. When Angelo Rodriguez was subbed in, he at least looked more comfortable playing in the middle, albeit without accuracy on his shots. With San Jose erring heavily toward rigid organization, Romario might be the better shout to lead the line, drawing marks out of position in front of Darwin Quintero.
  3. How much does Ethan Finlay feature? Finlay got a late cameo against Vancouver, looking more assured on the ball and physically looked as ready as you can get to return from an ACL tear less than a year ago. If his interview this week with Jeff Rueter of The Athletic is any sign, he’s chomping at the bit to have an expanded role, though head coach Adrian Heath has rightfully said that his focus should be to have that role throughout the season. If Finlay features again, look for it to be similarly brief, maybe in the 30 minute range.

Predictions

In terms of the roster and formation, it’s hard to imagine they go out with a different look than they did against Vancouver. The concerns about Angelo Rodriguez’s finishing are real, and with the type of success Montreal had in running and passing around the Earthquakes last weekend this could be a good opportunity to get the two Ibarras and Darwin Quintero running around the back line. I’d also expect Francisco Calvo and Romain Metanire to look for overlaps into the attacking third, putting extra pressure on both USMNT right back Nick Lima and new left back signing Marcos Lopez and pinning their attack back.

In terms of scoreline, here’s what our writers think:

  • Tim McLaughlin: 3-2 loss (“Same old story”)
  • Colin O’Donnell (me): 3-1 win
  • Jacob Schneider: 2-0 win, though when asked to be pessimistic, “Wondo hat trick, Loons still win 5-3”
  • Seth Steffenhagen: 3-1 win
  • John Stephenson: 3-1 win

Did we jinx it? Tell us in the comments, then find out tomorrow. Coverage starts on Fox Sports North Plus at 6:30 p.m. CT, with kickoff set for 7:00 p.m.