It was Juliano that set the tone for Minnesota - not with a well-placed pass or incisive run, but a moment in his own half of the field. United came out in the 4-2-3-1 formation that we all learned to love last season, with Pablo Campos up front, JC Banks and Miguel Ibarra on the wings, and Kalif Alhassan ahead of Juliano and Aaron Pitchkolan in the middle of the field. Jacksonville, meanwhile, came out in what appeared to be a 3-7-0; with no center back and no clear forward, the Armada appeared set on blockading the center of the field.
And so Juliano picked up a loose ball, and turned, and was met with four Armada attackers. Every United player was left standing and waiting for a pass that never came, because Vicentini didn't even have time to take a touch; he just went down under the onslaught, like a dad who's gone too far into the ocean in search of an excellent beach vacation photo of his family, and has failed to notice a wave that's now carrying his hat and camera off to points unknown.
It led to the first good chance of the game, and a good save from Sammy Ndjock, but the tone was set. From there, it was time for United to defend, and look to counter. "We wanted to allow them to pass a little bit because they like to do that," said Manny Lagos. So United would sit back, while Jacksonville passed and passed through the midfield, looking for some small opening. Fullback, passes to center, passes to et al; it was that kind of first half. Alhassan and Banks sat back, defensive responsibilities on their mind; half the time it fell to Pitchkolan to pressure the Armada back line and goalkeeper. For much of the game, the big defensive midfielder appeared to be nothing so much as a second striker.
The counter-attack strategy worked, in a sense. ""They have a lot of players who know how to play with the ball, so if you press high, you open space for them to come at us," said Campos. "It was strategic the way we played today." And it's true that United opened no space for Armada to exploit. It's also true, though, that Campos is not a natural at counter-attacking; he's at his best as a target, not as someone trying to stretch the defense. Even in the second half, when he created United's third goal with an excellent pass to Ibarra, he bulldozed a defender in order to get the pass in the first place.
Apart from Ibarra's goal, it's hard to say that any of the goals made any particular sense. A quick recap:
1. United penalty after what appeared to be a rather blatant Alhassan dive.
2. Tiago Calvano scoring from a corner after a Jacksonville defender miskicked the ball directly to him on the goal line.
3. An Armada goal that seemingly bounced off every player on the field, and ended up being scored by Pascal Millien, off NDjock's hand, and then through the waiting hands of Kevin Venegas, who tried to catch it and throw it out of the net.
4. A Jemal Johnson free kick from 35 yards that went directly through NDjock's hands, which makes me wonder if we'll see Mitch Hildebrandt for both games next week. "It was a pretty soft one to give up and I think he’d put his hand up and say that too," said Lagos of NDjock.
I mean, it's exciting - five goals in a half-hour, after a sleepy first 45 minutes, was certainly a needed bit of entertainment - but it's hard to take any larger lessons from any of that. United got the three goals, but not because they were dominant; they coughed up a pair of two-goal leads, but not because of a total team breakdown. Things just... happened.
Still, three in a row for Minnesota. And that's not nothing. They've moved from tenth to second in the NASL table in a matter of three weeks. They're six points behind New York, but actually still control their own destiny; they have a game in hand on the Cosmos, and host them next week, so two more wins in the next two weeks and the two teams would be level on points. (Though not on goal differential; the Cosmos currently are six goals ahead, so beating New York by three or four goals would be quite helpful.)
And on to St. Louis
Before that New York game, though, United have the challenge of a third-round road trip in the US Open Cup. They're off to St. Louis FC of the USL on Wednesday, trying to earn yet another fourth-round trip to Kansas City. (Each of the last three years, United's prize for beating a lower-league team has been a trip to Sporting Park. All very diverting, but I'm getting reasonably sick of the geographic US Open scheduling - and, apparently, Minnesota's coin-flip luck.)
Lagos gave one of the best coach-speak answers I've ever heard, when asked whether Wednesday against St. Louis or Saturday against New York was more important. "They’re equally important in their own way," he said.
For right now, though, the coach said he's focused on the next game, in St. Louis He's planning to get a few new guys into the lineup. Said the coach, "We have some guys that haven’t been able to show what they can do, who are going to be able to get on the field and try get us the result Wednesday."
I would expect Christian Ramirez to get the start; he came on as a sub for Pablo Campos, late in the second half. Jonny Steele and Greg Jordan also came on as subs, and might therefore be front-line candidates to start on Wednesday.
United media relations director Eric Durkee told me that a web broadcast of the game from St. Louis is possible, but not certain. There are a few hoops to jump through, I'm told. If nothing else, you can probably expect regular Periscope videos.
For more coverage of United's win against Jacksonville, check out Northern Pitch.