Will Minnesota change their strategy for substitutions this season?

As the offseason has progress, it appears that 2015 will be a different year for Minnesota in terms of the depth of the squad. In 2013, the team struggled with a number of injuries, cobbling together teams each week. In 2014, players that had been starters for a number of years were relegated to the bench, and while there were fewer injuries, the lack of true quality substitutes became apparent down the stretch as the team struggled to maintain their form going into the playoffs.

Historically, Manny Lagos has chosen to typically only use 2 substitutes when Minnesota is up, and even when down will often hold onto the substitutions longer than typical. Professor Bret Myers from Villanova University decided to apply a little analytics to the question of how many substitutes and when a team should make their substitutes. The resulting essay, “A Proposed decision rule for the timing of soccer subsitutions“, provides great reading for the soccer nerds out there on the topic.

Professor Myers’ findings were that teams behind in a game do better when they make all substitutions and when they make their first substitute before the 58th minute, the second before the 72nd minute and the third before the 79th minute.

Minnesota has approached the issue of substitutions very differently than Professor Myers suggests. Lagos has real belief in his starting XI and allowing them to “see the game out” as he likes to say after the game. This year though, Lagos will have an issue, not with a lack of depth, but with too much depth.

As has been discussed previously, Minnesota has an embarrassment of riches, with around 18 players on the roster currently that would start for most teams in NASL. Does that mean that this year, Minnesota will be forced to substitute more frequently and earlier in games?

With players with a lot of experience likely seeing the bench to start the game, would it behoove Minnesota not only tactically but in the interest of player harmony to get their first sub into the game before the 60th minute and the second 10 minutes later? Perhaps Lagos saw a big dropoff from the starting XI last year and the players on the bench that does not appear to be there this year with the new signings.

Every game is different and substitutions depend a lot of the state of the game at that moment, but it will be interesting to see what Manny Lagos does in the first couple of games with his subbing. Will we see a continuation of the old strategy or will we see a more aggressive subbing?

We Need to Talk About San Antonio

The situation for the San Antonio Scorpions tempts one to want to go with the “Something is Rotten in the State of [Scorpions]” title. But let’s be honest, San Antonio’s off-season is no Hamlet-sized tragedy. It is a farce.

The team that won the NASL’s Soccer Bowl in 2014 is reduced to a squad of 14 and a manager whose contract extension has been swept under the rug. So where did it all go wrong?

Since the American soccer world is so small, it’s impossible to get anyone to speak on the record and so I won’t attempt to figure out the why of the problem, but instead point out that there is something very wrong at the club right now.

Since the Scorpions started in 2010, they have been a team with ambition. Unlike many of the NASL expansion sides that have followed after, they spent money and put together a competitive roster that got them into the playoffs. The years that followed have seen alternating moments of cutting back and splashing a bit of cash. But they have always put out one of the best groups of players in the league.

In 2014 it worked and the Scorpions won not only the Fall Championship, but the Soccer Bowl. Since then, the exodus.

Of the Scorpions’ starting XI in the NASL Championship, they have lost four players, which in and of itself is not particularly apocalyptic. However, the team they are left with includes only one goalkeeper, Daryl Sattler, who has played a total of seven matches since his 2012 Golden Glove season.

In front of him is a back-line that consists of three players, up 50% because of yesterday’s announcement that they had signed Canadian defender Nana Attakora, a player who has played 29 games in the last four seasons.

The midfield and attack look more complete with a few key players returning, including Richard Menjivar, Cesar Elizondo, Tomasz Zahorski, and Billy Forbes.  They will certainly miss Walter Restrepo after his move to the New York Cosmos.

The man charged with putting together this team, head coach Alen Marcina, is also in a bit of a murky situation. Sources say that Marcina has signed a contract extension with the club, but the Scorpions have yet to say anything about it. (Update: Marcina was apparently under contract already for this year, but this was something known by almost no one in the media).

It all leads us to ask, what the heck is going on in San Antonio? There are whispers and rumbles about a divide between players and front office, but whatever the problem is, they’ll want to sort it out if they want to be competitive this year. They’ll want to sort it out even if they want to put out a game day 18.

