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Preview: Minnesota United at Philadelphia Union

A loss against the Union would make the Liberty Bell toll for Minnesota’s playoff chances.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Minnesota United FC
Loons defender Brent Kallman tackles Philadelphia’s Roland Alberg during Minnesota’s September 2017 match against the Union.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

When? Saturday, October 6, 6:30 PM CT (7:30 PM ET)

Where? Talen Energy Stadium, Chester, PA

Broadcast? Fox Sports North Plus, 1500 AM ESPN Radio

Somehow, someway, Minnesota United FC still have the faintest glimmer of playoff hopes. At a point where roughly seventeen unlikely results need to go the Loons’ way, Minnesota can only rely on their performance to determine four. One of them comes Saturday against Philadelphia. Win it? Minnesota survives at least one more week, due to the clash between Real Salt Lake and Portland canceling out their ability to knock the Loons out. A draw, however, would all but end the team’s hopes, as a draw by Real Salt Lake or a win by the LA Galaxy would put Minnesota out of reach; a loss would end it regardless of other results.

If it sounds unlikely, it is. But even after team CEO Chris Wright’s latest vote of confidence for the coaching and technical staff, Minnesota still have plenty to play for against a strong Philadelphia Union side that can clinch their own playoff spot with a win or a draw with help. Philly return to action after a gritty 0-0 draw against Columbus last weekend, limiting one of the top offenses in the Eastern Conference to just two shots on target. The Union did so while playing two center backs in Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie that landed on MLSSoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 list—a list featuring none of the Loons’ roster.

The evolution of the Philadelphia side through this season has been all about building chemistry up from the back, with Trusty and McKenzie meshing with fellow Academy graduate Matthew Real and recent SuperDraft picks Jack Elliott and Keegan Rosenberry to form a top-level defense of players all 24 years or younger. Having earned points in eight of their last ten league games, their back line and goalkeeper Andre Blake have allowed just 1.1 goals per game over that span with six clean sheets. Interspersed in that stretch, however, was a gutting loss in the U.S. Open Cup Final to the Houston Dynamo.

The Union’s style actually tracks pretty closely to what Adrian Heath has seemed to want from Minnesota United. Jim Curtin typically puts his team out in a 4-2-3-1, looking for organization and composition in the middle from Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin that can spark quick play to the wings and the ability to cycle back to a DP #10—in this case, Czech international Borek Dockal, who has blossomed after an inauspicious start to his MLS career. The key differences, courtesy of our friends at American Soccer Analysis? Philly use a pair of attacking midfielders in C.J. Sapong and Fafa Picault more as scorers than chance creators:

Offensive Production for MIN and PHI Attacking Midfielders, 2018

Player xG/96 min xA/96 min
Player xG/96 min xA/96 min
CJ Sapong 0.42 0.13
Fafa Picault 0.39 0.13
Miguel Ibarra 0.22 0.25
Darwin Quintero 0.34 0.4

The imbalance toward scoring versus assists suggests that Curtin wants multiple players to be the point of the defense’s focus close to the box. While Darwin Quintero can certainly lash a chip over a goalkeeper’s head, he’s more willing to pass to an open teammate to unlock the back line; Miguel Ibarra functions often in the same way from out wide, looking to make crosses like he did to Angelo Rodriguez against New York City. As the Loons get to the box, they try to move outside-in for shooting chances; Philly, in contrast, just shoot.

Minnesota will also have to contend with their biggest headwind of the season: travel. At just 1-11-2 on the year, their five points on the road are the fewest in MLS this season in both conferences. While not necessarily overwhelming, Philadelphia’s 8-5-2 record at home this season suggests a good amount of comfort in front of their fans.

It’s fair to expect Minnesota United to trot out a lineup with some changes, most notably the returning Brazilian partnership of Fernando Bob and Maximiano for Rasmus Schuller and the suspended Collen Warner. Both Bob and Maxi are in audition mode for the 2019 iteration of the Loons, so any continued opportunity to see their work together would be beneficial. I could also see Schuller coming in on the left for Alexi Gomez, similar to how the team faced up against Portland with Angelo Rodriguez in for the still-injured Romario:

Projected Minnesota United lineup, October 6 at Philadelphia Union

For the Union, the prospect of making the playoffs with a win makes me suspect they’ll go as full-strength as their lineup allows, with Matthew Real and Ilsinho making the bench through knocks and going with a lineup like this:

Projected Philadelphia Union lineup, October 6 vs. Minnesota United

Will those lineups happen? Will they make the difference for the Loons? Will Philadelphia throw a curveball and bring homegrown attacker Will Smith back on loan from Bel-Air FC? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!