Tonight’s match against Orlando City is a must-win for Minnesota United. It’s not that Orlando is a team we’ll be competing with down the stretch this season (they’re near the top of the Eastern Conference, the Loons are near the bottom of the Western Conference), but because of what I call the pack principle.
The pack principle is something I have learned from experience competing in long distance track and field events. It is fairly simple to understand and put into practice, and it can pay big dividends. The premise is basic: races are easier (meaning maintaining a faster pace is less painful) when you’re running with a pack. If that doesn’t really make sense, just think about it. One can draw motivation from the people around them, or watch that group create a sizable gap that quickly becomes insurmountable.
In nearly every race I competed in, there have been two packs: a lead group, and then a second tier that trails off into a few stragglers at the back. The same is true in MLS. Heading into today, the top five teams in the Western Conference (Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes, and Portland Timbers) are all within four points of each other. There is then the second group, containing Vancouver Whitecaps, LA Galaxy, and Seattle Sounders, all within three points of each other. The conference is capped off with the stragglers: the Loons, Real Salt Lake, and Colorado Rapids. Take a peek for yourself:
Western Conference Table
|Sporting Kansas City||22|
|San Jose Earthquakes||19|
|Real Salt Lake||11|
The aforementioned pack principle applies to the playoff race in MLS. It’s far easier to stay on pace over the course of the season rather than attempt to close the gap near the finish. Up until the match a couple of weeks ago against Toronto FC, Minnesota United was in the perfect position to stay with the second pack and fight for the last couple of playoff places.
Now, they’ve taken a dip. Losses (that could/should easily have been wins) to Toronto and LA have the Loons two points behind that second pack. The bottom two teams of that pack, Seattle and LA, both have tough matchups against Portland and San Jose respectively this weekend. There’s a decent chance that those two could leave points on the table, which would allow Minnesota United to slide into place amongst them.
If Minnesota United wants to take advantage of the pack principle and make a potential playoff push a little easier, then tonight’s match against Orlando City is a must-win.