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Preview: Matchday 9, MNUFC vs Austin FC

On a big night at home, MNUFC looks to finally get the season going

Austin FC v Minnesota United FC Photo by Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images

When Austin FC return to Allianz Field tonight it will feel like much more than a mid-week game. Prior to kickoff the team will be hosting a free Covid-19 vaccination clinic on the great lawn.

It is also the annual pride game.

And it should be, finally, a (nearly) full house. “We’ve been waiting since, what, 2019 for this?” Michael Boxall noted. “I know the fans have been eagerly waiting to really lift the roof off of this place, so, we can’t wait and we need to give them a performance that’s going to match their sound in the stands, because we know it’s going to be loud.”

But for all of that, the game will still be a match-up between two teams sitting below the playoff line. It is still early in the season, and so that may not mean much, especially since a win might get either team back into contention. But these are still two teams struggling to find their way.

It is not unexpected, of course, for first year Austin FC to be having the start they are. After a decent beginning - losing to LAFC and then collecting two wins against Colorado and Minnesota - they have gone 0-3-3 in their last six, playing most recently to a scoreless draw against San Jose to open their stadium. Which is also to say that they had suffered a grueling eight game road trip to start the season. And if we use that to take their record and statistics lightly, this is a surprisingly well organized team. As Loons fans will remember from the first trip to St. Paul by the Verde, in a very short amount of time sporting director Claudio Reyna and head coach Josh Wolff have built a very strong foundation in Austin around a very young team. “I think Josh has done a great job in a short period of time,” head coach Adrian Heath said. “They’ve put a great first roster together. Claudio has been through that before so with him and Josh, they’ve put a really good roster together. Really well coached, well organized.” It is still possible in MLS to be a good playoff team with nothing more than effort and a bit of talent. But greatness now requires identity and style, and this Austin team seems to be willing to work for that. If the results are not there yet, they will come.

What results Austin FC has achieved have come largely from the stellar goal keeping of Brad Stuver, who leads the league with 47 saves, maintaining a save percentage (83.9%) only slightly lower than Tyler Millers (87.5%, with 14 saves in 5 fewer games), while their stuttering offense continues to be led by Cecilio Domínguez and Jared Stroud.

Much more, of course, was expected of this Minnesota United team. Coming off two seasons of vast improvement, many thought 2021 would be the year the Loons contended for Best in the West. But after a disastrous 0-4 start the four-game unbeaten streak that followed has not been convincing. Individual mistakes on defense are still quite common while an interesting offense remains unable to produce many goals.

The international break came at a perfect time for Minnesota as it gave the team a chance to recover from a host of lingering injuries. It also allowed new signees Franco Fragapane and Adrien Hunou to work their way into the team. The weekend game against Dallas FC provided a hint of the potential these two new Loons offer, with their goal-scorer’s ability to find space and create chances. Yet with Ján Greguš and Robin Lod still away on international duty, with Jukka Raitala, it won’t be possible for at least another week to know if that potential will turn into goals and wins. But with Emanuel Reynoso fully fit the team should be one step closer to its final form, as they continue to improve their form. As Boxall said, “We’ve never had issues with how we move the ball, but even we’ve improved on that. I think in the defensive third, we’re not allowing teams the time and space that we have in the first three or four games, that we’ve been punished for. So, we’ve tidied that up and we let our creative players do their things. And, it’s a lot more fun.”

After an ambiguous draw against Dallas to restart the season, where Minnesota controlled the first half of the game but were unable to counter Dallas’ half-time changes while missing too many quality goal scoring opportunities, the Loons will be looking to reward their fans with three points at home.

Availability report:

Minnesota United FC:

Ján Greguš - out (international duty)

Robin Lod - out (international duty)

Ike Opara - out (undisclosed)

Jukka Raitala - out (international duty)

Austin FC:

Danny Hoesen - out (left hip)

Daniel Pereira - out (right knee)

Aaron Schoenfeld - out (left knee)

Ulises Segura - out (left knee)

Ben Sweat - out (ACL)