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)
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…
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.
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.