Ottawa Fury are going to Carolina, Minnesota United are going to Arizona and Brazil, New York Cosmos went to Hong Kong; around the NASL, teams are full-speed into preseason. The Scorpions, on the other hand, seem to be in disarray. They’re making league-owned and league-leading tire fire Atlanta Silverbacks look composed by comparison.

 

Outstate: Where are the former Minnesota United FC players from 2014?

Minnesota United kept together most of the players from last season, but there were some long term players (and new signings) that were let go at the end of the season. Some have caught on with other teams, while others are still looking to catch on with another team.

Nate Polak - After suffering a major medical issue in 2013, never was able to catch on with the first team in 2014 and was eventually loaned to Oklahoma Energy FC for the second half of the season. Unfortunately, he failed to impress there as well, and was released by Minnesota following the 2014 season and has yet to catch on with another team.

Simone Bracalello - He struggled to cement a spot in the starting XI in 2014 with Minnesota, and was allowed to leave, where he soon signed with Carolina RailHawks for the 2015 season.

Rafael Burgos - Returned to Europe after a frustrating loan experience with Minnesota United FC where injuries and international call ups prevented him from contributing in a meaningful way to the team. He’s currently playing the HB Hoge, but hasn’t had any minutes with them yet.

Omar Daley - Still is unattached after a rocky 2014 season. At 33, he will likely have a hard time signing with another team.

Pedro Mendes - With only one appearance with the first team after signing with Minnesota, it’s no surprise he didn’t resign with Minnesota. He is still looking for a team.

Mackenzie Prindham - The canadian national still hasn’t caught on with any teams, but with three new Canadian pro teams starting this year, has a decent shot to signed by a team to help fill their required Canadian spots.

Matt VanOekel - He signed with Edmonton FC during the offseason, but the move clearly hasn’t changed him.

Kentaro Takada – Signed a deal with new USL team FC St. Louis where he will be involved with their youth sides as well as playing for the first team.

Mozzi Gyorio - He has signed with USL side Austin Aztec‘s for the 2015 season as they begin their inagural season as a pro side.

Floyd Franks - Still is unsigned after a decent 2014 season where he found himself behind one of the highest paid NASL players in Vicentini and the captain Pitchkolan.

Two Possible Looks for the MNUFC Attack

Yesterday, The Loon Call reported that Minnesota United FC will sign ex-Portland Timbers winger Kalif Alhassan. It’s a smart signing in many ways. Alhassan is a young, dynamic attacker who showed flashes of brilliance with Portland. The comparisons to Miguel Ibarra are obvious, though a similar payoff is far from guaranteed.

What makes this an acceptable risk to take is that the Loons have tremendous attacking depth. All three signings this offseason have spent much of their pro career as wingers, especially on the left. While Christian Ramirez, Miguel Ibarra, and Daniel Mendes monopolized the forward positions last year (and managed to stay uninjured), Minnesota struggled to find a tenant for the left midfield role. This eventually led to Ibarra assuming that spot and the famous switch to the 4-3-3 with three defensive midfielders.

This season, United has reloaded at that position and Head Coach Manny Lagos has some big decisions to make in the attack. These are, as they say, good problems to have. Even better, there are few added wrinkles. J.C. Banks most enjoys being played as a forward, while some insist that Alhassan’s best position is as a central creator. And of course, there is also considerable debate about Ibarra’s best position.

A simplistic but fun way to think of this is that Minnesota has two options going forward, each more deadly than the last. I’m calling them ‘The Fastball’ and ‘The Changeup’.

(In this write-up, I’m assuming that Minnesota signs at least Sammy N’Djock and Yūzō Tashiro)

The Fastball

MNUfastball

Bench Options: Hildebrandt, Polak, Kallman, Kallman, Pitchkolan, Watson, Steele, Mendes, Campos, Tashiro

The Fastball is about counter attacking and quick interplay. It features Alhassan in the CAM role where Portland fans would’ve liked to seem him played. Ibarra is out on the left, partially because this position also gives him the best opportunities for the USMNT. Banks takes the right wing. In defensive midfield, Juliano Vicentini drops deep, where he can ping deep balls to either corner, while The Black Knight, Greg Jordan, acts as the midfield destroyer, and occasional late runner. On defense, the formation becomes two lines of four, with Alhassan and Ramirez pressuring up top.

