The Exigent Duality
NSC MN and the playoff picture - 19:05 CST, 8/29/11 (Sniper)
Saturday's loss saw NSC Minnesota's lead for the final playoff position over Montreal erode to only four points, with fifteen points still on offer before the season concludes. Compounding matters was the fact that the loss came against Montreal, a key competitor. This fact essentially made the match a six-point affair.

Alarmingly, in their last five fixtures NSC Minnesota has taken only one point from the fifteen available. In that stretch, they have scored only a single goal. On top of it, the losses have come from teams against which the club is in direct playoff contention, including Fort Lauderdale and FC Tampa Bay, followed by consecutive defeats against the resurgent, Ubiparipovic and Sebrango-led Montreal. Given this extraordinarily poor form, NSC Minnesota doesn't look much like a playoff-bound club-- an amazing turnaround for a team that sat comfortably in third place just a few weeks ago.

NSC Minnesota's last five results
Date Home/away Opponent Result Score
8/27 Home Montreal Loss 0-2
8/20 Away Montreal Loss 2-0
8/17 Away Carolina Draw 1-1
8/13 Away FC Tampa Bay Loss 2-0
8/10 Home Fort Lauderdale Loss 0-1

When looking at Manny Lagos' two seasons as the "big gun" in charge of the club, it's easy to see his style on display. He has built a team of midfielders. A lot of midfielders. In fact, 15 of the 28 rostered players are natural midfielders, even if the club doesn't list all of them as such. What's more, nearly every midfielder on the team is cut from the same mold: hard-working, tenacious, with strong fitness levels, but low on pace and technical ability.

Between the hard-running midfield play, some wonderful defending compliments of Chris Clements, Kyle Altman, Cristiano, and Justin Davis, and Joe Warren's excellent goal keeping, the team is very difficult to break down. And because of the similarities between all of the players, Lagos has been able to successfully implement an advanced tactical system in which players are almost constantly interchanging with each other, all over the pitch.

Unfortunately, having so many similar players means that there are gaping talent holes elsewhere. Amazingly, the roster contains only one bonafide forward in Brian Cvilikas. And Cvilikas, despite proving his worth as one of the most effective attacking players in recent Minnesota football history over the last three years, is clearly not viewed in a positive light by Lagos, probably due to the former's traditionally spotty finishing; indeed, Cvilikas has only played 14 minutes all season.

So instead of the 6'3" Cvilikas leading the line, Lagos has spent the whole season with a front-line full of wingers and attacking midfielders-- Devin Del Do, Tino Nunez, and the mercurial yet still work-in-progress Simone Bracalello have all been used in advanced forward positions, yet none of them have the natural instinct to occupy the correct positions in front of goal at the right time.

And when the wonderfully talented but injury prone Andrei Gotsmanov went down with an inevitable injury some weeks ago, Lagos opted for the hard-working-but-very-ordinary Neil Hlavaty instead of Sandy Gbandi. Yes, the same Sandy Gbandi who arrived to much fanfare, and was the engine room of a Puerto Rico Islanders team that was steam rolling its opposition and winning trophies over the past few years. Further, Lagos apparently instructed his team to play the long ball. To the 5'8" Del Do. Over and over. For entire matches at a time. It doesn't take a football expert to foresee that as a losing strategy.

Manny Lagos is a fine man manager, and a strong tactician as well. But between the fact that he built such an imbalanced roster, and the fact that he is routinely filling square holes with round pegs when even the most casual observer can see better alternatives, NSC Minnesota are in serious danger of missing the playoffs despite the fact that there is no good reason why they shouldn't be able to qualify in a system where only two teams out of eight don't go.

In Lagos' defense, many pundits including myself scarcely expected the team to surpass the 13 or 14 point barrier last season, given the roster of veritable nobodies, put together in a matter of two months, and on a shoestring budget to boot. There is no doubt that he worked wonders with the players he had at his disposal. And the team is on track this year to achieve similar point and goal differential totals this year as it did last season.

Similar tales across two seasons
Season Games played Point per game Goals for per game Goals conceded per game
2010 30 1.3 1.07 1.2
2011 23 1.26 1 1.09

Optimists would say that the team has been consistent over its last 53 matches. Pessimists would reply with, "Yes; consistently mediocre." Despite the fact that the club, with its "league-owned" status this year, undoubtedly had greater funding this season with which to purchase players versus last year when it was owned by the not-for-profit National Sports Center, the money is hardly on display on the pitch; the same Geison Mouras and Ely Allens that one would have thought would get replaced are still with the club. And reinforcements either never arrived or have unclear roles.

At this juncture, the third through seventh positions in the NASL table are only separated by nine points; anything could happen. But if the club does indeed go on to miss the playoffs, and wants to actually improve and move forward next year, it is going to have to compliment its array of blue-collar, work-a-day midfielders with some creative attacking flair, and also purchase three or four true forwards. And most importantly, Manny Lagos is going to have to do a lot better at using the pieces that are already at his disposal.