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Three things: #HOUvMIN

The weird schedule continues, the goal drought ends, and an argument for relegation

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Houston Dynamo Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
  1. After a very difficult week, when Minnesota United were only able to pick up 2 points against the LA Galaxy, San Jose, and Kansas City, Saturday’s win against Houston was really quite important. Not only for the three points on the road in a tightening Western conference (the top four teams in the West are separated by six points, then Minnesota is in fifth place five points off the top four and four points above sixth place where Portland is only three points ahead of eleventh place LAFC), but also for how it sets up a tough September. The month starts with a bit of a break, so that in his post-game comments Adrian Heath suggested, in relation to the long injury list, that “it looks like there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. They’re all out on the grass,” he continued, seemingly referring to the entire injured list, “they’re all training, so hopefully by the time we get back and get working there’s two or three of them will be able to join in and join the group for Seattle.” But after the break there continues the strangeness of the 2021 scheduling with two back-to-back Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday weeks. Minnesota begins the first week at Seattle, then heads to Kansas City before facing the LA Galaxy at home, while in the second week they start against Houston at home, take a first trip out east to face DC United before heading back down to Dallas. After collecting two assists on Saturday Ethan Finlay was, by his post-game time at the podium, already thinking ahead. “We got a week off,” he told reporters, “but we’re already in the locker room talking about what Seattle is going to be like. And we know that there’s going to be a tough week ahead of us with Seattle, midweek Kansas City, and then home [against] the Galaxy…. This was a necessary reset for this group,” he continued, “it sets us up now to try to get some points against some of the top teams above us.” With just over two months and 13 games left in the season, half of those against teams that now sit above Minnesota in the standings, things are getting real. Dropped points will become increasingly hard to overcome and every game offers a chance to close the gap at the top of the standings.
  2. In all sport, reality is relative. At times these games can feel so easy and at other times impossible, opening up a resonance or dissonance of play. We don’t always know how to talk about these things and so we talk instead of effort - you create your own luck - and belief - where all that a striker needs is some confidence - and flow. Which is all certainly true. But sometimes you also need to play a really bad team. In announcing the signing of Adrien Hunou we argued that he “possess[es] a goal scorer’s sense for picking up the cheap rebound and the lucky bounce [and] seems to have a feel for empty space suggesting a great partnership with Emanuel Reynoso.” Which, with his two goals last night to end a very long dry spell, seems to have been partly right. Both goals were a joyous mix of a goal scorer’s sense for the cheap goal, a whole lot of hustle, a bit of belief, and some really bad defense. This was especially true of the first, as a good bounce resulted from some hard work and led to a beautiful cross as at least ten field players from both teams simply watched the proceedings. The goals were opportunistic in a game where neither team was able or willing to assert itself and so the goals, and Hunou’s finally being able to find the rhythm of the game, also seemed to come from a change in style, or rather, a return to an opportunistic directness that was the only possible option for a very limited roster.
  3. In his post-game comments Finlay offered a wonderful moment of honesty. “That was a gut punch tonight,” Finlay admitted in recalling Houston’s opening goal. “I’ve been a part of a lot of those games,” the veteran player was led to reflect, “and a lot of times they don’t turn out this way. I would be talking to you and the result would be flipped and it would probably be a bigger score…. The good teams, the really good teams in this league will make you pay for that…. Houston as a team kind of had their ups and downs this season and so we were able to persevere tonight.” Which is also to say that Houston really is not good. Fifteen games without a win, bottom of the West, and they just fired their SVP/General Manager. They also really did look that bad, offering a game of sloppy first touches, poor passes, optional defense, and a general lack of energy. All played in front of a half empty stadium. Promotion/relegation is one of the cheapest discussions to have in US sports, but Saturday night was a quite compelling argument for the need, sometimes, to just allow a team to collect itself under a little less pressure.