Prepare for the Fire's penultimate preseason match with another preview by Martin Tomszak.
What Are They All About? Minnesota United
The revolution continues! Veljko Paunovic and the Chicago Fire find themselves on a bit of a hot streak after defeating Vancouver in the first match of the Simple Invitational this past Sunday. It may just be preseason but the squad looks impressive and they have taken their coaches instructions and style of play to heart. They will continue their preparations for the regular season on Wednesday as they take on NASL side Minnesota United FC. Will their form and attacking prowess continue or will supporters see the first stumble of the Paunovic era?
Minnesota United Preseason Form Guide: 0-1
Previous Match: A 4-0 loss to Portland Timbers.
Formation: 4-3-3; Ndjock; Davis, Calvano, Pitchkolan, Venegas; Speas, Jordan, MIbson; Laing, Cruz, Ramirez
Strengths: Minnesota finished the 2015 NASL regular season in third place after a great fall campaign but were ousted from the cup semifinal in heartbreaking fashion. A late extra time Ottawa goal eliminated them. They’ve taken the offseason to restructure the squad and have brought in quite a few ex-MLS players to solidify the team. Danny Cruz, Ben Speas, and Bernardo Anor (loan) have made the move over to the Loons squad from Philly, Columbus, and KC respectively. None of their previous clubs had the most cordial relations with Chicago and this could add to the feistiness that will undoubtedly be present in the midfield. A change of scenery could see these players improve on what have been glimpses of offensive capability throughout their careers.
In total, Minnesota saw the departure of ten players for one reason or another and has seen the official arrival of seven new faces. While this could be construed as a negative in some senses, the Fire have shown how a shakeup can bring positives so we’ll slot the newness under the strengths column. Some of the players coming into the Minnesota squad have Loons fans pretty excited. Jamaican international Lance Laing was in the NASL Best XI last season with FC Edmonton and prides himself on his versatility in playing both left back and left wing. He has speed, good control on the ball and has been known to hit the back of the net from distance. Look for Laing to be a thorn in Brandon Vincent’s or Patrick Doody’s side on Wednesday.
Minnesota also secured the services of Kristian Nicht who played with Indy Eleven last season but had his start in the German Bundesliga with Nurnberg. His ability to command the back line as well as his prowess as a shot stopper might ensure that he wins the starting spot from Sammy Ndjock who had a terrible outing in the first match of the Invitational. His veteran presence could help stabilize what will likely be a haphazard defense on Wednesday.
The player likely to be the most dangerous man on the pitch for Minnesota is also a newcomer. The Loons wasted no time in acquiring last year’s NASL Golden Boot winner Stefano Pinho from Fort Lauderdale this offseason. His sixteen goals and seven assists in the regular season are impressive at any professional level. If Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira play the way that they did against Vancouver, Sean Johnson might be a busy man on Wednesday. NASL or not, Pinho cannot be underestimated by a Chicago back four still trying to gain its bearings.
The Man Behind the Signings: The master mind behind those acquisitions was Minnesota native and the Loons first ever Sporting Director Manny Lagos. Lagos spent six years playing for the Minnesota Thunder in the USL before joining the Metro Stars when MLS came into existence. Lagos also played for the Fire in their inaugural ‘98 season before spending time with Tampa Bay, San Jose and Columbus. Saying that he knows the North American Soccer scene is a bit of an understatement. Minnesota is clearly looking to build for the future as they approach their transition to MLS. Lagos along with head coach Carl Craig and the squad will want to start what will surely be a conference rivalry off on the right foot.
Weaknesses: Yes it’s preseason and the Fire might be looking to rotate the squad in what is a highly congested week but if we’re going to be objective in our analysis then we have to speak frankly and say that this Minnesota side has a lot of issues to resolve coming into Wednesday’s match.
Bad Things Come in Twos: Minnesota’s last match spoke volumes as to their fitness, mentality, and skill level with the number two playing a prominent role in the proceedings. Two late and rash challenges by Tiago Calvano and Kevin Venegas led to red cards which had Minnesota down to ten men with about 30 minutes left to play. The Calvano challenge had no place in a regular season rivalry match much less a preseason friendly but was arguably the product of him being out worked and outpaced by Diego Valeri. It may have also been a product of growing frustration after Calvano had lazily given away an early penalty, but ultimately it came down to a lack of discipline. The Venegas challenge was also a bit reckless and in the box no less. It resulted in Portland’s second penalty of the evening, both of which were coolly converted.
The two goals wedged between the penalties were both products of a preseason lack of sharpness which resulted in Minnesota’s squad ball watching and pointing fingers. Fenando Adi crossed a ball in to a wide open Lucas Melano who tapped in his own rebound after a halfhearted swat away by Minnesota’s Ndjock for one, while Valeri and Darlington Nagbe played an intricate 1-2 around the Minnesota backline for the other. If the NASL season doesn’t work out for some of the guys they certainly have a future as practice dummies in Portland. Sure, Chicago isn’t the MLS defending champion, but given their recent displays they should have a field day against Minnesota.
Maybe defense just isn’t Minnesota’s thing? Well they didn’t put on much of an offensive display either. If we’re sticking with twos, that’s also the number of shots on target that Minnesota had, both of which easily ended up in Adam Kwarasey’s gloves. Minnesota failed to create much of anything going forward against Portland and they will be hard pressed to create much against the Fire if Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster are given starts again.
We also have to keep in mind that the Simple Invitational upholds red card suspensions as if they had occurred in the regular season which means Calvano and Venegas will both miss Wednesdays match. This could prove slightly problematic given that Minnesota only has four defenders on their entire roster. Two of those back four slots will have to be filled by trialists or players playing out of position. Who is on trial at Minnesota you ask? None other than two former Fire legends, Chris Ritter and Tony Walls. What an interesting prospect indeed.
Lastly, by their own admission in interviews, these Minnesota players are just getting to know one another on and off the field. That’s fine. It’s what preseason is for. But that doesn’t make Wednesday’s match any easier for the Loons. If Chicago comes out with the high press and attempts to control possession as they have thus far in preseason then Minnesota is in for another loss.
Prediction: Paunovic and company will inspire even the most cynical of doubters on Wednesday. It’s hard to imagine anything other than a win for the Fire. Chicago 4-0. Goossens, Gilberto, Igboananike, and Ritter (og).
Game time is 7pm on Chicago-Fire.com