Preview: MNUFC at New York Cosmos
When the 2014 Spring Season schedule was announced, many Minnesota fans circled the May 12th date against the Cosmos as a crucial one. Last year, the Loons traveled to New York looking to improve on a shaky start and at the same time shut down the surging Cosmos. Instead, Minnesota compounded their woes and the Cosmos emerged as league front runners after a 1-0 win by the hosts.
At the beginning of this year, the general consensus was that a similar storyline would rule this upcoming meeting and Minnesota fans doubtless feared a similar result. But four games in, both teams have completely flipped positions. The Loons are on top of the league with tons of momentum. The Cosmos have had a wobbly start and are desperate to get their feed back on solid ground. Minnesota fans are not just hoping, but expecting that this time will be different.
"I think it's a huge challenge for us and for the Cosmos," said United Head Coach Manny Lagos. They haven't scored in a few games. We've done really well, and we know that they're a great team, so I think the challenge for both teams sets up a really great match-up."
It's impossible to separate the recent form of both teams from the equation. Having won four straight in 2014 and six straight going back to last season, United has turned heads across the league. Even more impressive, the Loons have earned their points with a team effort. An impressive six players have both a goal and an assist. The Minnesota defensive unit has allowed opponents only a single goal from open play through four games. Seven different players have been named to the NASL Team of the Week, but none has stood above his peers so much as to be named Player of the Week. This past Saturday, United demonstrated the team's depth of skill. Simone Bracalello and Daniel Mendes made their first starts of the year and immediately made a major impact. Their additions were tactical changes for a flexible side, not stopgap maneuvers for a struggling one. With so many options, impact players have spent much of the season on the bench, and players like World Cup starter Richard Garcia don't fill an urgent need, Minnesota is deservedly on top of the table so far.
That's the spot that the Cosmos were supposed to be in at this stage. The 2013 Soccer Bowl winners ran away with the league last fall and they appeared to have only improved their side over the offseason, adding Best XI striker Hans Denissen and 2013 Norwegian "Division One Player of the Year" Mads Stokkelien. Team talisman Marcos Senna returned for another season and goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer was tapped to ably replace golden gloves winner Kyle Reynish. But things haven't gone all according to plan. Denissen has been injured and has yet to play. Stokkelien has looked extremely dangerous, but has actually only scored once. Marcos Senna has yet to score or assist, and was subbed off at halftime last week. Maurer has made some impressive stops in goal, but two weeks in a row has conceded a bad rebound that has been returned for a goal. The results of all of these minor disappointments is that New York has played well but not well enough and is only 2-0-2 to start the season. Two weeks ago, the San Antonio Scorpions weathered a barrage of shots and emerged 1-0 winners at New York. Last week, the Carolina RailHawks scored early and bunkered down to hand the Cosmos their second 0-1 loss. In both games, the Cosmos had the edge in nearly every statistical category except for goals. In Carolina, they even ended the game with a two-man advantage! The Cosmos are clearly a dominant team. But the luck or skill that graced their games in 2013 appears to have deserted them to start the 2014 season. They look mortal.
Don't expect Minnesota to adopt a similar strategy to San Antonio and Carolina. After four matches, United has demonstrated that the team will force the game to be played at their preferred tempo, and are not willing to give ground to other teams. But don't expect Minnesota to play a specific style either. Dominant in possession against Ottawa, Minnesota preferred a counter-attacking style against Indy. The Loons are flexible and Coach Lagos has shown no qualms about adjusting to suit the strengths and weaknesses of the next opponent.
What tactics will Minnesota employ? It's hard to say exactly, but the Cosmos do not have the kind of obvious weaknesses that led Coach Lagos to thow speedy wingers on the counter at Indy. The Cosmos have also been much more prolific on creating chances, especially from the wings, even if they don't result in goals. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Jamie Watson back in the line-up in place of Simone Bracalello for defensive reasons. Daniel Mendes may keep his starting spot for similar reasons over Omar Daley. Past the sixtieth minute if the game is close, Coach Lagos could then turn to the ball skills of Simo and Omar to change the tide against a more weary Cosmos side. Contesting Marcos Senna will be another key priority for United. Luckily, the center of the field has been a position of tremendous strength for the Loons so far. Aaron Pitchkolan has teamed up with Juliano Vicentini, Greg Jordan, or Floyd Franks to muck up everything centrally for opposing teams. The speed and work rate of Jordan gives Minnesota a great option (probably off the bench) to take advantage of the Cosmos aging midfield general.
"It's tough, they have so many offensive weapons," said Coach Lagos. "Even though they have a player out with a red card, they really have a big roster in terms of their offensive options. Of course, we know the team has been driven by Marcos Senna and their ability to distribute the ball and come into the play late for goals. We certainly have to be aware of him, and also his set piece prowess."
Part of the Cosmos' recent two-game skid has come from them simply messing up on chances in front of goal. They haven't been dire, but zero goals in two games is not so good at all. It's not so smart to rely on the Cosmos struggling in this department for the third consecutive game, and no doubt Head Coach Giovanni Savarese has made finishing a practice priority for his team. This game will be the biggest chance for the Minnesota back line. They have excelled so far at limiting chances overall. But the Cosmos will create them. How effective the Loons can be at limiting that number, and how effective emergency defense they can play if exposed, will make a huge difference in the result.
Then there's the issue of scoring. The Cosmos have the league's stingiest defense overall, allowing only those two goals in those last two weeks. Both of those goals were created by tremendous individual effort on the initial shot (and to on the rebound in Carolina). That's another thing Minnesota can't really rely on occuring. United will need to do better than either San Antonio or Carolina did to create chances, and the team cannot miss when they get opportunities. Against Indy, there were several golden opportunities that were wasted. In two previous games against New York, the Loons played fairly well but could not score and were doomed by a single great shot from the Cosmos. That pattern cannot be allowed to repeat here on both ends of the ball if Minnesota hopes to continue their winning ways and keep the Cosmos headed downward.
The early weather reports are that it might be a stormy Monday in the Big Apple. That's perfect for the Dark Clouds, who have organized an away trip to support the team. Hopefully it all comes together for fans and players. A win would give United fifteen points and safe passage through one of the biggest tests of the season. Because as they say about New York "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere."