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Principles of Play: How the Loons build into the attack

As the Loons prepare for Phase 2 of return to play, we take a deeper look into how the team played tactically in the first phase. First up is a coaches favorite, build out play.

September 9, 2020 - Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States - Scenes from the Minnesota United vs FC Dallas match at Allianz Field.
(Photo by Andrew Dobin/Northstar Imagery)

Yes I know, build out is boring for a lot of readers. However it is the main foundation of play in the sport, even for teams that don’t necessarily look to dominate the opposition with possession. So yes it’s important and that’s why I’m discussing it first. Over the next few days I will be breaking down some of the other aspects of the Loons play so far in the return to play.

First a catch up, if you haven’t been watching... the Loons currently sit in third place for the Western Conference with 17 points through 11 games. During the return to play there have been some memorable games, and some very forgettable ones.

However, that’s how a season is. Sometimes you get to see the very best in a team, and sometimes the very worst. The goal over the next few days is to help see through what went right, and what went wrong.

So lets start with the position everyone forgets when it comes to build out play, the goalkeeper. If you had watched MLS is Back you would have seen Tyler Miller, and if you watched recent games, you can see why Tyler is the clear first choice. No offense to Ranjitsingh and St. Clair, they both look capable in goal and arguably better then some other starters in the league, but there is a clear difference between them and Miller.

However from a build out perspective and a confidence with the ball at their feet, there doesn’t seem to be a difference. Miller looks the most confident, having played in a system where Bob Bradley demanded it. However Ranjitsingh looks a close second, with St. Clair looking much improved in how confident he is with the ball there. However I would not say any of the goalkeepers, massively contribute to the team in terms of build out. In some systems, this would be a huge problem, however with how quick the Loons progress the ball forward, not so much. It is much more important on how they win the second ball off of the goalkeepers action, rather then the goalkeeper having precise build out principles.

The goal of build out play is to find your midfielders or attackers moving forward at the oppositions defensive shape. Once this happens you are in an attacking scenario and a different set of patterns of play start to happen. For build out these patterns are often very rigid so players know exactly where each other will be, for the final phase of attack its often free flowing. In build out, a team generally has several set patterns, think the 6 drops in between the center-backs.

With Minnesota United, as stated earlier, they aren’t worried about playing 50 passes in order to find these final attacking patterns. They want to find the attackers in space going forward, to imbalance the defense, which means they rarely use playing back to the goalkeepers feet, unless absolutely necessary. Below is an example of one pattern. Where the 6 drops a bit deeper to try and draw one of the defending central players up and out of shape. The ball side outside back tries to get higher up the field to break a line on the touchline. The 9 and opposite side full back create angles to be open for a switch of the field, or a long ball to knock down to a free midfielder. While the 8, 10, and sometimes the wingers try and create space for each other to lose a mark and try and turn up field.

Generally this is how MNUFC work, they are patient and look to imbalance the pressing team quickly, because well players are human and make mistakes. The Loons look to get up the field as quickly as the opposition allows them. If the 9 is open in space to get behind, or in position to win the ball and find a midfielder in space heading to the opponents goal, the ball is going to that forward. If not they look to find the 8 or the 10 in the midfield, where the Loons wrinkle is compared to other teams is they play with wingers who are comfortable inside receiving the ball on the half turn. This becomes difficult for the opposition, due to the vertical threat of the outside backs.

When MNUFC had to rotate their line up when Métanire got sent off, Heath went to a different system with some slightly different patterns of play. This was to add some defensive solidity in terms of an extra center back, while trying to keep the wide vertical threat with Edwards and Hairston. I think it was the right call given needing to rest players, injuries, and suspensions.

This shows that the Loons identity for build out will not change, they have a way to find the attackers in space facing the opposition that works for them and everyone is bought in.

Whether its finding the feet of Reynoso or Gregus through a second ball or on the half turn, finding one of the tucked in wingers driving at the spine of the opposition, or finding Gasper or Métanire in space out wide to progress into the final phase. The Loons will find a way into attacking chances consistently through the match, when they are fully healthy. Problem is right now they aren’t fully healthy. Now is the time to see some of the rest of the roster do it more consistently.