With another opportunity to make up ground in the West, Minnesota United travels north for a third and final meeting against the Vancouver Whitecaps. “We need to try and win the game,” Adrian Heath said before the team left. “If we come out of it with something, it sets us up nice for two games to go. We’ll be in the top seven, which is what we aimed at at the beginning of the season. Still in our own hands.” When the season began the expectation for this team, both internally and externally, was a top-four finish and a home playoff game. After a very bad start and a year in which they were never quite able to find their rhythm, expectations have been lowered. With three games to go, though, anything still seems possible, a home playoff game or an early end to the season. It is up to the team to decide what they want.
Five points separates 4th place Portland Timbers from 9th place LAFC, and yet on a weekend when a win would have helped lock any of those teams into the playoffs, ties were the order of the day. Now, another two-game week has begun. LAFC, barely hanging on in the playoff race after their tie against Minnesota, made quite the statement taking 3 points against Seattle last night. Portland should be able to pick up points against San Jose, as the LA Galaxy face the toughest match of the night traveling to Sporting Kansas City. Real Salt Lake have the easiest go of it facing the already eliminated FC Dallas. With three games to go in a season that seems unending, anything remains possible, if only a team decides it wants it.
Minnesota’s two previous meetings with Vancouver this season, a win in Minnesota and a tie in Sandy, Utah, Vancouver’s long-time temporary home, don’t provide much guidance for tonight. Since that last game the Canadian border has reopened and after starting the season 4-7-8 Vancouver has gone an astonishing 7-2-3 after being able to return home. They also have a new coach. The firing of Marc Dos Santos was a bit of a shock to many, but the team has gone 6-2-3 since. It really is impossible to know if that run should be attributed to the work of interim head coach Vanni Sartini or the end of the team’s dislocation. Especially when it is added that from prior to their move and their coaching change, Vancouver has gone 9-2-8 over their last 19 games, the strongest stretch in the league. For Heath it’s a little bit of both. “It’s never easy in Vancouver,” he said. With a nod to their return home he noted the “plastic pitch and the way that it is.” He also noted the work Sartini has done, offering that “they’ve got a little bit of confidence going. They’ve changed the shape of the team…. They’ve got a lot of belief in the group. Bryan Gauld has come in and gave them a little spark. Brian White has done really well of late. Their two wingers, [Cristian] Dajome and Deiber [Caicedo] have done really well.” It is, in other words, a good, well coached team, that feels comfortable at home, and has found its form at the right time.
But after a disappointing tie against San Jose over the weekend Vancouver faces a difficult end to their season - they travel to LAFC on the weekend and then close out the season at home against Seattle. It seems they will need something special if they aren’t going to waste the incredible second half they have had.
Minnesota likewise comes into tonight’s match off a disappointing tie looking forward to a tough end to the season - at home against Sporting Kansas City, finishing away to the LA Galaxy. Yet the Loons also finally have a nearly full team available, including their preferred front four. With Justin McMaster remaining injured, the only other absence on the night will be Chase Gasper, serving out a yellow card accumulation suspension. Hassani Dotson, Jukka Raitala, or DJ Taylor would all be available to fill in for Gasper tonight, although the decision might rest on how much Heath trusts Ozzie Alonso’s fitness. Alonso has been playing some of his best soccer of the season, named to the MLS team of the week after his performance against LAFC, but he will, at some point, need a rest. If that rest comes tonight one option in midfield would be Ján Greguš, although he has been relegated to the deep end of the bench and so it is hard to see Heath turning to him now. The more likely choice would be to allow Dotson to spend an evening playing centrally. That would then leave the also relegated to the deep end of the bench Raitala or the young and not fully trusted Taylor to play for Gasper. Although this is the deepest Minnesota United roster in their five year MLS history, the inability of the team to fully integrate and develop that depth still makes the loss of even one key player a challenge.
Even this late in the season that lack of integration is still apparent up front. On the weekend, Minnesota put on a dominating performance against a chaotic and narrow LAFC. Yet for all their control of the game, the front four still looked out of synch and out of sorts, only able to generate one goal. The three they put up against a very good Philadelphia Union team last week were not that impressive, either, coming as they did from some very cheap give-aways and defensive mistakes. Franco Fragapane, Robin Lod, and Emanuel Reynoso have all shown their quality up front; the fourth position, though, is yet to be taken. The most obvious line-up seems to be with Lod up top and either Ethan Finlay or Niko Hansen out wide, but Heath seems committed to Adrien Hunou.
Whatever line-up is brought out tonight, the front four will have to find its form and quickly if Minnesota hopes to make any kind of run into the playoffs.
Caio Alexandre - out (left foot, fifth metatarsal fracture)
Tosaint Ricketts - out (right calf strain)
Janio Bikel - questionable (left adductor strain)
Andy Rose - questionable (left calf strain)
Justin McMaster - out (thigh)
Chase Gasper - suspended (yellow card accumulation)