After a gritty and hard-fought comeback win mid-week, Minnesota United go again tonight against LAFC in what feels like another must-win game.
As most of the league is playing twice-a-week, the standings are getting even tighter and the West is returning to a top-three and a middling-rest who are fighting, on any given night, to stay in the playoffs or jump up to fourth and a home playoff game. After a blistering late season run the Portland Timbers have stumbled and are catchable in fourth with 46 points, followed by the LA Galaxy (45), Minnesota (44), the Vancouver Whitecaps (43), on their own awe-inspiring run and hosting the Loons next week, Real Salt Lake (42), and LAFC, who, with 40 points, are barely holding on to their playoff hopes. Adrian Heath did the math after practice on Friday: “If we win the game this weekend we go seven points clear of LAFC with three to go. So, it could be a big swing either way. They will be aware of that, they’ll know they only go a point behind us if they get a result tomorrow evening. All to play for, we are looking forward to it.”
In their only other meeting this season Minnesota snuck out of LA with a point off a 95th minute equalizer from Hassani Dotson. Like Minnesota, LAFC has struggled to find any consistent form this season. Rarely able to start anything resembling a regular and preferred XI they have fought injuries throughout 2021 and come into tonight’s game with a discouragingly long list of unavailable players. The irregularity of their starting XI has made for a continually out of rhythm and disjointed offense, leading LAFC to have a hard to believe +22 xGD, the largest gap in the league.
Even with the injuries, one of the biggest losses this season was the inevitable loan of Diego Rossi, who is still their second leading goal scorer, to Turkish side Fenerbahçe S.K. But LAFC had always planned to allow the young Uruguayan forward to develop beyond MLS, and so with some thoughtful roster management they have made an almost seamless transition to new signing Cristian Arango. And Arango has been a revelation, scoring 11 goals in his first 13 games with LAFC while contributing on 72% of the team’s goals. With perennial best in the league Carlos Vela close to full health LAFC may finally be able to fulfill their potential, making one last dramatic push into the playoffs.
If LAFC has struggled with absences this season, their biggest two losses may have happened prior to the 2020 season when they traded defensive stalwart Walker Zimmerman to Nashville SC (who, in only their second season, are sitting second in the East behind the historical good New England Revolution) and goal-keeper Tyler Miller to Minnesota. Miller had had a breakout season with the then expansion LAFC team in 2018, earning a USMNT call-up for the Gold Cup in 2019 where he developed a crisis of confidence. On his return to LA he fell out of the starting XI and was subsequently traded. While Zimmerman and Taylor, as Loons fans are well aware, have gone on to greatness, LAFC has suffered on defense, especially this season as their team goalkeeping is only managing a 56.4% save percentage, worst in the league, with a PSxG+/- of -7.2, second worst in the league (PSxG+/- calculates expected goals against minus actual goals conceded).
Yet with all of that, LAFC continues to field a talented team that, like Minnesota, can on any night open up for an offensive clinic and are still guided by Bob Bradley who is able, as he did in their mid-week come from behind win over Dallas, to pull off a moment of tactical coaching brilliance.
With their own come-from-behind mid-week win, the Loons once again have a home playoff game in sight. “Every time we win,” Heath said after practice on Friday, “everyone around us wins and you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. Then all of a sudden, you get a couple of wins and now we are only two points away from fourth place – which means a home field advantage in the playoffs. There’s an awful lot for us to play at.” Much of that “all of a sudden” has come from the Loons front four of Franco Fragapane, Adrien Hunou, Robin Lod, and Emanuel Reynso finally finding their form. Lod continues to lead the team in scoring with 8 goals and 5 assists, while Fragapane and Reynoso have both netted 4 goals on the season, with Fragapane chipping in 9 assists and Reynoso helping on 10. Without having fully found his place in the front four Hunou has quietly added 6 goals. “It’s a pleasure for me to play with Rey, with Robin, with Ethan, with Franco,” Hunou said after the mid-week game, where he opened the scoring in the 41st minute. “We all are dangerous and it’s good. It’s getting better, with this season we have had a lot of injuries and I just arrived a few months ago. So, it’s not easy to find a good atmosphere, but it’s better when you play. It’s getting better day after day, game after game. And you can see that with all players and their confidence.”
Having overcome almost all of their injuries, with only Justin McMaster remaining unavailable due to injury, the only roster concern on the night will be the absence of Romain Métanire who will be serving out his red-card suspension after being walked out of the mid-week game in the 77th minute after an overly-heated reaction. Heath had not yet decided if he would play Dotson out of position or trust the younger DJ Taylor to fill Métanire’s spot.
Although the maths are still wide open, tonight does really feel like a make-or-break game for both teams: with a loss LAFC would seem to be out of the playoffs, while a win would put Minnesota squarely back into contention for a home playoff game, a rather unbelievable turn-around after their 0-4 start.
Justin McMaster - out (knee)
Romain Métanire - suspended (red card suspension)
Carlos Vela - questionable (quad)
Eduard Atuesta - out (shoulder/ankle)
Erik Dueñas - out (knee)
Julian Gaines - out (pelvic stress fracture)
Francisco Ginella - out (knee)
Mahala Opoku - out (knee)
Alvaro Quezada - out (chest)
Eddie Segura - out (knee)