Minnesota United has played San Jose three times since Argentinian coach Matias Almeyda brought his unorthodox “man-marking” system to the Earthquakes starting last season.
In that time, the Loons are 3-0 and have outscored, by a combined 11-3, an opponent that briefly led the MLS standings after the Earthquakes learned a new coach and his style a year ago.
The Loons won 3-0 and 3-1 in two meetings last year and 5-2 at San Jose in this season’s second game in March. But now it is July, and so much has changed in those four months interrupted for both teams that have advanced to Saturday night’s MLS is Back Tournament quarterfinal game in Orlando.
“I don’t think the 5-2 win for us in San Jose — which seems an eternity ago — will have much bearing on what’s happening Saturday,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said in a video conference call from Orlando. “We both had four months off. We’ve both been through an awful lot of difficulties away from football. So it’ll be 90 minutes on its own.”
San Jose won its tournament Group B with a 2-0-1 record, three points better than defending MLS Cup champion Seattle. It then thumped Real Salt Lake 5-2 in its knockout-round game and enters the game against Minnesota United as the Las Vegas favorite and the Loons as underdogs, despite the result from their March meeting.
The Loons went 1-0-2 in their Group D play and then defeated the Columbus Crew — dominant throughout its group play — in a penalty-kick shootout after the teams played to a 1-1 draw in regulation time.
“We’re never more or less than anybody, so I don’t consider us to be favorites before playing,” Almeyda said in Spanish through an interpreter in a separate video call. “We carry ourselves with a lot of calm. We always respect each opponent. We like to be respected. And there’s a precedent where they scored five goals on us, so maybe then they should be the favorites and not us.”
Almeyda used his own refined system to win titles with two teams in Argentina and with Guadalajara in Mexico’s Liga MX. It defends man against man all over the field rather than territorially. When it’s working well, the opponent needs to make good, quick decisions and passing to defeat it.
So far the Loons have done that well those three games.
“We know what San Jose is about, we know how they play,” Loons goalkeeper Tyler Miller said on a video call. “They haven’t changed since March, when we played them last time. I think they’ve only gotten better, to be honest. It’s going to be a tough task. It’s a one-off game so anything can happen, and we’re prepared for that. We’re approaching it in a completely different fashion than how we played them back in March.”
The Loons won in March on the counterattack and in the air. Two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara scored two of his team’s five goals, the first and the last of them on headers off Jan Gregus’ corner-kick service. The first was in the 12th minute. By halftime, they led 4-1.
Opara didn’t accompany the team to Florida last month because of what he called a “pre-existing” condition. Starting right back Romain Metanire and midfielder Kevin Molino — each with a hamstring injury — trained Friday. Heath called both gameday decisions and said Molino “probably” is closer to playing than Metanire.
“Every game is different,” Heath said. “Obviously, they’re a little bit unconventional the way they do things. They probe and give you different problems. But so far, we’ve handled that quite well. … I think against San Jose the first goal is always important because of how they play. Once they get some momentum going, they’re very difficult to stop. They keep pressing and putting you under extreme pressure.
“When you play a goal down early on, you start to make decisions you probably wouldn’t do normally. So I think the start will be massive.”
The Earthquakes’ March loss to the Loons is “pretty fresh in their memory,” and just as a reminder, Almeyda has watched that game again.
“We’re watching the game we played during the season where we were outplayed, and surely this game will be different,” Almeyda said. “That’s what we hope for.”