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Minnesota United benefiting from Calvo's flexibility to join attack

Minnesota United defender Francisco Calvo (5) heads the ball in the second half against Real Salt Lake midfielder Jefferson Savarino at TCF Bank Stadium on July 14. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Darwin Quintero was universally praised for another stunning goal in United's 3-2 victory over Real Salt Lake last Saturday, July 14. Less celebrated was Francisco Calvo for setting up the play.

Using flexibility afforded in Minnesota United's new three-man back line, Calvo intercepted the ball from a Salt Lake attacker and broke free from another, flat-footed player trying to grab him. He raced across the halfway line and sent a 10-yard, pin-point pass to Quintero, who then exposed another goalkeeper with a chipped ball over his head and into the net.

"It's a role that (Calvo) enjoys playing," United coach Adrian Heath said. "When he's in a two(-man center back pair, with a fullback on each side), he has to be a little bit more disciplined in what you can do when you get the ball.

"It does suit him," Heath continued. "His use of the ball has never been in question. He has a beautiful left foot. I think he's enjoying his football now."

United (7-11-1) plays host to Los Angeles FC (10-4-5) at 6 p.m. Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium, and the last time the Loons faced LAFC, Calvo was on the wrong side of both goals in a 2-0 road defeat May 9. But now with World Cup experience and those miscues behind him, Calvo is brimming with confidence.

Also since the World Cup break, Heath has deviated from his traditional four-man back line, and kept it when Calvo returned from Russia. The spot as an outside center back is where he has played with the Costa Rican national team and with Saprissa, his previous team in Costa Rica.

"I really like it, but I still feel like a center back," said Calvo, meaning his primary focus remains defending.

Calvo has three assists in his past three games. In his previous 39 MLS games with Minnesota, he had two goals and one assist. His recent performances in that tweaked position are helping prove why he was picked for the MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 1 in Atlanta.

New Ecuadorian winger Romario Ibarra, who could debut for United on Sunday, doesn't fit the current formation, but that doesn't mean Heath will deviate from a three-man back line. "We will take it as the game comes and see how the game unfolds," he said. "We could play a 3-4-3. We don't have to get rid of the three (center backs). It does give us options now."

Coming off Wednesday's 2-1 victory over New England, United has won two straight games for the first time since early May, as well as three in a row at home. The goal allowed against the Revolution came on a penalty kick, meaning it was the first time the Loons didn't give up a goal in the run of play in an MLS game since May 26.

"I think we did a good job on the entire back line covering for each other," center back Brent Kallman said. "If someone made a mistake or someone got in behind someone, the other guy was in the right covering spot. I thought it was a good performance."

United is trying to squeeze out all nine points with three wins during this homestand across nine days. With victories over Salt Lake and New England, the Loons are two-thirds of the way there.

The final hurdle will be the tallest. LAFC has an nine-game unbeaten streak in all competitions and with a win Sunday, they will be off to the best start (38 points) of any MLS expansion franchise through 20 games.

"At Sunday at 8 p.m., we want to have the nine points in the pocket," Calvo said. "As I said to the guys, every game we play with this team is a final for us."

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