Riding a six-game unbeaten streak that head coach Adrian Heath attributes to “a steely resolve not to get beat” it is hard to imagine Minnesota United’s game tonight against the San Jose Earthquakes as a must-win. But currently sitting in 10th place and arriving at Allianz Field without a win in their last seven, and now without a general manager after Jesse Fioranelli was fired mid-week, San Jose comes into the night reeling. These are the games that good teams, at home, should win; anything less than three points for the Loons will be a disappointment.
It would be an easy game for the Loons to overlook. The team is still in the midst of an ongoing investigation into the accusation of racial abuse during the Portland game and the locker-room dynamics of what actually happened on the field. This is also on paper the easiest match in a tightly packed two-weeks of play and follows an important and difficult late-night win in the heat at Portland. There is a danger of looking past the San Jose Earthquakes to the upcoming trip to fourth place Colorado Rapids on Wednesday, which might feel to be a much bigger game.
Even as San Jose is now struggling, they have been under head coach Matías Almeyda a very streaky team, always capable of offering something incredible, sometimes incredibly good, sometimes incredibly bad. The scoreline against Minnesota is a testament to San Jose’s wide-open play: although after eight meetings all-time the series is tied at four wins a piece, the Loons have had the better of the series of late, going 4-0 in their meetings since Almeyda has taken over with the teams averaging 4.75 goals a game in that time. Stubbornly sticking to a high-intensity style that relies on quick defensive decision making to mark-up tight, even as they have often not had the players or roster depth to make it sustainable, San Jose is just as capable, on any given night, of a 5-3 win as they are an 0-4 loss.
As Tyler Miller said, “[San Jose] is a team that we have a good history with, and leading into this game, we’re on a good run of form right now but every game presents its new challenges and its unique opportunities for us to step up to the level and raise our game. Yes we have been unbeaten in six games but I still think there’s moments in games where we can improve and win games a little bit easier and make plays a little bit easier on ourselves. We just need to keep improving in training and approach San Jose how we’ve approached the last six games and we’ll have a good opportunity to win.”
Only a few days after the long overdue departure of Fioranelli, it is still too early to know what the next version of the Quakes will look like. For now, they are led by the young not-a-Loon-St. Paul-native Jackson Yueill, the even younger Cade Cowell, and lone designated player Cristian Espinoza. Yueill is quickly becoming a great deep playmaking midfielder, having just been called up for the USMNT Gold Cup qualifications, and if he and Hassani Dotson share the field at all tonight there will be much daydreaming in the stands about what might have been if MNUFC had the developmental system to entice great local talent. Not having yet fully secured a place in the starting XI, Cowell’s speed and physical presence make him a goal scoring threat whenever and however he gets on the field, leading the Quakes with three goals and three assists on the season. And although right-winger Espinoza has had a slow start to this season he has tallied six goals and an astounding twenty-four assists in his short two-plus seasons with San Jose and will certainly pose a challenge to the returning-to-form Chase Gasper.
The Minnesota defense might also have a bit of trouble with their shape as Romain Métanire returned home to France to work on his green card. With Jukka Raitalla back from international duty and Dotson available to play out-of-position with Ján Greguš’ return from international duty the Loons will certainly have enough defensive talent on the night, though the chemistry and positioning might be hard to sort out.
Many fans had hoped that tonight’s game would be a first chance to see in full the new Minnesota offense with Robin Lod’s return from international duty. But with his stopping home in Finland to work on his own green card, that debut will have to wait a bit longer.
The big question on the night will be in the center of the field. During Greguš’s absence Dotson, Jacori Hayes, and Wil Trapp stepped up their play, with Trapp especially having some great games as a deep playmaker. If Greguš at times can show more skill than Dotson or Hayes, Heath has not yet figured out how to play him for his best or who to play him with. In his absence the Loons midfield was not always as good but it certainly worked better so it will be interesting to see how Greguš is reintroduced into the team. A solid game from the playmaking midfielder(s) is especially important against San Jose whose defense can often be easily unlocked with a quick opening pass in attack.
Regardless of the level of play or the final score, the highlight of the night for many will be a final chance to see Chris Wondolowski in person at Allianz Field. Announcing his retirement before the 2020 season went sideways, Wondo decided to return for one last go in 2021. Mostly playing off the bench this season, the MLS legend and San Jose stalwart will end his career as one of the most prolific and consistent goal-scorers in league history, holding almost all of the league’s goal scoring records. Whatever else the night brings, fans can hope for one last chance to witness some tenacious Wondo greatness.
Robin Lod - out (other)
Romain Métanire - out (other)
San Jose Earthquakes:
Matt Bersano - out (left knee)
Luciano Abecasis - questionable (right thigh)
Carlos Fierro - questionable (left thigh)