Denying space on defense. Creative ball movement on offense. Tough and smart in both roles simultaneously.
These are the traits of a strong midfield group. Soccer fans caught only glimpses of such play from Minnesota United FC during the spring season.
Players and coaches knew it, too. Assistant coach Carl Craig acknowledged the midfield was a weakness “in terms of how we operated, yes. Not our ability.”
Craig said he felt confident the club could “patch things up” at midfield and overcome the loss of Miguel Ibarra (transfer to Club Leon), Jonny Steele (mutual parting) and Jamie Watson (injury).
Faith has been rewarded as the regular season nears completion with Minnesota battling for a playoff spot.
No longer a weakness, Minnesota’s retooled midfield is a microcosm of a team hitting its stride. Ibson, Juliano Vicentini, Greg Jordan and Kalif Alhassan played key roles to help the Loons fashion a 10-match unbeaten streak that includes seven victories. Minnesota plays host to Fort Lauderdale at 7 p.m. Saturday at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine.
While both teams have postseason aspirations, Minnesota’s scenario is much more simple: A victory or draw and the Loons make the playoffs.
Head coach Manny Lagos lauded the midfielders for “meeting the team’s different needs each week.”
Brazilian standout Ibson, one of the team’s biggest offseason acquisitions, found, lost and refound his form during an injury-plagued spring season. Ibson’s troubles meant meshing with stalwart Vicentini took longer. Fellow veteran Jordan missed time with injury. And Alhassan showed promise despite limited appearances.
“They all had the ability,” Craig said. “But how would they fit together?”
Just fine, thank you. As the minutes piled up for the group, so did the successful outcomes.
The starting midfield balances youth — Alhassan is 24, Jordan, 25 — and age with Ibson, 31, and Vicentini, 34.
They are a blend of complementary styles as well. Ibson is strong on the ball. Vicentini spreads the ball around, making the pass that leads to the pass that results in a goal. Jordan brings hustle, grit and a defensive presence inside while Alhassan adds speed, poise and elite technical ability on the outside.
“We understand our strengths and I think we play them up really well,” Jordan said. “I think you’ve seen on our streak here that we know that to do well, this is what we need to do.”
The unit contributes to the Loons’ dynamic offense. The team has scored 48 goals, tops in the North American Soccer League. Ibson has tallied six goals and four assists. Daniel Mendes, an attacking midfielder who plays more limited minutes, has scored five goals. Alhassan and Vicentini have combined for six goals. And substitute J.C. Banks has added two goals and two assists off the bench.
"The lads are doing better at recognizing the transitional moments in a match and then driving at teams,” Craig said.
Ibson and Vicentini, speaking through teammate and Portugese interpreter Pablo Campos, felt Minnesota would play its best during the longer fall season rather than the sprint that is the spring season.
“It’s two different seasons,” Ibson said. “The spring is only 10 games so maybe you take more risks. In the fall season, there is more time to work on things.”
Said Vicentini, “Now that we’ve been playing together more, we can use our physical abilities and our experience when we go forward or defend.”
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574