What’s so seductive about this attack is that it takes the raw offensive ability of these players and allows them the freedom to use it however they choose. All are young, quick, technically adept, and goal hungry. There is ample space for Justin Davis and Kevin Venegas to provide width, but the main point is speed and to play quick, incisive 1-2s. In theory, all three attacking midfielders can play each other’s positions, which would allow them to roam anywhere.

The downside to this approach is that it rests on Alhassan and Banks, two untested players on this team and at this level, to have enough ability and tactical nous. It also assumes a level of familiarity that is far from a given. The synergy that Ramirez and Ibarra developed last year does not come easily.

That’s why there’s…

The Changeup

MNUchangeup

Bench: Hildebrandt, Polak, Kallman, Kallman, Pitchkolan, Jordan, Watson, Banks, Alhassan, Tashiro

The Changeup isn’t slow, but it’s less rash. With experience on both wings and two forwards who can hold the ball up, this formation is a good way to maximize the effect of deep balls from Tiago Calvano and Vicentini. The key is the combination between Christian Ramirez and Pablo Campos. Essentially the two most prolific scorers in NASL history, the ideal for the Loons is finding out how to play the two together in a way that compliments their abilities. That was the plan last preseason before Campos tore his ACL, and expect Lagos to tinker with it again this year. Steele and Mendes are both good parts to this system. They can whip in accurate crosses, or cut inside to allow the wing backs space. Their experience across many teams ought to be valuable to the Loons. Trialist forward Yūzō Tashiro is a big veteran and could offer a like-for-like replacement for either front men.

The worry with this line-up might be its general lack of speed. Speed absolutely kills in the NASL, and this line-up lacks it. The central midfield is also problematic. With a diamond 4-4-2, is it safe to leave Vicentini as the lone holding midfielder if Ibarra is allowed to run free? This is the problem I’m finding with two forward sets, United lacks a Kyle Beckerman-type D-Mid who can be trusted to stay at home and be fit enough to shield the back four for 90 minutes.

Still, given Lagos’ usual conservatism, I’d bet on a veteran-heavy opening day XI. Whether he changes course will depend on what he sees from the team during preseason, and perhaps those early results.

The Curveball

In truth, it’s unlikely that the Loons will ever play one of these formations exactly as written. Imbalance is not usually a good thing in soccer, and a line-up with all young fast guys may be as unwise as a line-up with wily vets. Both have weaknesses and strengths. The challenge will be to keep both sets of talented players happy, and also to find a way to combine them in a way that makes sense. Perhaps a two forward set is the answer, but with Ramirez and Banks instead. Or perhaps Alhassan is truly best used on the wing. Or perhaps Mendes can reproduce his 2014 form at the age of 34. Perhaps Steele can shake off his Australian hangover. There are a number of what-ifs.

In the end, lines on a chalkboard are only as good as the results they lead to on the field. What’s exciting is that we have so many quality options. We have a USMNT member and another guy who should be one. We have the NASL’s all-time leading scorer. We have a 24 year old with nearly 100 MLS appearances. We have a guy who combined with Thierry Henry. We have the one man offense of the most defensive team in America. And so on. It’s going to be really fun to see how it all shakes out.

Minnesota Have [Most Likely] Signed ex-Portland winger Kalif Alhassan

It looks like the Loons have signed another speedy winger, Kalif Alhassan, formerly of the Portland Timbers. On his website and on reddit, Jeremy Olsen posted a photograph that revealed a new face at training, eventually identified as Alhassan’s. Later, a tweet from his agent added to the story; Alhassan had signed with an NASL club.

