In different circumstances Sunday afternoon’s game against the Seattle Sounders would feel pivotal for Minnesota United’s season. The Sounders come to Allianz Field on an MLS record run of thirteen games unbeaten to start the season, and are, at the moment, the class of the league. Which is very surprising as they have been playing for much of the season at far less than full strength, missing goalkeeper Stefan Frei, defenders Shane O’Neill and Nouhou Tolo, and offensive pieces Will Bruin, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Jordan Morris for long stretches of time. (The Sounders are also now missing Alex and Cristian Roldan to CONCACAF Gold Cup responsibilities for El Salvador and the US, respectively.) With all of that, in a year that seemed to many to already be a rebuild for them, the Sounders simply continue to win.
Something they have always been able to do against Minnesota. In eight previous matches the Loons have only been able to take one point from the Sounders, a 1-1 tie in 2019. As Steve McPherson recently pointed out, Minnesota’s losses to Seattle have often been quite consequential. In 2018 the Sounders’ late-game come-from-behind win sent the Loons into a tail-spin after which they ended the season 2-6-2, losing their last four; in 2020 the Sounders’ late-game come-from-behind win in the Conference Finals of the MLS Cup playoffs ended the Loons impressive late-season run; in 2021 the Sounders’ comprehensive win in Seattle to open the season set off a four game losing streak for Minnesota, the worst start in club history.
But after beginning the season with those four bad losses, Minnesota found some form going seven games unbeaten before losing to Colorado last week. That loss to Colorado, though, was something special. “That type of performance I thought was two years ago, maybe a bit more. I thought we left them days behind. Obviously, we hadn’t” head coach Adrian Heath said of the game. “I thought the last 10, 15 minutes were embarrassing,” he continued, “but we’ve addressed that. Hopefully, we won’t see that again this year.” It was a loss that requires a bit of rethinking of the unbeaten streak, as it now might be possible to argue that during the run the level of play did not always match the results, and the results mostly came against teams now sitting in the bottom half of the standings.
Sunday’s game is also the first of another tight stretch for the Loons, with four games in two weeks including a first trip to Los Angeles to face LAFC. Minnesota is heading into an important part of the season which could see them secure their place in the playoff hunt or drop back into irrelevance.
A win against Seattle would, then, undo a lot of bad history, rewrite the loss to Colorado as simply a one-off bad performance, and set the team with confidence as they head into the next bit of the season. But for all of that it would also need to be more than just a win. Seattle has been playing well beyond anything that seems sustainable, and with all due respect to head coach Brian Schmetzer’s brilliance and the team’s intelligence and ability, at some point they will lose on their own. Simply beating this Sounders team at this stage in the season might not be enough.
At the same time, Minnesota is in its own moment of roster trouble. They have not yet been allowed an Extreme Hardship signing as Seattle has, but some defensive help would be nice as it again looks like Minnesota will be without Michael Boxall and Romain Métinare. Though there was earlier some disagreement between MNUFC and New Zealand Football concerning Boxall’s availability for the Olympics, it looks like he has missed an opportunity to participate in the Olympics but also that he will not be available for the game against the Sounders. And although Métanire has now received his green card he will miss another game flying back to the US. A loss or tie, if well played otherwise, might not be too bad with a mostly second line defense against the best team in the league.
But whatever the result, the greatest need at the moment is for Minnesota to sort out its midfield. As flat as the offense was against Colorado and as unstable as the defense was, Minnesota’s real problem last week was in the middle of the field. During Ján Greguš’ absence Hassani Dotson, Jacori Hayes, and Wil Trapp played, in various configurations, with an incredible amount of cohesion, something quite rare for the Loons’ midfield. Except when committing to pure counter-attacking soccer Minnesota has traditionally, with its double pivot, been a team divided, with little purposeful or consistent linkage play through the midfield. Trapp solved that problem as a single defensive midfielder, freeing Dotson and/or Hayes (and even Greguš earlier in the season) to play higher up the field. Ideally the team would have been able to develop Dotson into playing that pure 6 role, but since they have not or have not tried to for now Trapp seems to have earned the spot.
Games, of course, are won and lost on the field, and so a repeat of the lack of quality the Loons showed in Colorado will surely result in a loss to this much better Sounders team. But as Schmetzer has shown all year, a great coach is able to set a team up for success, putting players in positions to succeed. Seattle is, this year, almost a mirror image of Minnesota. While the Sounders have been playing much better than they appear capable of on paper, the Loons have been playing much worse. Ultimately Sunday will be a day to find out which image is real and which is not.
Ike Opara - out (undisclosed)
Dayne St. Clair - out (international duty)
Ramón Ábila - out (red card suspension)
Michael Boxall - questionable (left thigh)
Will Bruin - R knee meniscus surgery
Jordy Delem - R ACL tear
Stefan Frei - L knee sprain / blood clot
Nicolás Lodeiro - R knee surgery
Jordan Morris - L ACL tear
Nouhou - L adductor strain
Shane O’Neill - L hip flexor strain
Alex Roldan - International duty
Cristian Roldan - International duty