Saturday, May 3 saw the first match between Minnesota United FC and the Indy Eleven. This is Indy's first season in the NASL. Despite their inexperience in the league, they feature a World Cup winner in Jose Kléberson from Brazil, and therefore have teeth.
Throughout the game there was a stiff breeze blowing lengthwise across the field, meaning one team or the other was heading into the wind to attack. To start the game, this was MNU attacking into the wind.
Minnesota played in a 4-4-1-1 shape, with Miguel Ibarra playing attacking midfielder to Christian Ramirez's striker. However, throughout the match, Ibarra tended to sit deeper, making MNU more of a 4-5-1. Occasionally, Ibarra or Simone Bracalello (who played along the left wing for this match) would advance to become a second striker, creating a 4-4-2 shape. Indy's shape was much less definite; they initially set up in a 4-2-1-2, with 2 defensive midfielders and 2 attacking, however throughout the match, their midfield would shift, and they effectively were also in a 4-4-1-1. This caused havoc in their attacks, which I will talk about later.
To start the match, Minnesota seemed content to sit back; they seemed cautious heading into the wind. Indy controlled the ball for much of the first 20 minutes, moving forward but not seeming particularly threatening. Minnesota had decided to play the counter-attack after Indy committed men forward. MN saw their first payoff 23 minutes in, when Simone Bracalello flew down the left side of the field, crossed in for Daniel Mendes. Mendes' initial touch was headed wide, but Christian Ramirez was there to tap it in. Just 2 minutes later, Miguel Ibarra cleared the ball from an Indy attack to Bracalello, who evaded Indy's defenders down the center of the field, and laid off a beautiful pass to Mendes for a relatively easy goal, putting MNU firmly on top 2-0.
With this 2 goal lead, MNU was very content to play defensively, allowing Indy to come forward and attack on the counter. Indy had a few good scoring chances, and Matt Van Oekel was called on to make a few saves, one diving to stop a header from a corner kick in the 28th minute, and a shot from Indy went just over the cross bar in the 33rd, though Van Oekel was there to stop it had it been headed goal ward.
Indy caught a lucky break in the 42nd minute, when a dangerous cross from Indy's Ambersely was headed towards the center of the penalty box, and Simone Bracalello was unable to slow his defensive run and scored an own-goal. This was very lucky for Indy, and was a small breakdown by Bracalello, who normally displays fantastic feet and immense ball control. The commentators called the goal "inevitable," but I strongly disagree. Throughout the game, MNU was much more poised and in control of themselves, while Indy seemed frantic and disorganized.
Minnesota answered almost immediately afterward- just 4 minutes later, when Daniel Mendes took control of the ball in the midfield, passed forward to Ibarra who worked his way to the middle of the pitch and passed to MN Captain Aaron Pitchkolan, who strikes the ball beautifully into the top left corner from the edge of the penalty area.
The rest of the game played out very much like the first 20 minutes, with MN sitting back to defend their 2-goal lead, and Indy coming forward to attack. Indy's lack of strong shape, however, meant that they had trouble finding each other to coordinate their attack. Throughout the match, MNU displayed better passing and understanding of each others' positions and roles, and the game was really not as close as the 3-2 score makes it out to be. Indiana again got lucky when, in the 92nd minute an early cross from Indy's Hyland caught MNU's Jamie Watson on the hand in the penalty area, and a penalty kick was awarded. Kléberson, who had been substituted in in the 2nd half, took the kick and slotted it to the lower-left corner, but a re-take was called for an infraction against Indy. This time, Kléberson went lower-right, and Indy came back to 3-2: the game's ending score.
MNU skill, speed, too much for Indy to Handle
The real difference-maker in this match was the skill and speed of Minnesota's midfield; Simone Bracalello and Miguel Ibarra were simply beasts on the ball, both taking on two defenders and coming away unscathed multiple times. Ibarra was too fast to be caught from behind, and none of the Indy defenders wanted to give Bracalello the respect he deserved, often leaving him with an open field in front of him into which he could run.
These two players were simply small examples of a larger problem: Minnesota displayed superior passing throughout, more organized attacks, better positional awareness, and a comfort with each other. Indiana didn't hold their shape, their passing was sloppy, and their attacking uninventive. Minnesota's sturdy defense and solid midfield play held them off, despite Indiana possessing the ball for significantly more time.
The problem for Indy's midfield were exacerbated by the substitutions made, by both coaches. Indy's Regan decided to remove their right back Okiomah in favor of Kléberson in the 46th minute- immediately after the 2nd half began. This added more attacking danger, but left their back end open to exploitation. The only reason MNU didn't score a 4th goal was because they never committed the men forward. Ramirez was the only MNU player to venture significantly towards Indy's net. In the 71st minute, summer acquisition Greg Jordan came on for MNU's Juliano, adding sturdiness to MN's midfield. Jordan was relentless in his defense, closing on attackers quickly, winning the ball physically, and clearing to the forwards. Similarly, Thiago Calvano was brilliant for MN, and won a number of one-on-one battles.
The win earned another 3 points for Minnesota United, who now sit alone atop the table with 12 points out of a possible 12. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers sit in 2nd with 9 points, and the Carolina Railhawks are in 3rd with 7. 6 games remain in the Spring season, and they will not be easy, as MNU will face New York, Carolina, and Fort Lauderdale in the next two weeks; these could be very decisive for the league leaders.
Minnesota United FC's next game is scheduled away to the New York Cosmos on May 12th. The highlights for MNU vs. IND can be found on YouTube.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota United FC