Though Minnesota United’s shift to a 3-5-2 formation was born out of temporary necessity, the encouraging early results from its first two matches may be giving the move some staying power.
Head Coach Adrian Heath first made the change in shape prior to the Loons’ match against FC Dallas last Friday. He opted to position defender Tyrone Mears and midfielder Alexi Gomez as wingbacks as part of a back five because injuries and midfielder Miguel Ibarra’s red card suspension left the team with a dearth of available wide players.
“It gives us another option of playing,” Heath said. “The one thing it has done is given me a little bit of food for thought because two or three of the people within that shape have looked better than they’ve done for some time. It bodes well for the future.”
The new look with three centerbacks manning the backline between two wingbacks helped the Loons restrict Dallas and made them more difficult to break down, defensively. But it did not get the offensive spark it needed until Ibarra returned against Toronto FC on Wednesday.
The first 25-30 minutes of the win was some of the best soccer Minnesota has played all season and Ibarra played a starring role. He slotted in for Mears as a wingback and made a big impact with a goal and an assist. It may have been the first time Ibarra filled that role for MNUFC, but it is one he is familiar with from his time in Liga MX with Club Leon and one that he is uniquely suited for.
Energy and endurance are two of Ibarra’s defining qualities and they shone bright in a wider role. Against TFC, whenever his teammates got the ball out wide he drove right at the defense, which kept Toronto honest and pinned back. That created ample space in the middle for forwards Christian Ramirez and Darwin Quintero, which they exploited for a season-high four goals — including three for Quintero.
“Having a 3-5-2 helped a lot,” Ibarra said. “I think I have the legs to play that position up and down, defensively. I know I am not going to let the offensive player take me one-on-one and make sure I win my battles. Offensively I just make sure I give their wingback a hard time.
“For me, it was just making sure that if Alexi goes up, making sure that I’m tucked in,” he added. “If he’s down, make sure that I’m out wide. That is kind of how we were functioning the whole time.”
There is still room for Minnesota’s 3-5-2 to improve, as evidenced by the three goals allowed to Toronto, but Ibarra believes those are “easy mistakes” to fix. The dividends the change of pace have already paid probably make the effort to do so worth it for the Loons moving forward.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: SECOND HALF SURGE?
With 17 matches to play, Minnesota has reached the midway point of its season with 19 points in hand — good for ninth place in the Western Conference table and four points below the red line.
But Wednesday’s confidence-building win showed Heath that his side has much more to offer than what its underwhelming 6-10-1 record indicates.
“For the ability that we have, our results have not been good enough in the first half of this season,” Heath said. “This is like a new start, a fresh start for the second half of the season. Let’s see what we can do.”
Heath said he had a “good chat” with the players prior to the Toronto match about the second half of the season. While there have certainly been positives to take away from the Loons’ first 17 matches, plenty of improvements must be made for them to make a serious push for their first postseason appearance.
“This group of players is capable of winning 14 to 15 games in this league. I am convinced of that,” Heath said. “That is what we have to aim at. So the second half of the season we’re going to have to pick up a lot of weight, but we are capable of it.”