At this point of the season, in a parity driven league like MLS where 10 points separates 4th place Portland Timbers from 10th place San Jose Earthquakes, it is easy to say that every game is a must win. But there is always a bit more nuance to the necessity. For Minnesota United, who face 11th place FC Dallas tonight in Frisco, TX, a place where they have yet to win a game, there is the danger that the team, especially up front, will lose the small bit of rhythm found against LA Galaxy and carried, for 20 minutes, into Houston. With a game in hand against most of the Western Conference, being 3 points clear of the playoff cutoff and 6 points out of a home playoff game is a safer gap, in the one case, and a less daunting one, in the other, than it might seem. But after two mediocre performances - an unconvincing win over a struggling Houston Dynamo and a lackluster and very confused loss to DC United - the real danger is that the Loons will lose, as they head into the final stretch of the season, any positivity gained from fielding a full preferred XI against LA. And given that the team will be quite short-handed against 3rd place Colorado Rapids next week, with Michael Boxall, Robin Lod, Romain Métanire, and Jukka Raitala called up for World Cup qualifying national team duty, tonight’s game really does feel like a must win.
It is also a night when the Loons need to take care of business. Their third meeting of the season with the Toros, with Minnesota eking out a win at home in May and snagging a draw in Texas in June, these two teams are tied head-to-head, each with 5 wins and a draw, in their previous 11 meetings. But this season FC Dallas is struggling. Winless in their last 6, with one win in their last 10, and playing under interim head coach Marco Ferruzzi after the surprising dismissal of Luchi Gonzalez, the standard bearers of developmental soccer in MLS have lost their way. It is too early to tell if the firing of Luchi indicates an abandonment of the franchise’s commitment to homegrown talent or a misallocation of blame for the first team’s performance this year, a poor showing that is as much a result of the mis-timed selling of young talent and poor scouting on player acquisitions as on anything from the coach. Whatever the case may be, FC Dallas is a team Minnesota ought to beat.
But even in a lost season the young talent in Dallas is quite stunning. Much of the attention is on eighteen year-old Ricardo Pepi, tied for 4th in the league with 13 goals so far, who will most likely end the year with historic numbers for a teenager. With a month to go he has already tied Diego Fugundez’s record for most goals scored by a teenager in a season, while his 13 this year puts his career total at 16, third most for a teenager. In a game against LA Galaxy in July he became the youngest player in MLS history to score a hat-trick and this year he also became the fourth-youngest player to score in his U.S. national team debut and the second-youngest to score in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in U.S. soccer history. There is also 20 year-old Jesús Ferreira who ended his teenage years tied for 6th on the teenage scorer’s list and is currently sitting on 6 goals and 6 assists for the season; 20 year-old Szabolcs Schön who leads the team with 6 assists this season from the wing; 17 year old Justin Che who, after beginning the season with Bayern Munich II, has cracked the starting XI on defense; and 21 year-old Paxton Pomykal who is quietly having a solid season in midfield. Even in an off year the kids are fun and dangerous.
Against that youth, Minnesota should be coming into the game tonight as healthy as they have been all season. In his post-game comments after the team’s loss mid-week head coach Adrian Heath explained his substitutions in that game as some rarely attempted player rotation. “Some of the players who have played a lot of minutes recently were a little bit not quite as sharp as they normally are,” Heath said, “and we felt as though with the big game at the weekend, away at Dallas, then we had to go and freshen it up and get them a bit of a breather. Hopefully freshen them up for the weekend.” Even though neither was listed as out or questionable in any team communications, Ozzie Alonso and Emanuel Reynoso did not make the trip to DC. “They’ve both got a couple of niggles,” Heath explained after the game. “Obviously, Ozzie has played a lot of football of late. I want to make sure that Rey is 100 percent. So, rather than have him play with little niggles that he’s got at this moment in time, we thought, you know, Eastern Conference team, we thought, if we’re gonna do it, it would be a good time to rest.” And prior to leaving for Dallas yesterday Heath added that the whole team looked healthy, although Hassani Dotson, Ján Greguš, and Justin McMaster are still officially listed as unavailable. As always we will have to wait until game-time, and maybe later, to see who is available, but for now it seems like Minnesota will be traveling with a close-to-full roster.
Minnesota has a preference for the conservative on the road this season, a tactical decision that has led to a rather unimpressive but not awful 2-6-5 record. Tonight, it would seem, something more proactive is needed. First, to help the defense regain some confidence after the confusion created by the 3-center back formation used mid-week while also getting as many minutes together for the preferred front 4 of Ethan Finlay, Franco Fragapane, Robin Lod, and Emanuel Reynoso as possible. The team “needs a reaction from how we played on Wednesday,” Heath said. “Normally we do react after we put a bad performance in. But we need to be better than we were and if we play as we can – looks like we’ve got everybody fit and healthy – we can go there and win for sure.” But a win, it seems, is not quite enough. As a home playoff game begins to drift out of range, this team will need to prove that it can win on the road. A simple win against a bottom-of-the-table team will not be enough; tonight needs to be a convincing win.
Bryan Acosta - suspended (red card suspension)
Johnny Nelson - out (back surgery)
Beni Redžic - out (ankle sprain)
Minnesota United FC:
Hassani Dotson - out (knee)
Ján Greguš - out (ankle)
Justin McMaster - out (thigh)