While Minnesota United FC won’t comment on whether or not he has signed, Libero Sports just happens to represent a certain Minnesota United FC head coach and Alhassan wouldn’t be the first player brought in from the Libero fold. So let’s just say this MAYBE WINK WINK Alhassan has signed with the Loons.

What does that mean? Alhassan played six seasons with the Timbers (including their last season in division two). He is a speedy winger who showed moments of real talent mixed with a lot of unfulfilled potential. At 24, perhaps the Timbers thought he was never going to live up to that potential. Or, since he was making $120k in his last year with the club, perhaps they thought they could invest more wisely.

Regardless, this means that Minnesota United’s pool of wingers will be—to put it lightly—deep. The club will be bringing back last year’s starting wingers Miguel Ibarra and Daniel Mendes as well as substitute Jamie Watson. Alhassan would join Johnny Steele, who is a left sided midfielder, and J.C. Banks, who may now be in line play in his favored central and second forward positions. Essentially, all of United’s offseason acquisitions have been wingers.

Alhassan is undoubtedly a good pick-up for the Loons. He is young and has flashes. But he was cut by Portland because he didn’t show his brilliance enough. Consistency is something that Miguel Ibarra famously struggled with, perhaps Alhassan will mature similarly in Minnesota.

And perhaps grow into a new position?

Still, this is something of a luxury signing. The Loons still need a goalkeeper and another central midfielder, but the attack is looking remarkably dangerous, with speed and a mixture of speed and experience. The question is how will Lagos fit all that firepower into one formation? We might get a look this Thursday in the scrimmage vs Seattle. Or, we might get a mishmash. We’ll see.

How do you think he’ll make them all work?

Training Report 2-12-15

The preseason is just four days young for Minnesota United FC, but already it feels like old times in the permanent twilight of the National Sports Center field house. That’s in part because almost all of Minnesota’s 2014 starting roster and frequent subs are back for a second run at the Soccer Bowl in 2015. The camaraderie that is immediately evident with this year’s Loons is one that other teams in the league will struggle to achieve.

Thursday’s practice was focused on getting back up to speed before the team departs for Arizona on Tuesday of next week. After warming up, the players ran a few agility drills before breaking into groups of four and playing a series of small sided games. The games emphasized receiving the ball under pressure and quick movement in small spaces. Despite giving a good effort, it was clear that there was a little bit of rust to be shaken off for everybody.

Because of the nature of the practice, it was hard to really evaluate the abilities of the team’s four trialists, beyond confirming that each at the very least seemed competent at playing soccer. Forward Yūzō Tashiro and goalkeeper Sammy N’Djock seemed the most relaxed and comfortable of the bunch, joking with the more established team members, while Tommaso D’Agostino and Jose Ribas were more reserved.

The other two newcomers, offseason signings JC Banks and Jonny Steele seemed at home among their new teammates.

For Banks, the move to Minnesota follows four successful years with the Rochester Rhinos of USL. Following a breakout ten goal 2014 season, (the Rhinos scored 29 total) Banks took the opportunity to move up a level and closer to his native Milwaukee.

“It was time for a little bit of change,” he said. “This was closer to home, closer to my family, closer to my girlfriend. Just makes things easier, and it’s nice to be back in the Midwest.”

Much of the speculation about Banks has assumed that he will compete for the left midfield role against Miguel Ibarra and Jamie Watson. But while he may well end up out there, Banks told me that he most enjoys playing centrally, and last year with Rochester he was deployed as a center forward. It will be interesting to see where Banks is given opportunities. On paper, a pairing with Christian Ramirez up top with Miguel Ibarra operating behind could create a deadly combination of speed and guile.

For Steele, the move to Minnesota is isn’t a homecoming, but it is a return to familiar stomping grounds in the US after a half-year misadventure in Australia. For the last three years, Steele played in MLS and the A-League, but before that, the Northern Irishman played his entire career in the American second divisions, with stints basically everywhere but Minnesota. After reaching out to Manny and sensing interest, Steele grabbed his chance to return to the much changed league in which he cut his teeth.

