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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United posted photos of the team sheets on Twitter for the Matlock Town and Derby County games on their UK trip, and though the lineup shifted dramatically between the two matches, the formation did not. In both games, Minnesota deployed a 4-2-3-1, with one central striker and two defensive midfielders.
It's a formation that - with its five midfielders - plays to Minnesota's numerical strength. United have a large pile of midfielders, especially defensive midfielders; the team probably has five or six players who could ably play in front of the back four and work to stop the other team's attacking midfield. Juliano Vicentini, Aaron Pitchkolan, and Kentaro Takada all got starts there on this trip, but a number of other players - Michael Reed, Floyd Franks, etc. - could also fill that role.
Up front, the formation also fits the personnel, as well. The team added Christian Ramirez in the off-season, who looks like he may play a large role for United, but is otherwise without another proven striker to complement Pablo Campos up front. The team struggled last year to find that "second" striker, as second-half signing Mike Ambersley struggled mightily; perhaps playing Campos or Ramirez centrally will be the solution.
Another benefit of the formation is that the two outside midfielders aren't restricted to playing strictly as "wingers," like they traditionally do in a 4-4-2. United has four candidates for the outside-midfield role - Miguel Ibarra, Jamie Watson, Omar Daley and Simone Bracalello, and all four play best when they have the freedom to both run the wing and cut inside.
That said, the worry with those outside midfielders is whether they can also track back and play defense, or whether they'll leave the two defensive midfielders alone to try to cover the entire width of the field defensively. United fan Matt Kauko posted a few other links about the 4-2-3-1 on his blog, and they make for interesting reading - especially the ones that cover how speed on the wings can utterly defeat the formation. (The one saving grace is that speed is one of the hardest qualities to come by in the NASL.)
United also has to worry about finding the attacking central midfielder to make this formation work. Without some creativity from that position, and some ability going forward, the defense tends to be able to collapse on the single striker. The central midfielder might be more instrumental than any other player in creating space for the other attackers - but who can fill that spot for Minnesota?
Of course, this discussion could be entirely moot come April 12, when United could come out in an uber-traditional 4-4-2. And head coach Manny Lagos has always put more emphasis on movement, passing and hard work than he has on how players line up. So perhaps the discussion of formations is entirely academic.
Other friendlies - but unconfirmed
A few eagle-eyed fans have spotted details of potential home preseason friendlies. Creighton University lists a friendly against United this Sunday, March 23, while the University of Nebraska-Omaha has a game listed for Saturday, April 5. Both are scheduled at the National Sports Center - though with the week's weather forecast, the March 23 game in particular appears to be extremely unlikely to take place, at least outside.
Last year, United played a preseason scrimmage at Augsburg in their "soccer dome," against Bridges FC; with the matches still unconfirmed, of course, there is also no word on whether they might be moved indoors, to Augsburg's facility or anywhere else.
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