Wrapping up the first half of their 2021 campaign Minnesota United face the Houston Dynamo for the first time this season tonight at Allianz Field. Though Houston has had the better of Minnesota all-time, with the Loons going 2-4-4 against the Dynamo in league play, Houston has never won in Minnesota. Houston is also again struggling this year on the road and in general, with a 3-5-9 record on the season and sitting in eleventh place in the West. This is a game Minnesota should win, and anything less than three points at home will feel like a massive let down.
Although there is much to recap and look forward to around the game, the big news this week for MNUFC is the announcement that they reached a contract resolution with Ike Opara. After missing much of the 2020 season for health reasons it was hoped that Opara would be able to return to form this season. Unfortunately that hasn’t been possible. On Thursday the club announced that it had used its one offseason buyout on the MLS legend and two time defender of the year. While Opara will no longer occupy a spot on the team’s roster, his contract will remain active through the full term of the agreement, which is set to end in December this year. Acquired in 2019 from Sporting Kansas City, Opara instantly brought stability to a Minnesota team that had been historically bad on defense in its first years after joining MLS. Opara “was everything we wanted when he joined and played for the Club,” MNUFC Chief Soccer Officer Manny Lagos said in the club’s official announcement. “He was selected as Defender of the Year during our playoff run season, and had earned a new contract. We are grateful for all he did on behalf of MNUFC.” Flanked by a fully fit Ozzie Alonso in midfield and Vito Mannone in goal, Opara led the 2019 Loons to the clubs first MLS playoff appearance. Though his presence on the field has been missed for some time, the end of his time with the club still feels like quite a loss.
It is a loss that is especially painful as Michael Boxall, Opara’s heir apparent in the Loons defense, remains questionable for tonight’s game. With the extended absences of Boxall, Bakaye Dibassy, and Romain Métanire this season’s defense has been an ad hoc affair even as they have been able to collect five clean sheets. Tonight’s game may offer a chance for the back four to catch their breath as Houson is, like Minnesota, having a hard time scoring. With only 19 goals off of 59 shots on target and a near league worst .98 xG/90, Houston is slightly better than Minnesota who have 19 goals off of 64 shots on target, while the Loons do have a better xG/90 of 1.57. The recent signing of Corey Baird from LAFC and the return from international duty of Tyler Pasher should help Houston’s attack, as they offer some support alongside speedy Fabrice-Jean Picault and offensive leader Maxi Urruti. But Pasher had to leave Houston’s midweek game early and is listed as questionable for tonight, while Urruti, Dynamo’s leading goal scorer on the season, and ex-Loon Darwin Quintero may both miss tonight’s game under Health and Safety protocols. Tonight, it seems, Houston may still be an offense looking to find itself.
The Dynamo will also be without midfielder Darwin Cerén who will be serving a red-card suspension after being shown a straight red in the 20th minute of their midweek game against Austin. Playing most of the game down a player, Houston will certainly take the field in St. Paul with some tired legs carrying the weight of dropping points to their Texas rival.
Coming off an emotional run of results in July after falling flat in Colorado to start the month, a week without a mid-week game will certainly have been good for Minnesota. While the wins over Seattle and Portland offered a great response to the loss against the Rapids, the two ties to LAFC and Vancouver certainly felt different. After that trip west the team, Ethan Finlay noted, is still disappointed but ready to move on. “We wanted to leave that trip with at least four points,” he said, “and it didn’t happen. Getting points on the road is always a positive thing so we’ll take the points and we’ll focus on Houston.” Asked specifically about his own role in the tie to Vancouver, having been called for a penalty in the last seconds of the game, Finlay showed a nice bit of class and professionalism. “It’s hard to not feel personal responsibility on the play,” he said. But, “it is what it is. We unfortunately have to live with it and we move on. Hopefully we get one that maybe we shouldn’t down the line.” Even as the result ultimately felt fair - neither Minnesota nor Vancouver really deserved more than a point on the night - these things do tend to sort themselves out on the field over the course of a season.
And the second half of the season will begin quickly for the Loons. August will be busy for Minnesota, with the LA Galaxy making a visit to Allianz Field next Saturday, followed by a Tuesday mid-week game in San Jose, then a quick return home to play Kansas City, ending the month with a trip down to Houston for what will probably be a very hot game. All of that and a mid-week all-star game for Emanuel Reynoso as well. As one of the most creative and statistically effective chance-creators in the league who is also always willing to put in the defensive work, Reynoso clearly deserves to be considered one of the best in MLS. As the only Loon to be called into the team, though, it does feel like a bit of a snub to Robin Lod who is leading Minnesota with five goals and four assists on the season and has been Minnesota’s most consistent player even as he missed time for the Euro’s.
Tonight’s game could feature the MLS debut of young Houston’s most recent signing, Panamanian midfielder Aldeberto ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla. On-loan from Spanish La Liga 2 side FC Cartagena, he should be available if his paperwork gets completed in time.
Minnesota completed their own young signing during the secondary transfer window, bringing in 20 year old Honduran Joseph Rosales from Panamanian club Independiente de La Chorrera. On an 18 month loan Rosales brings a lot of potential and possibility to the team. “He’s a versatile player with massive upside,” head coach Adrian Heath said in announcing the signing. “He’s played some left back as well as centrally in the midfield. He’s another one with a high motor, willing to do all the work needed on the field. We are truly pleased to be able to bring him into our club and see where his potential leads.” Given the glut of central midfielders on the roster and the solidity in defensive backs with Chase Gasper, Métanire, and DJ Taylor all proven starters, it is hard to see exactly how Rosales might find playing time or how his potential might be led anywhere with no obvious club developmental infrastructure in place. Yet with the continual churn a players a few might stick.
But that is all for the future. Tonight there is a game to play and a chance for Minnesota to pick-up a much needed three points as they head into the second half of the season.
Franco Fragapane - out (thigh)
Michael Boxall - questionable (thigh)
Darwin Cerén - out (red-card suspension)
Nico Lemoine - out (right groin injury)
Ethan Bartlow - questionable (right thigh strain)
Tyler Pasher - questionable (right lower body)