“The league has grown—dramatically since I was in it,” he said. “It used to be good, then it went off a little bit and now it’s getting even better and better and the standard of players is getting better and better. You can see it in the caliber of players who are coming in each year… it’s going to be a tough league.”

Steele brings a tremendous amount of experience to the table, and will likely be a left sided compliment to Daniel Mendes on the right. He boasts an impressive collection of tattoos, and a dark, brooding beard that suggest a character from a Scandinavian crime drama.

He, Banks, and the newly re-signed Christian Ramirez were popular marks after practice for the assembled news media. This practice surely set a record for the number of cameras at a practice. In addition to the team’s video crew, Two United Fans and the local FOX and ABC affiliates were on hand to capture the action.

While the interviews were conducted and much of the team went through post-practices stretches, Jamie Watson and Kevin Venegas practiced their finishing against the goalkeeping pool, who had little to do during the main practice. Mitch Hildebrandt and Andrew Fontein had plenty of moments, but it was trialist Sammy N’Djock who stole the show with a remarkable full-stretch catch of a curling shot from Watson. Having nothing else to go on, but based on that stop alone… SIGN HIM.

A Look at the Trialists

With the Loons preparing for the 2015 season and still looking to fill a few roster spots, a few trialists have come in to train with the team. For the first time in recent history, Manny Lagos decided to skip having a combine and instead opted to only bring in a few players by invitation. He explained that coming into preseason with a solid group of players meant the team could be picky about the final few spots.

Sammy N’Djock

Most notably among the trialists is Cameroonian goalkeeper, Sammy N’Djock (pronounced Jock), who should be referred to in all future instances as N’Djock N’Djams. The Cameroonian International came through the Lille youth system before moving to Turkey to play for Turkish Süper Lig side Antalyaspor (they have since been relegated). Between 2010 and 2013, N’Djock made 29 appearances for Antalyaspor before being loaned out in 2014 to 2nd division side Fethiyespor.

N’Djock trained today with the team, but suffered a stubbed finger that put him out of most of today’s training. He appeared relaxed and jovial during the portions of training he participated in, but not much could be gleaned about his skill. Lagos needs a keeper to at least push Mitch Hildebrandt for the number one spot. There will likely be at least one other keeper brought in to trial with the team.

Yūzō Tashiro

Tashiro is the only forward brought in to trial with the team. The J-League veteran had been trialing with the New England Revolution, but the recent signing of Juan Agudelo meant that the Revs could turn their attention to other positions. The New England Revolution blog The Bent Musket has a little profile of Tashiro. The 32 year old has never been one to bang in loads of goals, his best tally being 12 goals in 22 appearances in 2011.

On the day, Tashiro was the most impressive player at trialist.* He Is an impressive physical presence (though Pablo had a moment where he enthusiastically muscled Tashiro off the ball and into the ground) and also had some good footwork.

Tommaso D’Agostino

Tommaso D’Agostino is either a midfielder or potential outside back who played in Europe for a couple of years. The Italian American grew up in Connecticut and earned a couple of US youth call ups (to U-14, U-15, and U-17s). His career is a bit of an odd one.

He seems to have foregone college to go to Europe and played for a bit in the Croatian third division (for NK Jadran Porec and NK Hask 1903). But his best experience came in Denmark. He played nine games for Danish 2nd division side Boldklubben Fremad Amager and nine games on the Aalborg reserves.

The little I was able to watch D’Agostino, he looked good on the ball, but I did not follow him too much during training.

Oh and he has a highlight reel. I don’t really put much stock in those things, but here it is.

Jose Ribas

Ribas comes to the team from Creighton, which has produced quite a few Minnesota players (including the Brothers Kallman, Greg Jordan, and Tyler Polak, and others). And I’m afraid to say that is about all I have on him other than that he plays defense. The first glimpses I caught of him, he seemed very nervy on the ball, but after the first hour of training I wasn’t watching him, so this entire paragraph is useless to you.

*I should add this caveat that any time I’m making an evaluation of a player from today’s training we are talking about a couple of hours on the second day of preseason, so take all of these observations under that consideration.

A Daily News Site for Minnesota United FC and Soccer in Minnesota

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