On Saturday Minnesota United (2-4-0, 12th in the Western Conference) travels to Sandy, UT to take on Real Salt Lake (2-1-2, 8th in the Western Conference). It would be easy to figure the game as a tale of two teams moving in different directions.
After their historically bad start the Loons head to Rio Tinto Stadium on a two-game win streak while Real, after winning their first two have since gone without a win in their last three. Even as Minnesota remains near the bottom of the table, with three points on Saturday they could head into the international break feeling like they have earned a fresh start.
Yet it is hard to know what kind of momentum Minnesota will carry into the game, sandwiched between a bye week and an international break. The win streak itself has not been impressive: offensively the team still seems out of rhythm even as the defense has tightened up. And although Real boasts the third best home record in the west since joining the league, United, 4-2-4 against Real all-time, are a bit ambiguous about Sandy: with no wins there but also only suffering one loss, it’s been mostly a one point town for the Loons.
It would also be easy to figure this as a revenge game. Many in Minnesota remember the early season loss to Real, a game that fans and players felt was won with a heavy dose of theatrical dark arts. It was also a loss that spoiled the Loons 2021 return to playing in front of a home crowd. But the villain of that game, goalkeeper David Ochoa, will be missing this one. Ochoa, who, we all remember, has an edge but is not that good, has been good enough to be called up to the US men’s national team for their friendly against Switzerland.
This is also a much different United team than the one that played that day. Ramón Ábila, who was scratched after rushing too quickly into his new team, is much closer to full fitness while Bakaye Dibassy, who was also out the first game with a thigh injury that lingered much longer than expected, is now also fully recovered. After less than a week of full team training new signings Franco Fragapane, who was playing regularly in Argentina before being signed, and Adrien Hunou, who was not playing regularly in France before being signed, will both be available. Although even as they looked good in their first few training sessions with the team, their integration, head coach Adrian Heath said on Thursday, is still a “work in progress.” And Chase Gasper and Romain Métanire seem to have found their rhythm as the entire defensive unit has claimed two clean sheets from the last two games.
The biggest difference, though, will be the absence of Emanuel Reynoso, who is listed as out with a left knee injury. Having trained on his own for much of the runup to this weekend’s game, Heath said on Thursday that Reynoso was “virtually there.” On the chances of his starting Heath added that “it’s a case of whether ... we get to the stage where we feel as though we might do him more harm than good for 90 minutes with the two weeks after. We’ll probably make a decision with that on the day.” And so the decision has been made for caution. So far this season almost all of Minnesota’s offense has passed through Reynoso; missing him might force some creativity but it is hard to imagine how the Loon’s might play without him.
Given all of that change, then, maybe this is a contest between two clubs and two plans. Against Minnesota’s continual roster movement Salt Lake has one of the most grounded and solid programs in MLS, with eleven homegrown players on the senior team, nine of whom have come through the RSL Academy system. But for all the organizational stability and tactical cohesion that RSL’s academy system provides, head coach Freddy Juarez, who also came through the academy’s coaching ranks, is having a difficult time finding a preferred XI. Andrew Brody, Justen Glad, Erik Holt, Marcelo Silva, and Donny Toia have all had time in various configurations as the starting defensive unit. And up front while Rubio Rubin continues to be a revelation as designated player Damir Kreilach does what he has always done, Albert Rusnák, Real’s second DP, has struggled, forcing Juarez to continually work his entire offense in hoping to find a combination to unlock everyone at once.
It’s hard to know what to expect this Saturday. In the end it might just be a final early-season game before a long break. A game for Dibassy to run off some rust. A chance for Fragapane and Hunou to get a few real minutes with their new teammates. And one last outing before Ján Greguš, Lod, and Jukka Raitala head off to the Euro’s. Maybe it is just a chance to get a point on the road before the heart of the season begins in June.