Scouting the Loons
Minnesota United was the only team to sit out week one of the NASL Spring Season. So all we really have to go on heading into Saturday’s home opener is their stellar 2014 season, handful of offseason acquisitions, and preseason action.
Unlike San Antonio last week, Minnesota has had an offseason more on par with the Rowdies. In total they played nine competitive matches, posting a 4-2-3 record. Early on they travelled to Arizona to play the Seattle Sounders (D 1-1) and Sporting Kansas City (L 1-0). After Arizona they went an extended trip to Brazil to play big time clubs like Botafogo (L 2-0) and Vasco da Gama (W 1-0). Earlier this week the club travelled to Florida to face MLS side Orlando City. That Loons won that contest 3-2.
After finishing on top of the combined points table in 2014 Minnesota unsurprisingly elected to keep a majority of their roster. While they didn’t have nearly as much player turnover as Tampa Bay, the few Minnesota’s signings did add significant depth and talent to an already stacked roster.
- Cameroonian goalkeeper Sammy N’Djock comes into the squad fresh off making the final World Cup roster for his native country last summer. Head Coach Manny Lagos hasn’t given any keeper on the roster a full 90 minutes but, based solely on resume, N’Djock seems like a clear front-runner for the starting spot. His athleticism and “sweeper keeper” style is unlike any other starting keeper in this league.
- Midfielder Johnny Steele is making his return to lower division soccer in America after several years in MLS and a brief stint in Australia. Some fans may remember that Steele played for Tampa Bay back in the FC Tampa Bay days. He generally plays as an attacking midfielder and is tasked with contributing on buildup play.
- Brazilian midfielder Ibson is the highest profile signing of the Loons’ offseason and is expected to be a lynchpin of their attack in 2015. His creativity, vision, and pedigree of UEFA Champions League experience only amp up fan expectations.
- Longtime Portland Timbers attacking midfielder Kalif Alhassan was also brought in to bolster the attacking midfield. With a multitude of options in midfield Alhassan may not be a starter, but he is certainly a threat off the bench.
Rowdies Strategy & Outlook
Fans shouldn’t expect to see much change in the starting roster after last week’s commanding performance. The back line was well-organized and full backs Darnell King and Zac Portillos did well moving forward into the attack. Goalkeeper Kamil Contofalsky was shaky on a shot from distance early on but settled in and asserted himself nicely in the Rowdies box.
One definite change to the roster though will be a replacement for Keith Savage after his season ending ACL injury in San Antonio. Juan Guerra was brought on for Savage last week and is likely to get the call to start on Saturday after a solid performance. If not Guerra then Martin Nunez and Martin Nunez are the next most likely candidates.
Forward Maicon Santos was a top performer in the preseason but sat out the season opener due to an ankle injury in the preseason finale. If he’s good to go for the home opener his height could be useful for the Rowdies on set pieces. The Loons displayed vulnerability defending set pieces in some of their preseason matches, so putting6’1″ Santos is their box – along with 6’6″ center back Stefan Antonijevic – could be a huge advantage for the Rowdies.
However, if Tampa Bay still holds Santos back, fans won’t be too disappointed after seeing rookie Darwin Espinal’s performance against the Scorpions. Espinal didn’t have many chances in the match, but he showed poise on his best opportunity of the night and finished it with clinical ability.
Considering Minnesota’s overwhelming attacking options Thomas Rongen will likely stick with the same midfield set up as last week. Captain Marcelo Saragosa will be partnered with another defensively capable midfielder to support the back line when Minnesota keeps throwing numbers ahead. If the Rowdies midfield can make Ibson irrelevant then perhaps they can starve players up top, like last year’s Golden Boot winner Christian Ramirez and US international Miguel Ibarra.
No matter how the match ultimately shakes out, the packed house at the totally refurbished Al Lang Stadium will witness some entertaining soccer. Stylistically, neither team likes to sit back and wait for an opportunity to come to them. Both teams will look to be assertive and tenacious in their attack. It is certainly set up to be one of the most exciting games of the weekend in the NASL.
IMAGE, TAMPA BAY ROWDIES