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A Way Too Early Preview: MNUFC v SKC

Coach Steve dives deep into MNUFC trip to SKC... and it is way too early for this

November 22, 2020 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Minnesota United midfielder Kevin Molino (7) chips the ball over Colorado Rapids defender Lalas Abubakar (6) during the first round playoff match at Allianz Field.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

It feels like just yesterday I was previewing MLS is Back talking about how these will be two of the best teams in the West.

It also feels like just yesterday dissecting how good Minnesota United were at set pieces. Well it looks like Sporting Kansas City read that article, because they picked apart San Jose largely with brilliance off of corners. Well sure San Jose is awful at defending them, but SKC is also really good at attacking set pieces.

What SKC truly excel at is progressing possession forward through their center midfielders, also known as the “Sporting Way”. They are really good at what they do, and to not account for the versatility in how they approach the task of progressing the ball forward leads to games like you saw on Sunday. I wrote about SKC recently so you won’t get a huge deep dive here, however the key to defeating SKC next week will come down to keeping the defensive shape compact vertically. If the Loons do this and cover for each other in the middle, they have a very good chance of coming out on top.

What that looks like from a style of play will be interesting, as we saw the Loons pressing more then usual lately. You can still have compact lines while being more aggressive to win the ball back. I will share some ideas for Adrian if he’s reading later on, but let’s talk about the Loons first.

If I had to come away with one critique about Minnesota United’s performance it was defending. Yes I know Adrian you kept a clean sheet, and that should be celebrated (even though it almost has become the expectation as of late).

The Loons gave up too many opportunities that frankly should have ended up in goals, and if it wasn’t for Dayne St. Clair early on the Loons would have been trailing, but we will get to that later. Right now we are going to appreciate my signing of the season in Bakaye Dibassy, because this is a skill of his and yes this is a skill.

I have quite literally lost track the amount of times he has done this, and frankly that scares me. However, he has provided balance to the backline and I for one can’t wait to see how he would look next to Ike Opara someday. Dibassy has helped make this defensive group title contenders with his skill set complementing Boxall and Gasper on both sides of him perfectly.

While Dibassy makes a wonderful play, this chance is created by Colorado finding a mismatch and exploiting it and MNUFC’s twitter clip conveniently ignores that. Hairston is the player Colorado targeted in the midfield and it worked.

Also I want to apologize for my GIFs looking like they were recorded with your microwave, a good GIF maker isn’t in the budget yet...

The Rapids were looking to pull Greguš out wide and leave a one on one against Hairston. They knew this was the best chance to create space against the Loons and they were right, however Hairston did well throughout his 80’ performance. Bringing on Ozzie sealed the game, possibly getting Ozzie Alonso from the start would be a huge boost. This might be harsh for Hairston who has done well filling multiple roles this season, but we are at the point in the season where we can’t afford for teams to be targeting a central based player to target out backline consistently.

Targeting Hairston in the middle wasn’t the only area Colorado was looking to attack, they flooded numbers at our right back and caused a lot of issues during the match. When Colorado’s line up came out, nobody really knew what to make of it. When Kellyn Acosta was played as a left back, I thought it would be to deal with the way Minnesota attacked with their front four. Kellyn caused issues with his overlaps, as well as tucking in to the midfield to create overloads when the winger stayed wide. I can’t think of any left backs off hand who are able to do that in MLS, so I’m not too worried for the rest of the playoffs.

However the concept of our players being constantly pulled out of position started to become a theme during this game. The Loons did look to be aggressive, which I believe benefits this team from a chance creation aspect. With the possibility of having as close to a fully healthy team as we will see this year for the rest of the playoffs, it is the right move. With that aggressiveness, the Loons need to find balance, so that every time they lose the ball the opponent isn’t getting opportunities like this on the counter.

Also Dayne St. Claire should be in Europe very soon, and he’s proven a lot of people (including me) wrong.

There were lots of issues that lead up to the goal. The Loons failed to win the second ball, the staff will point that out on film, but the reactions after that are just as bad.

Colorado makes a great pace to unbalance the Loons defense, however the recognition of the severity of the danger if the pass is played forward into space from the midfield is concerning for the Loons. Obviously Dotson cannot be beat there. Unfortunately it wasn’t the first time he was beat early on in this game in dangerous positions, inside the 18 yard box in the second minute was something I wrote down. However the players in front cannot be beat that easily, by a simple pass. It goes without saying that if Pulido plays against the Loons and he gets this opportunity, he is scoring it.

