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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Minnesota United lost to Carolina 1-0 on Saturday, with Brian Shriver scoring his league-leading 12th goal of the year in the 52nd minute to decide the game. The loss got me thinking about the team, and where it's at with four games gone in the fall season - which gave rise to a few questions.
1) When will Minnesota start converting its chances in front of goal? United had five shots on goal to Carolina's three on Saturday, but couldn't convert. Twice already this fall, the opposing team's goalkeeper has been named to the league Team of the Week, both times for making a seemingly impossible number of saves. And for all those chances, United has only scored three goals in four games in the second half (with a fourth coming via own goal).
Minnesota is not the only team thus afflicted; Edmonton and Atlanta have also scored just thrice in the fall, New York has four, and Tampa Bay and San Antonio have scored twice apiece in three games after their 7-4 barnburner in the opening week. But United hasn't kept a clean sheet since April 20, their second game of the spring season. This is a team that usually needs to score twice to win, and while they're creating the chances, they're not finding the back of the net.
2) Can we learn anything more about the defense from the goal that Carolina scored? It really didn't fit into any of the narratives from this season. The goal wasn't from a set piece, it wasn't allowed early or late; it was just a case of the Minnesota back line running into what appeared to be generalized confusion of how to defend a Carolina attack.
You can see it for yourself on the video; what appears to be a fairly straightforward push from the RailHawks suddenly turns into a breakaway. Two defenders (Aaron Pitchkolan and Kevin Venegas) push up, while defender Connor Tobin drops back to cover; Michael Reed and Justin Davis mark players, while Cesar Elizondo runs free down the right wing. It's a classic example of how a bunch of little things can turn into one big thing - in this case, the sight of Shriver, open in front of goal with no United defender within ten yards.
As head coach Manny Lagos would say about a goal like that one, that's soccer. That's how the game goes sometimes.
3) Who will start at right back this week? Veteran Brian Kallman started every game in the spring, then captained the team from his usual right-back spot in the fall's first game. He was sent off (rather harshly) for a foul near the end of that game, though, and hasn't played since, with Venegas retaining his place at right-back for the last three games.
On the one hand, it's impossible to ignore that Venegas was the closest defender to the goalscorer both against Tampa Bay and against Carolina... but on the other hand, he was named the Man of the Match by the team for his performance against Carolina. Opinion is split, in other words, about his performance.
Kallman certainly has a wealth of experience in defense, while Venegas played mostly in the midfield until this season, when he was converted to fullback as cover for the two established starters. Minnesota seems quite happy with the central partnership of Pitchkolan and Tobin so far, but it'll be interesting to see who starts on the right-hand side of defense on Saturday.
4) Are there changes coming in the midfield? Since joining the club on loan from Montreal, Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Calum Mallace have started every game in a re-worked three-man midfield, with Reed joining the pair for the past three games. But the group has yet to produce a goal or an assist, and most of the offense has been left to forward Pablo Campos and wingers Max Griffin and Simone Bracalello.
Neither Mike Ambersley nor Floyd Franks has started a game since the summer trades that brought them to Minnesota, veteran Omar Daley has yet to play, and youngster Miguel Ibarra has been relegated to a substitute role. You wonder how long Lagos will stick with the same midfield, with the number of experienced players he has at his disposal - all of whom are no doubt desperate to get a game.
United heads to San Antonio this Saturday to face a Scorpions team that's lost all four games so far this fall. United needs to get a win to get back on track. Anything less, and there will be plenty more questions to ask next week.
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