Meaningful differences: why anybody can beat anybody.

Now that I’ve ruffled the feathers of Duluth’s fake SG account, let’s get back to the soccer and dig into the fascinating tactical and style of play differences between the teams in this division. It’s the first season with these teams playing together and I expect that we will see some level of convergence in style, likely closer to the typical NPSL/short season style, but for now let’s enjoy how distinct the teams are and how that means that truly anybody can beat anybody and even Aris can win a point.​

 


​Aris.

The challenge for this team is that, while they have a few NPSL-quality players, the reliance on high school-aged kids and local triers means that the team simply doesn’t have the appropriate combination of ability and physicality to compete. That said, they have shown an ability to sit deep and compact and force teams to beat them, which can occasionally create close scorelines or a draw, especially when they find space on the counter. They have scored some really nice goals late in games.

Matches up best against: Sioux Falls, apparently. Though, thinking about their style, they will match up best against any team that relies on the counterattack or space behind to score because they will restrict it and hope.

Matches up worst against: Minneapolis City. The Crows midfield, with its ability on the ball and, especially when not under pressure, to pick a pass, completely dismantled Aris over two games and makes clear that proactive teams like City can pick them apart with ease while reactive, counterattack teams struggle.

 

​Dakota Fusion.

If I have Isaac Kehson and Jade Johnson in my team, I would look to find them with every ball too. Fusion sit very, very deep and can spend vast amounts of time with only two of their players ever crossing into the opposition’s half, but it’s all part of the plan as they get men behind the ball so they are hard to break down and goad the opposition forward so their long clearances can get chased down by their forwards in a situation where it’s a small sided game running toward the goal. It’s soccer brutalism, but it works.

Matches up best against: Minneapolis City. The Crows want possession, play a high line, get defenders involved in the attack, and have struggled to break down massed defenses. They also are vulnerable on the counter. If there were a soccer Match.com, Fusion would have found their true love.

Matches up worst against:​ VSLT. Against another side that sits deep, but with immense quality in the midfield and excellence set piece ability, the merits of Fusion’s approach are blunted. VSLT is that side.

 

Duluth.

They play like the English kids they are and, if I am being completely honest here, I don’t mind in the least and even kind of enjoy the Neil Warnock-style up-and-at-’em. It’s a team built on big centerbacks who are good in the air, a midfield that looks to hit the channels or the big man up top, and tackles, tackles, tackles. It could not be more stereotypically English and is really quite fun.

Matches up best against: Minneapolis City. The Crows pair a small technical team with a tactical approach that emphasizes keeping the ball and attacking with a high line, which means Duluth have a physical advantage and space for that ball over the top.

Matches up worst against: VSLT. Los Trapos, if that is a thing that makes sense in Spanish, sit deep, have tall, powerful players like Edi Buro and Raul Guzman, and have fast, tricky attackers and seem more likely to neutralize the Donkeys’ strengths.

 

Med City.

An evolving project, but one that has made good use of speed on the flanks and good hold-up play up top to create chances and, with their ability to finish from wide areas, they don’t need a lot of changes to score goals. Defensively, they play a low block but with a speedy, athletic back four that go hunting for the ball right when the opposition gets into their final third.

Matches up best against: Everyone. At risk of being flip, and since they are top of the league, right now their tactical set-up and roster are the template for success against everyone in the division.

Matches up worst against: Sioux Falls. Against athletic teams who are content to pack it in but skilled enough on the ball not to just boot it when they win it, Med City can struggle to find space cutting in from the wings and then the goals dry up as their recent 0-0 showed.

 

Minneapolis City.

It’s like they didn’t get the memo about how NPSL teams play. The most proactive side in the conference, City’s gameplan relies on dominating possession, on a high line so the fullbacks can get involved and on using a front three to interchange and pull the defense apart. It’s awfully fun to watch and is the type of soccer I would want to play if I were playing, but a small, technical team looking to attack with a lot of players is vulnerable to the quick counterattack and that has been the side’s achilles heel this season.

Matches up best against: Sioux Falls. The Thunder look to get the ball on the deck and play, which is great because I like positive soccer, but City look the better team against sides that come to play the possession game with their seasoned, technical midfield.

Matches up worst against: Dakota Fusion. They are almost specifically engineered to counter City’s tactics, as Fusion sit very deep, resign possession to the opposition, and wildly clear the ball forward when they win it, right up to two very mobile, athletic, technical players who can finish. Last game City had 70% of the ball and twice as many shots, but Fusion turned the game into a few 2-on-2 mini-games with their counters and that was that.

 

TwinStars.

As I have said, I think TwinStars have the most fresh and interesting tactical set-up in the division with a 3-5-2 that sees the wingbacks as true wingers, set really wide and high, and a compact midfield three the can feed the two forwards with direct balls to feet if they’re not finding the wide men. It’s fun to watch and it’s a great way to pull opposition defenses all over the place, the players are good, but I get the feeling that the results will improve once the younger players have maybe one more year of seasoning.

Matches up best against: Dakota Fusion. The TwinStars back three are strong and quick and, critically, are set up tactically so two of the back three can go man-to-man against Kehson and Johnson with one free man. It neutralizes the counterattack to a large extent and then the wingbacks do their work to stretch the opposition defense and that’s that.

Matches up worst against: Med City. The Medics are very strong in wide areas and their wingers can push those Dragons wingbacks deep enough that it leaves the TwinStars attack one-dimensional, through the middle and largely neutralized.

 

Viejos son los Trapos.

The Old Shirts made an interesting tactical switch when they moved Juan Fiz out of central defense and sat him next to Edi Buro as deep midfielders, resulting in a sort of four person box right in deep middle of the park. They have always sat deep and been comfortable keeping the ball in their side of the field knowing that they can play a quick ball over the top if pressed or otherwise hit long diagonals to their wingers. It’s a solid set-up.

Matches up best against: TwinStars. That deep “box” can serve to strangle service to the Dragons’ forwards which can force them to rely on their wingbacks to attack, which opens up gaps in the defense that Los Trapos have taken advantage of.

Matches up worst against: Minneapolis City. I’m not entirely sure why City has been their bogey team, but they have, and seem to just about have the edge perhaps because the sides are just about equal through the middle but the City wingers have, this year at least, gotten the best of the VSLT fullbacks.

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