Hassani Dotson is obviously an important player in how far the Loons progress this postseason. Where he struggles is when he is left isolated in 1v1 duels out wide, when in the middle of the field he can force into different pressure traps he is much better. He actually settled down and became composed as the match went on.

The noticeable change was that Minnesota United pressed very well from the front four. Ethan Finlay had a moment where he initiated a pressing sequence in the 11’ which forced a good opportunity for the Loons. In addition the Loons attackers stepped in the first minute and forced an error in distribution from Yarbrough.

So let’s talk pressing (and eventually counter pressing) starting with the Reynoso howler. The only reason we even got there was because of the well timed and executed press.

The task for the coaching staff is to take what works for this group of Loons players, while applying some of the tweaks needed to counteract what SKC does well. I recently referenced the USMNT and what they do in pressing wide areas, and a similar concept could work for the Loons.

When dealing with teams who look to switch the point of attack to the weak side attacking full back, that space is very difficult to cover. This space is often vacated by the defending team due to that winger generally tucking in to press higher up, or defend an overload in the midfield. There are two logical solutions with two different intended outcomes. Option one is to drop that winger into that space and allow the opponent to build out, aka “park the bus”. Most talented teams know how to break this down, however it can be very successful in knockout tournaments. Option two is to have your outside back step to this ball, and look to turn it into a 50/50. The theory on this is you win the ball off of the pressing trigger and over the course of the match look to discourage the pass from being played at all.

What the USMNT did against Wales, and what the Loons have started to do is take the central midfielder and press in that situation. This works for a variety of reasons, one being it allows your full back to still defend their wing and not allow easy runs in behind (they can still step if you’d like). Two it encourages a pass into a pass backwards which allows your lines to step and your attackers to try and pin the opposition back into playing a long ball.

The issue with this is it requires a 6 to be in the spot to protect for when the press doesn’t cause one of those instances, like below.

Hairston and Gasper both step and get beat, but there is no real cover to protect them. When playing two center midfielders this is more likely to happen. They need a 6 in the line up if they want to play this way against a better team then Colorado. One could argue a midfield pairing of Greguš and Dotson might cover the ground needed to pull this off, however I disagree due to the fact they both love to press in these situations.

That would lead to a 3 man midfield with Greguš and Dotson in the more advanced pressing roles, with Ozzie protecting the backline. That sounds great except that means taking one your front four out of the starting line up.

Which leads me to what patterns of attacking play are possible with only a front 3, and it could be either very complicated or very simple depending on what Heath and Co. want to exploit SKC’s weaknesses.

As covered earlier, Sporting wants to progress numbers forward with their possession it’s the “Sporting Way”. Where they struggle is defending in transition so you can expose their backline in space. In the above clip Ján Greguš makes a run out of the midfield to attack the space vacated by the front four of the Loons, while Kei Kamara occupies the center backs. Reynoso is acting as the playmaker per usual, and Molino makes the late arriving run into the box. This pattern of play is something that could truly take apart Kansas City in transition, because of Robin Lod just hanging around back there. You could easily figuratively replace Molino with a pressing midfielder making that run with Greguš, or even have that player holding with Lod making that run into the box. I mean watch SKC struggle to track the simplest of runs throughout the entire match against a much inferior San Jose. In particular in this clip, watch how lackadaisically the midfield three track back in a big transition moment.

Let alone leave one of the best goal scorers in league history free in the dying seconds of a playoff game...

SKC can be countered, and enter one of the best counter attacking teams in the league. Where the Loons need to be extremely efficient is in the counter press. A counter press in essence is when you lose the ball in an attacking space staying active while looking to win the ball back immediately. The reason this is crucial for SKC in particular is due to them trying to commit numbers forward in possession, when they win the ball they want to keep it but they also know they want to be progressive with their possession. A well timed and executed counter press will likely lead to a goal for the Loons, and I think a goal like that decides this one.

Regardless this should be fun. Here are the three points:

  1. Be aggressive from the start, taking the game to SKC can unbalance them early.
  2. Execute on set pieces on both sides of the ball.
  3. Take nothing for granted, it is 2020 after all.