These are the nights for being tested in MLS, of playing through the grind.
“I think,” veteran midfielder Wil Trapp suggested earlier in the week, “it’s really just about being professional in how you prepare, in how you take care of yourself postgame and in preparation for the next game. And really, I think everybody just has to now exercise a little bit more of mental toughness and mental strength to get through the game, but also to get something out of the game.”
For Minnesota United to get something out of the game would mean to continue their five-game unbeaten streak. After finding some form with a convincing mid-week win against Austin FC, MNUFC now heads to Providence Park to face the Portland Timbers, currently 5th in the western conference, for the first time this season. Although only 1-2-1 in Portland, Minnesota has had success against the Timbers, with a 5-2-1 all-time record. A victory tonight would move the Loons ahead of Portland in an early and congested table.
But tonight’s game is the third of the week and comes on short rest. With a very late 8:30pm start time, delayed twice in an attempt to beat the forecasted triple-degree heat, the match will also feel, to Minnesota bodies, like a 10:30pm kick-off. And with Ján Greguš, Robin Lod, and Jukka Raitala on their way back to Minnesota from the Euro’s and so not yet available, head coach Adrian Heath is aware of the difficulty ahead. Responding after Wednesday’s game to his uncharacteristically American use of substitutions Heath said that “this Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, and the conditions, it’s not easy. I think they’ve given the temperature of 108 in Portland for the weekend. So, you know, it’s not going to be any easier. So, it’s nice to get [some of the players] off, even with only 20 minutes to go. I think that we’ll have a look at what we want to do at the weekend. We might have to freshen it up, certainly in the beginning.”
The worry, of course, is that freshening up the starting XI will stunt the still developing offensive rhythm of Franco Fragapane, Adrien Hunou, and Emanuel Reynoso. In their short time with the Loons Fragapane and Hunou have added a level of quality and a sense of possibility to the offense that had been missing for much of this young season. They have also shown an ability to play with Reynoso that belies their short time together. But as neither Fragapane nor Hunou are quite at full fitness yet one or both may need a rest. Reynoso, meanwhile, continues to take a beating every game, and so a rest might be good for him as well. With that, tonight could be a chance to get Ethan Finlay and Ramón Ábila back into the starting XI, and allow Aziel Jackson or Justin McMaster a long run of play.
After starting the season all in on Concacaf Champions League, only to be eliminated in the quarterfinals by Club América, Portland has struggled to find any rhythm this season, even as they are still sitting comfortably in the top half of the table. MLS teams, it seems, do not yet have the depth to compete in both their domestic league and CCL.
Portland, though, has also struggled with a series of injuries and so have played with an uncharacteristically fluid starting XI. In their own mid-week tie against Houston the Timbers did not have a DP in their starting XI, with Jaroslaw Niezgoda out after ACL surgery, Yimmi Chara away on international duty with Colombia, and Sebastián Blanco making a hesitant return from his own ACL surgery.
Yet the come-from-behind tie may have given them a bit of momentum before tonight’s game, especially as Jeremy Ebobisse finally got on the score sheet. And Portland is never without talent. As Trapp noted, even without Yimmi Chara the Timbers still have brother Diego: “I mean for the past 11 years, ten, 11 years, whatever it’s been, [Diego Chara] has been top one or two defensive midfielders in the league…. [and] the underrated part of his game is how he dictates the tempo for the team, and puts guys like [Diego] Valeri in good spots. So, if he’s playing, it’s always something you have to be aware of because he does really make them tick and move forward, but even guy’s like Eryk Williamson have done extremely well in his absence.”
Teams always have to be aware of Valeri, who is one goal away from 100 as a Timber. Even as he is nearing the end of his career, he can still find ways to score.
By most accounts Portland comes into the game as favorites. But with the heat and late start, this being a third game in a week for both teams, and Portland’s uneven season and injuries, it is the side stories, the possibility of young players getting a go or of Valeri getting a century, that offers the most interest. Aside from that, this will most likely be a grind of a game.
Ján Greguš - out (international duty)
Robin Lod - out (international duty)
Ike Opara - out (undisclosed)
Jukka Raitala - out (international duty)
Jeff Attinella (right rectus femoris surgery)
Ismaila Jome (left Achilles tendon surgery)
Marvin Loría - out (concussion)
Jaroslaw Niezgoda - out (left ACL surgery)
Cristhian Paredes - out (left thigh strain)
Andy Polo - (right quad and knee surgery)