With all apologies, the last time Minnesota United visited the Banc of California Stadium they managed the greatest heist in club history, stealing three points from LAFC off of two wildly opportunistic goals by Mason Toye and a stout and hunkered in defensive performance. In many ways that game proved to the rest of MLS that after a rough few seasons the Loons had become a legitimate team and while it might not always have been pretty, on any given night they could beat anyone.
Tonight’s game, Minnesota’s first trip to LA this season, shapes up to be quite different than that one. In 2019 LAFC were historically good, unbeaten at home until losing to Minnesota. But now they may not even be the best team in LA. And Minnesota and LAFC are surprisingly close on paper. At 6-5-4 LAFC sits in fifth place, one point ahead of Minnesota in sixth place with a 6-5-3 record. LAFC has averaged 1.5 points per game while Minnesota has averaged 1.47. LAFC has an xG/90 of 1.64 while Minnesota has an xG/90 of 1.65. Their passing numbers are almost identical as are their defensive statistics. If there is a differentiator it is that while LAFC has scored 20 goals from 159 shots (12.6% conversion), Minnesota has only converted 15 of its 156 shots (9.6% conversion).
Like Minnesota, LAFC began the season with high expectations that they have struggled to meet. But here, the trajectories feel slightly different as unlike Minnesota, who had a horrific start before settling in, LAFC has never quite found its form, stumbling between great wins and hard to explain losses with a few ties thrown in for good measure. If they at one moment seem poised to again be an elite team in the West the next they seem to be another middling team fighting for a playoff spot.
With the return of Carlos Vela (who already has four goals and five assists) and Diego Rossi (with five goals and one assist) from early season injury troubles LAFC has on paper and in person one of the most dangerous attacks in the league. Young Ecuadorian midfielder José Cifuentes is also having a breakout season, with five goals and two assists, a maturing that made possible the recent trade of LAFC stalwart Mark-Anthony Kaye. Although it won’t in any way affect tonight’s game as Kaye was already away on international duty, the trade, in which LAFC received allocation money and an international roster spot, seems to be intended to create the financial and roster flexibility to sign Colombian forward Cristian Arango, a hoarding of goal-scorers that, from Minnesota, seems quite unfair.
As has been the case from their inception, the rhythm of LAFC is being set this year by midfielders Eduard Atuesta and Latif Blessing who are both having quietly good years. LAFC will also now be adding young Uruguayan midfielder Brian Rodríguez after a loan stint with Spanish second division side UD Almeriá and time with Urugay’s national team. And although their defense often seems an afterthought, young goalkeeper Tomas Romero recorded three clean sheets in his first four starts, while the team has four clean sheets on the season.
While Minnesota’s offense looks to still be finding its form the team continues to get results, coming into tonight’s game off important back-to-back wins against Seattle and Portland. Led by the chemistry that has developed between Robin Lod (four goals and two assists even with a long absence for the Euro’s) and Emanuel Reynoso (one goal and four assists), new signing Adrien Hunou has yet to find his rhythm up front. Franco Fragapane, the apparent preferred left winger, did not dress for Saturday’s game against Portland and will not be available tonight with an injury that head coach Adrian Heath described as quite serious. “He’s probably going to miss the next couple of weeks, I would think at least,” Heath said after the weekend’s game. Hinting at a quite impressive recovery Fragapane will travel with the team to be available for next weekend’s game against Vancouver. Ramón Ábila, MNUFC’s highest paid player, will also not be travelling with the team after not dressing over the weekend for the home game against Portland. Explaining the decision Heath said that “on the road, where you need everybody to be in that real defensive shape, mentality, that is maybe not Ramon’s strength. Maybe at home, where you are on top and you are putting the ball in the box, maybe that.”
Michael Boxall, who trained with the full squad to begin the week and seems close to full strength, will also be traveling with the team but will probably not be available tonight. And although the defense misses the captain’s presence, they have held together. With his goal over the weekend Chase Gasper will certainly be riding the most confidence he has had all year, and with a first game behind him after the extended time away working on his green card Romain Métinare will hopefully find a bit better form in LA.
Both LAFC and Minnesota are in the midst of tough stretches of play. For LAFC this will be the fourth game of a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday schedule that included a win over Real Salt Lake, a loss to Portland, and a tie against Vancouver. For Minnesota this is the third game of a Sunday-Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday schedule that started with the two impressive wins against Seattle and Portland and will end against Vancouver. Although not a must-win for either team, a result and, more importantly, the quality of play, will go a long way to keeping either team in the playoff hunt and in the conversation as legitimate contender. And for two teams that believe themselves to be more than middle of the pack, that may be just as important the points.
Los Angeles Football Club:
Mahala Opoku - out (L knee)
Eddie Segura - out (R knee)
Franco Fragapane - out (undisclosed)
Ike Opara - out (undisclosed)
Dayne St. Clair - out (international duty)
Michael Boxall - questionable (thigh)