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What To Watch For: MNUFC At Colorado Rapids

After a historic home opener, Minnesota United heads back on the road to face the Colorado Rapids in a mile-high matchup. Colorado was one of the best teams in the Western Conference last season, giving up the fewest goals in all of Major League Soccer and barely missing out on the Supporters’ Shield. Here are three things to watch for during Saturday’s match.

The Secretary Of Defense

The Rapids have built a solid defensive team and owe much of their success to the man between the sticks, goalkeeper and U.S. international Tim Howard. Despite arriving midway through the 2016 season, Howard was able to drive the already strong Rapids side to a postseason appearance. Howard suffered a season-ending injury while playing with the U.S. Men’s National Team in the international break before the Western Conference Final, where the Seattle Sounders would eventually beat the Rapids on their way to the MLS Cup title.

Howard and the Rapids accomplished all of this with the second-lowest goal total in the league, relying on draws and one-goal victories to claim points. Rapids Head Coach Pablo Mastroeni seems to be applying the strategy once again in 2017, with a pair of one-goal matches to start off the season. Colorado was out possessed, out shot, and out passed by New England and the Red Bulls in its first two matches, relying heavily on goaltending to keep the match close. In those matches, Howard and fellow ‘keeper Zac MacMath have racked up ten saves on ten shots against. The only goal Howard conceded was an own goal from defender Eric Miller last week, which proved to be the winner for the Red Bulls.

In essence, the opposition have yet to beat Howard, who will most likely start against Minnesota on Saturday. The Loons have looked strong in the attacking third in both matches this season, and Howard’s performance will be the x-factor for the Rapids.

Counter, Counter, Counter

One strategy that both teams have been built around is the counter. Each side likes to work the ball to the outside midfielders, work it toward the end line, and provide service to the middle before their opponent can rally defenders. Minnesota differs from Colorado slightly, occasionally opting to hold up play and let teammates get forward to provide a more sustained attack.

This type of strategy relies heavily on quick distribution and movement from the central midfield to be successful. For the Rapids, Dillon Powers will be the key playmaker and hub of distribution. He tends to roam around the pitch, sending the ball out wide to the wingers and also moving to the flanks for quick give-and-go plays to create space for teammates. Powers is also the free kick specialist for the Rapids and set up Dominique Badji’s goal against New England in the season opener off a set piece.

So far, the Loons have looked to Collen Warner and Kevin Molino to launch a quick counter-attack. Warner will win the ball in the midfield, turn up field, and find his wingers sprinting up the flanks to carry the ball in. One of those targets is Molino, who is extremely quick on the wings and can draw out defenders in the middle and make room for his teammates.

More than likely, both sides will try to play a possession-based style to control the match in their favor, but don’t be surprised if a quick, coast-to-coast battle opens up. Endurance will be a factor at the high altitude, and speedy players off the bench will be pivotal to sustaining this style late in the game.

Lovely Weather We’re Having

The opening two weeks for Minnesota have been pretty extreme from a weather standpoint, starting with a rainy night in Portland followed by a blizzard in Minneapolis. Obviously not ideal soccer weather, especially on artificial surfaces that get very slick with precipitation.

As of now, the forecast says Saturday’s match in Commerce City, Colorado, will be quite the opposite: partly cloudy in the low 70s at kickoff – a nearly perfect forecast for match day. Rather than playing against Mother Nature, the teams will be solely focused on their opponent and can play their game rather than adapt to the conditions. This will be the first opportunity to see the purest form of Minnesota’s style of play.

However, the weather in the Rocky Mountains has a way of changing rapidly.

This will also be the Loons’ first outing on a natural surface, having played on turf in Portland and at home in the opening weeks. With many players bringing experience from outside the U.S. – where playing on turf is extremely limited – it can be difficult to adapt to how it affects the ball’s reactions. Many of those players will be more at home on the grass, and confident in their touch. Keep an eye on the Loons’ ground game, as it will be drastically different in this outing.