After stealing three points on the road on the weekend Minnesota United faces an Eastern Conference opponent for only the second time this season as they host an in-form Philadelphia Union. Minnesota has been unsuccessful against Philadelphia in three previous tries, although without meeting them since 2019, a 2-3 loss, there is very little history to think about.
So we begin with tonight’s game which is for Minnesota, as every game down the stretch will be, a must win. Or, as Adrian Heath said again after the win in Austin, every game will already be a final: “I said before the week started, we’ve got like six cup finals. We spoke about that to the players before the game. We’re talking about the last few weeks, it’s been like playoff football.” This has been a disappointing season for Minnesota, a team that was expected by many to be at the top of the table and who expected of themselves to at least host a home playoff game. But the Loons under Heath have always been much more dangerous than consistent, much more capable of a surprising and quick run of results than a season long run of quality play. As Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin recently said,“they’re a dangerous team to break out and score 3 or 4 goals on you at any moment.” And so a season ending run into the playoffs would not be unexpected as it would also go a long way to taking away some of the season’s disappointment.
Both teams tonight will be playing on short-rest as this shortened season quickly concludes. If the condensed and wildly imbalanced pandemic-schedule of 2021 has often led to feelings of “we’re playing them, again?” it has also led to incredibly close races in both conferences. In the East, places 2 through 9 are separated by only eight points, with Philadelphia currently sitting in third, while in the West nine points separates places 4 through 9, with Minnesota currently holding on to a last playoff spot in seventh. In a more balanced season Philadelphia might feel secure in their playoff position, 4 points clear of fifth place Atlanta United. But this year, as the season ends with five games in two-and-a-half weeks, most of which will be in-conference, anything could happen and things are still wide open.
For Minnesota, Saturday’s game against Austin should have been full of hope and potential. It was the first time since mid-summer that the presumptive preferred front four of Franco Fragapane, Emanuel Reynoso, Robin Lod, and Adrien Hunou started together and the closest this team has gotten to starting what could conceivably be a preferred XI. But even as the Loons secured an important and hard to get road win, it was a disappointing win, or at least a rather bad win but a great result; “as a result” Robin Lod argued, “it’s great, because I think we didn’t play our best, not even close.” After taking an early lead off a goal from Fragapane, Minnesota fell out of the game, holding on to a clean sheet only through an awful display of shooting from Austin and an amazing display of goalkeeping from Tyler Miller, which earned him MLS Team of the Week recognition. It was not an inspiring game heading into the final few matches of the season, but results, it seems, are always most important.
While Minnesota continues to struggle to find its form, Philadelphia is undefeated in their last six. Building an end of season push that is, in some ways, quite surprising they are also trying to disprove the justified belief that MLS teams are not equipped to make both a strong run in the CONCACAF Champions League and the regular season. But after making it to the semi-final round of the CCL their organizational and tactical depth has them playing incredibly good soccer when it matters. And in 2021 Philadelphia is presenting a strong case for itself to be considered one of the top clubs in MLS. With a strong youth and development system Philadelphia won the 2020 Supporter’s Shield with a ‘play the kids’ philosophy. After selling two of their brightest homegrowns, Brenden Aaronson to Red Bull Salzburg and Mark McKenzie to Genk, in the off-season, the first team did not miss a beat, bringing up another batch of kids and integrating them into an already strong core team. “I think,” Heath told reporter’s during practice this week, “what [Curtin’s] achieved over the last three or four years is fantastic. Fair dues to their ownership, they’ve had faith as he’s built,” a faith that is being rewarded.
An aggressive, high pressing and direct team, Philadelphia boasts one of the stingiest defenses in the league; a back line that usually includes Kai Wagner (24 years old), Jack Elliott (25), Jakob Glesnes (27), and Olivier Mbaizo (23), backed by Andre Blake, one of the best goalies in the league, has conceded a mere 29 goals on the season, second best in MLS, and collected 10 clean sheets. Offensively they have not been quite as successful this season, primarily because Curtis has yet to fully settle on a starting front six, with only Leon Flach (20) and Alejandro Bedoya getting regular starts on the outside of the midfield, and Kacper Przybyłko as one of two forwards in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Rotating the remaining three positions has possibly hindered the team’s goal scoring rhythm but it has also allowed Philadelphia to remain one of the most aggressive high pressing teams in the league, averaging under 50% possession on the season. As Heath described them, they are “full of young players, very aggressive the way they play with the ball and without the ball…. Energy. Talent. Well-motivated. They don’t give much away. I think they’re a good team. They don’t beat themselves. They want to play forward, they want to play in your half.” Whether they are relying on 17 year old Paxten Aaronson, little brother of Brenden, or lone designated player Jamiro Monteiro, or both, in the middle of the field, Philadelphia wants to play on the front foot.
All of which means that tonight Minnesota will need big games from Chase Gasper and Romain Métanire as they try to play out of Philadelphia’s press. On the season, those two, along with Wil Trapp, who should be back in the starting line-up tonight, are the team’s leading passers, a statistical confirmation that the Loons continue to try to build-up through their defensive backs. If Gasper and Métanire are able to beat the first line of Philadelphia’s press this could turn into a wide-open game. If not, Minnesota may again struggle for ideas on offense. And with only Justin McMaster unavailable, Heath will have his pick of a starting XI. In his post-game comments Heath mentioned Ozzie Alonso’s age - “I thought Ozzie Alonso was incredible, for his age and the performance he did” - a possible sign that he will rotate his midfield tonight. But whatever he decides, his starting XI should give us some indication of what he believes is his best XI.
In his post-game comments after the win in Austin Heath offered what may be the most direct announcement of this team’s style, saying that “we’re at our best when we play and we’re difficult to beat and we’re not nice to play against.” Heading into the final few games of the season, if they hope to hold onto their playoff position against a very disciplined and direct Philadelphia team, they may also need a little bit of offensive form to complement that difficult style.
Minnesota United FC:
Justin McMaster - out (knee)
Cory Burke - out (ankle)
Illsinho - out (hamstring)
Alvas Powell - out (hamstring)
Andre Blake - questionable (adductor)
Sergio Santos - questionable (quad)