Minnesota United really looked like a team that could do well in the MLS is Back tournament.
There were some assumptions that went with that statement. First, that the Loons’ counter-attacking system that was successful way back in March still works. Also, that it works specifically against the three other teams of Group D, plus some other teams in the knockouts.
There was an additional assumption about the tournament bubble staying intact long enough for United to make progress in the competition, but this isn’t that column.
One thing taken for granted was Ike Opara’s presence as a stalwart on Minnesota’s backline. He won’t be there, though — at least for the group stage. To be clear, Opara is 100 percent right to prioritize his own health/rehab over this competition, but again, this isn’t that column.
This column is about how to replace Opara, a former MLS defender of the year who is no doubt extremely responsible for United’s defensive turnaround.
The Hole in the Defense
Before discussing how the Loons can play successfully without Opara in their squad, let’s look at what he brought to the team.
Opara was obviously a major defensive presence, which is the point of playing a centerback, after all. We’re not going to define that too much, because it’s relatively simple to think of.
What we will look at, however, is his offensive contribution. Here’s the first hot take of the column: Ike Opara had about as much to do with Minnesota’s offense in 2019 as Darwin Quintero did. Yes, Opara is a centerback. Yes, Quintero is an attacking midfielder.
In 2019, Opara had either a completed pass or successful dribble on 16.6 percent of United’s possessions, while Quintero made the same contributions on 16.8 percent. (Shoutout American Soccer Analysis for that stat.)
That said, more than twice as many Quintero-involved possessions ended in a shot than those with Opara.
But Opara did have a very real offensive role in the two 2020 matches we saw.
As the more-offensive minded part of the centerback tandem with Michael Boxall, Opara was sometimes the defender to kickstart a counter-attacking sequence.
This sequence is perhaps a little lucky from Opara’s perspective, but it proves a point: He gets Minnesota’s counter going with a pass to winger Ethan Finlay, and things progress from there. That’s an important role in United’s offensive system. (That’s also an assumption that counters are an important part of how the Loons operate in this tournament.)
Take a look at Opara’s passing chart from the season opener against Portland for evidence of how he’s a distributor:
Those passes out to the wings are key.
Opara is also a set-piece threat. He scored twice from corners against the San Jose Earthquakes, including this goal:
Scoring here is pure aerial dominance from Opara. His marker is in front of him, yet he gets enough height to put a clean header on the ball. If set pieces are going to be better this year for the Loons — and it looks like they might be — Opara would likely be a huge part of that.
I’m not the first person to write about Opara’s value and speculate about something like this being the solution — Jeremy Rushing of Zone Coverage beat me to that punch.
But a 3-4-3 really looks like the answer. Here’s how it would look:
GK: Tyler Miller
CB (L to R): Chase Gasper, Michael Boxall, Jose Aja/Brent Kallman/James Musa/Noah Billingsley
WB: Raheem Edwards (left), Romain Metanire (right)
CM: Jan Gregus, Ozzie Alonso
AM: Kevin Molino/Robin Lod (left), Ethan Finlay (right)
ST: Luis Amarilla
Because it’s simpler, we’ll start with why the attack would work: It’s the 4-2-3-1 minus one attacking midfielder. In theory, the AMs would play a little bit narrower than true wingers, but not as true No. 10’s either.
That would force Molino to play a bit wider and Finlay a bit more centrally, but not drastically. Robin Lod, who’s used to cutting in onto his right foot anyway, would fit just fine.
If Minnesota wants to play as a transition-focused team, this set-up gives flexibility. There’s room for Gregus to push higher up, and for either wingback to push up the flanks — which Metanire did a lot in those two matches.
But as for why the defense works:
Chase Gasper drifted centrally a noticeable amount of time for a true left back in those early games (and I talked about it back in March, so it’s not just a convenient point to make now). Would it be different for him to play as a left-centerback? Yes, but he wouldn’t need to play as a true centerback.
Part of the advantage of a 3- (or 5-) defender formation is the flexibility it provides for a backline. The defensive block can have five players in a full defensive situation, and having three centerbacks enables one to venture forward in offensive situations without leaving just one defender back. Essentially, it’s built to defend in sturdy fashion, then explode out and send numbers forward on the counter.
That flexibility could be enough to replace Opara’s offensive contributions by freeing up a center back to start a counter or advance up the field and allow wingbacks to play even more aggressively. And by adding a defender, it should help cover for Opara’s absence in pure defensive scenarios, too.
As for replacing his prowess in the air: At 6’3”, Jose Aja would be a nice target on set pieces. Will he start in Opara’s spot? I’m inclined to think so, at least until Brent Kallman is back from suspension.
A final note: We haven’t seen Noah Billingsley in MLS play (or on team social media from Florida, I think...), but he’s good on set pieces and two-footed. With experience as an outside back and some size, he could make a good right- or left-centerback.
Will Adrian Heath adopt a 3-4-3? Probably not. A 4-3-3, which would add Hassani Dotson to the field and allow Ozzie Alonso to drop back as a centerback at times, isn’t a far cry from it, though...