With six games to go in the regular season, Minnesota United and the Colorado Rapids will both have an eye on the playoffs this afternoon. As Adrian Heath emphasized after practice earlier in the week, at this point “every game and every point is crucial.” This is Minnesota’s and Colorado’s game in hand - except for Colorado, Minnesota, the Seattle Sounders, and the Vancouver Whitecaps the rest of the West has the weekend off for the international break - so the remainder of the season will be played out even. The math remains tight and it is hard to say anything definitive, but in the West it seems that the top four is settling in to be Seattle (54 points), Sporting Kansas City (52), Colorado (48), and the Portland Timbers (46), with four, or possibly five, teams fighting for the remaining three playoff spots: Real Salt Lake (39), LA Galaxy (39), Minnesota (38), Vancouver (37), and possibly LAFC (34). With a win today Minnesota would get within range of the Timbers and a home playoff game, while Colorado will be looking to steal points on the road, further securing their place in the top four.
The Loons, of course, still have hopes of a top four finish, something that will require a great run of final form and a little bit of help. But as they have shown over the past three seasons, these Heath-led Loons seem to be made for that kind of short-run success. Without the depth, roster cohesion, or tactical identity to maintain a season-long run of consistency, Minnesota has never been in the conversation as one of the top teams in the league, but with a stingy defense and opportunistic moments of quality they can beat anyone on any given night. In 2019 they made it to their first playoffs off the lock-down defense of Ozzie Alonso, Ike Opara, and Vito Mannone, and occasional flashes of brilliance from Darwin Quintero and Mason Toye. In 2020 they went on a magical run, pulled through the playoffs by the beautiful revelation that was Kevin Molino and Emanuel Reynoso playing off another stingy defense. Heading into the final stretch of this season Alonso has re-found his form, Michael Boxall has taken over the defense, and Tyler Miller remains one of the league’s best shot-stoppers, while Franco Fragapane, Robin Lod, and Reynoso have shown themselves capable of wild moments of creativity. With that, a run is possible.
Meanwhile, Colorado is, in this sense, a mirror image of Minnesota. In his second full year in charge Robin Fraser is leading a consistently good team through a consistently good year. “Most of the teams I’ve been on it’s been 14 guys or so that play often,” Fraser said earlier in the season. “Obviously with the new sub rule, we’re somewhere up around 16-17 guys [that] are playing fairly consistently. And what that does for me is that brings more of a team feel. Everyone feels like they’re a part of it… And what we’re saying when we do that is we’re getting contributions from everyone.” The visitors will be without Kellyn Acosta and Mark-Anthony Kaye today, both called up for World Cup qualifying, but the absences will be easily covered by the rest of this consistently deep team. Playing a style that Chase Gasper described as full-team - “It’s a pretty direct game they play but it’s very efficient and as we’ve seen, with where they are in the standings, and everyone on the team, it’s like full team buy-in. When you do lose the ball in their attacking third, they do the counter-press and win it back and get back in the box as soon as possible” - the Rapids continue to function through their captain, Jack Price, while being led up front by Michael Barrios (7 goals, 4 assists). But it is the contributions from the rotating cast of Cole Bassett (3 goals, 3 assists), who turned down a summer move to Europe in order to try to win a trophy with his hometown team, Jonathan Lewis (5 goals, 1 assist), Diego Rubio (4 goals, 4 assists), and Andre Shinyashiki (4goals, 2 assists) along with an incredibly strong defense that has collected eleven clean sheets and conceded only 27 goals that has driven their success this season. Whether they have the ability to take control of a tight playoff game is yet to be seen, but for now, they remain simply a very good team.
As Colorado will be missing two players for international duty Minnesota will be without Boxall, Lod, Romain Métanire, Jukka Raitala, and Dayne St. Claire. Mid-week, Heath tried to be positive: “Let’s talk about the players who are here and not the ones who aren’t,” he insisted. “There’s nothing we can do about that. We’re fully aware of what was going to happen a few weeks ago when we got the invitation letters from the federations. We knew who was going to be gone. That’s what it is. Next man up. Step up. Come and give us a problem next week because you played that well this weekend.” Brent Kallman and DJ Taylor have proven more than capable of stepping up on defense. But Lod, leading the Loons with 7 goals and 5 assists, will be harder to replace, especially as Adrian Hunou seems to have fallen out of Heath’s plans as an offensive player. The return of Hassani Dotson and Ján Greguš will allow Alonso a much needed break, but this offense has had a hard time finding any form without both Lod and Reynoso.
Luckily for Minnesota Reynoso will be available this afternoon. In the 89th minute of Minnesota’s game last weekend Reynoso was shown a straight red card after a rather reckless and dangerous tackle. MNUFC quickly appealed the call, and on Friday the Independent Review Panel rescinded the card. Without explanation it was a surprising decision, but certainly a welcome one for the Loons. The Review Panel also rescinded Rapids’ defender Lucas Esteves’ red card, who will also now be available.
Minnesota has had, after a horrific start, a very good rest of the season to get them in playoff contention, but Colorado has only lost twice in their last 18, a quite remarkable run. The Rapids are also 6-4-3 on the road this season, even though they have had less success in Minnesota all-time, with only one win in four previous tries. But regardless fo that history, with both teams having one eye on the playoffs, this should be a very good game.
Minnesota United FC:
Ján Greguš - questionable (ankle)
Justin McMaster - questionable (thigh)
Michael Boxall - out (international duty)
Robin Lod - out (international duty)
Romain Métanire - out (international duty)
Jukka Raitala - out (international)
Dayne St. Claire - out (international)
William Yarbrough - questionable
Kellyn Acosta - out (international duty)
Mark-Anthony Kaye - out (international duty)