United made three changes to the starting lineup for last Saturday's game against Indy - two of which were on the wing. Jamie Watson and Omar Daley started the first three games wide in midfield, but come kickoff against Indy, Simone Bracalello was wide left and Daniel Mendes was wide right.
Combine this with a slight shift in formation, as Bill MK noted in his tactics post this week, and it gave United a much different look. And it’s hard to argue that it worked: Bracalello set up two goals, one of which Mendes scored.
This is not to dump on Watson and Daley, who provide different qualities than do Bracalello and Mendes. Daley bases much of his game on his speed, while Mendes is more about positioning and passing. On the left, Watson’s strengths lie in making runs off the ball and beginning attacks in the middle third of the field, while Bracalello is much better at taking the ball wide, or driving to the end line and finding space to cross the ball – or cutting inside and shooting.
Following the win, Mendes explained United’s approach on the wing. “We start everybody wide,” he said, noting that this width is the main goal in the team’s system. “From there, we try to make space for each other. We trained a lot this week in how we can be better in the running to give space to the other player.”
Mendes, who has played as both a winger and a playmaking central midfielder in his career, focused on combining with players in the center and with Kevin Venegas, who was the fullback on the right side. “It’s a little different to play wing than as a number ten, because as number ten we have more space to move left and right and go forward and back to meet the ball,” he said.
For head coach Manny Lagos, it was natural to put Mendes out on the wing, in his first start for Minnesota. “He’s played there before, he’s played underneath, he’s played that false nine as well,” said Lagos. “He’s one of those interesting players, where the last seven or eight years of his career, he’s been asked to do a lot of different things for his club in Sweden. He’s very comfortable stepping on the field and giving the team something they need. He made great runs from the outside to in, and probably should have had another goal in the second half. I’m just really pleased with him scoring a goal in his first home game.”
On the left, meanwhile, Bracalello continued his run of early-season success. While he’ll go down on the scoresheet with just one assist (and an own goal) to his credit, it was his counter-attacking runs that created both of United’s first two goals. He is United’s most skilled player with the ball at his feet, which leads to offensive chances even when the opposition appears to have him well covered.
While those two goals were created on the counter-attack, it was Bracalello’s combinations with Miguel Ibarra, who played his usual far-roaming attacking midfield role, that particularly impressed Lagos – who noted that this combination opened up Mendes’s goal.
Overall, Lagos was happy with the changes to the lineup. “We made some changes this week and we got some guys on the field that we felt like would do a good job,” he said. “I thought both sides at times, if they came at us we’d have space to attack on both the left and right flanks. When we were smart about it, we really exploited some areas where the space was left for [the wingers] going forward. Certainly with the personnel changes I was very proud of how Simone came in and influenced the game offensively, and the movement that Miguel made from the center to the left, and Danny filling in and allowing himself to get the space to get the goal, and Venegas getting high on the right. It was all really good movement.”
Tonight, United takes on the New York Cosmos, who have lost two 1-0 games in a row, the franchise’s first losing streak since joining the league midway through 2013. Despite the losses, though, the Cosmos have controlled those games; they attempted 43 shots in the two games combined, against just 12 attempts for their opponents.
In other words, it might be another game in which United’s best chances come from counter-attacks. Given how successful Bracalello and Mendes were in this area last week, perhaps it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the same two in the lineup tonight.