Minnesota United’s shift to a 3-5-2 formation spurred the team’s all-time best run of form in MLS last month, in part because of a renewed commitment to team defense and communication at the back. Now the Loons are looking to find that same form away from home as they embark on a five-game road trip that is crucial for their playoff hopes.
The base of Minnesota’s 3-5-2 defense is its three centerbacks, but when under pressure it shifts to a back five with a pair of end-to-end wingbacks coming back to defend the wide areas. As a result, MNUFC now has more players committed to defending, which defender Brent Kallman believes has made the back line tougher to break down.
“We for sure get more numbers behind the ball when we are defending,” Kallman said. “Then you have the three center backs and having that extra body back there has helped us defend the box and important areas of the field. We are making sure we are taking up good spots.”
As any workplace effectiveness seminar will tell you, though, successful change requires communication and the soccer field is no different. To reap the benefits of the 3-5-2, the three centerbacks have to be on the same page, especially against teams that employ a single striker up top. In those situations, Kallman mans the middle and the two wider centerbacks — defenders Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo — have to either step into a midfielder, step into the No. 10’s space or step into the wide attacking player who comes inside.
Kallman admitted those “interesting” situations have posed some challenges, communication-wise at the back, but added that he has been able to lean on both Boxall and Calvo’s experience playing in similar shapes at the international level with New Zealand and Costa Rica, respectively.
“It has been nice to have guys who are really experienced playing this way to learn from, watch and talk with to see what they do and what they like to do in the formation,” Kallman said.
The toughest task, though, in Minnesota’s revamped defense belongs to the pair of wingbacks. Midfielder Miguel Ibarra has held down one of those roles since the switch, often opposite of midfielder Alexi Gomez, though defender Eric Miller slotted in against Vancouver two weeks ago in a more defensive-minded look for the Loons.
No matter the pair, the wingbacks’ role is to get up and down to cover both ends of the field. After every game, the Loons analyze the amount of ground each player covers and it should be no surprise the wingbacks far exceed any other player. They go forward when the team is on the attack, but once the run of play shifts the other way they have to get all the way back and defend the wide areas — which Kallman said the team has done a better job of since the switch.
“Defensively, the 3-5-2 is big for us,” Ibarra said. “Alexi and I, if he goes up then I stay down and if I go up, Alexi goes down. We are getting that going and making sure we are always tucked in. If Alexi goes up, then I make sure I am tucked in right next to Boxy and if I go up, make sure Alexi is tucked in with Calvo.”
The formation change has yielded four wins for MNUFC, but it has still struggled away from home and the 3-5-2 has yet to remedy what has long-ailed the team on the road. Minnesota concedes an average of 2.9 goals per game on the road and has given up three or more in eight of 10 games away from home this season.
Transition play and poor decision making stand out as the biggest reasons for those less than ideal numbers. The Loons have too often done themselves in with bad giveaways out of the back or in the midfield and other unexpected errors. Those lapses leave the defense spread open and other teams have taken full advantage of the resulting room and gashed MNUFC on counterattacks.
“We have to do a better job of cleaning up those turnovers and not giving these teams the chance to counterattack on us,” Kallman said. “Whether that is playing a little safer or a little more higher percentage when we have the ball, it is going to go a long way to limiting these other teams’ scoring chances because we will stop giving them the chances to break on us.”
With the Galaxy and their array of attacking talent looming this weekend, Kallman said more “professional” decisions and making higher percentage plays with the ball will be paramount for Minnesota to reverse its season-long trend on the road. If MNUFC is able to clean up its mental errors and translate what made it so tough to break down during its recent three-game winning streak, the playoff picture will come into much clearer focus.