Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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They wanted three points on the road, and they got it - but it wasn't easy for Minnesota United FC, which had to erase 1-0 and 2-1 Atlanta leads on their way to a 3-2 win over the Silverbacks. The win puts Minnesota in a three-way tie for first place in the league with Carolina and Tampa Bay.
A few thoughts on the game (highlights here), and on the season so far:
* We're starting to see how Minnesota wants to play, at least to begin this year. United played five players in midfield again in Atlanta - three attacking, two a little more reserved in the center. It's a setup designed to pressure the opposition, with five players who can swarm forward; it also can put pressure on United's defense, if the attack roams too far. It's also a setup that requires an incredible amount of running from the three attacking midfielders. Saturday, it was Miguel Ibarra, Simone Bracalello, and Lucas Rodriguez in that role, and the three had to both press the Atlanta defenders in the middle of the field, and still get back and defend on the wings.
My memory of past seasons is that much of Minnesota's attack has come via the wings. Ibarra and Rodriguez, and fullbacks Justin Davis and Brian Kallman, would push forward and try to swing the ball in from the wide areas. With the three attacking midfielders and one forward, it appears to me that United is trying to attack much more through the middle of the field.
* The Atlanta goals were less about defensive problems and more about bad luck. Atlanta scored twice from set pieces - once from a free kick, once from a penalty. In the first instance, Connor Tobin went for a block just outside the penalty area and got there a split-second late, leading to a Milton Blanco free kick that Daryl Sattler got a fingertip to but couldn't save. In the second, Aaron Pitchkolan was unlucky to have the ball ricochet off his arm in the penalty area, leading to Ruben Luna scoring from the penalty spot.
That said, it wasn't exactly a suffocating defensive performance for Minnesota, either. Atlanta had a handful of very good chances, including several in the final half-hour that should have resulted in goals.
* Simone Bracalello has been a standout for United. Bracalello's re-signing got lost in the shuffle last off-season, with the team bringing in two midfielers and two forwards. At the time, I wondered where the Italian's minutes would come from. Through three games, though, Bracalello has been excellent, scoring twice from the penalty spot - once on Saturday - and emerging as the team's most consistent offensive threat. Along with Ibarra he's perfect for the attacking midfield role that Lagos is using him in. And it doesn't hurt that he's a dead-ball specialist; he takes most of the team's corner kicks, and he came close to scoring from a free kick on Saturday.
* It's notable that United has yet to score a goal from open play. Against Atlanta, it was Kallman and Pitchkolan turning home corner kicks. Against Edmonton, Rodriguez scored after a Pitchkolan touch on a Kyle Altman free kick. Add in a Bracalello penalty in each game, and Minnesota has scored five goals - but all five have been from set pieces. Scoring from a situation in which it's possible to set up players in the area is one thing; creating goals from passing and from attacking is another entirely.
As I mentioned, United's now tied atop the NASL standings, and Saturday, the Carolina Railhawks - one of its fellow table-toppers - come to town. It's another big game in a season that will be chock-full of them.