Defense powers United's hot start

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2014 - 1:38 AM

The acquisition of Tiago Calvano had a domino effect, allowing players to excel at other positions.

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Goalkeeper Matt VanOekel tipped a ball away for the the net during Minnesota United practice Thursday April 24 , 2014 in Blaine

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Minnesota United made a splash before the 2013 season, landing two forwards and a goalkeeper ranked among the North American Soccer League’s elite.

Injury and ineffective play left the club reeling and led coach Manny Lagos to try a more subtle player-signing approach this season. Atop his wish list was “a player with experience who wanted to come in and help lead an already good core of players,” Lagos said. ‘‘We needed a guy who has seen a lot of different situations and will be ready to help us become a better team defensively.”

That player, Brazilian defender Tiago Calvano, has helped United race to a 3-0 record and first place in the spring season standings while allowing only one goal. A year ago, Minnesota gave up the second-most goals in the spring season.

The club plays host to the Indy Eleven (0-1-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

Calvano has elevated the back line, working well with fellow Brazilian Cristiano Dias in the middle and freeing Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas to create pressure on the outside. Calvano’s arrival also allowed Aaron Pitchkolan, a Best XI selection as a defender last season, to shift to a more natural midfielder position.

The net result of these moves strengthened what Lagos considers the all-important “spine” of the team.

Minnesota’s defense shined throughout last week’s home debut, a 1-0 victory against FC Edmonton. Dias twice headed a ball off the goal line, preserving a shutout and earning NASL play of the week honors.

“We might not get the headlines for putting the ball in the back of the net but a play like that is just as important as a goal,” Davis said.

With a nod to his defensive corps, Lagos said, “They made it hard for Edmonton to break us down.”

Becoming a sound defensive unit in soccer, where multiple players move as one, is akin to developing a cohesive offensive line in football. Communication is most important, Calvano said, though words are not always required.

“Sometimes you don’t even have time to talk, you just look at the eyes to see what your partner wants to do,” Calvano said. “Slowly we are getting there.”

Davis, who played with Dias on Minnesota’s 2011 NASL championship team, is encouraged by a near-flawless start this spring.

“Sometimes we would give up a late goal last year and get a draw,” Davis said. “We’re not doing that this year. We’re staying focused for the whole game, and we’re not giving up anything cheap.”

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