The last time Minnesota United played the Vancouver Whitecaps was an early season turning point. Coming into that match having lost their first four of the season and playing quite badly, it was the first game for the Loons in front of a home crowd, even if only a partial one, in over a year. A kind of homecoming and club reset as CEO Chris Wright described it. Having just signed Ramón Ábila the team was still waiting on the ever allusive 2-3 more signings that would end up being Franco Fragapane and Adrien Hunou. But at that moment the great promise of the 2021 season had not yet materialized.
Much of the game was quite frustrating - the team continued to look a half-step off, not quite connecting passes, not quite timing runs, not quite playing together. But there was a moment, about half-way through the second half, when the season changed. After another poor giveaway in a promising build-up - a wide open Emanuel Reynoso was left begging for the ball - a resignation fell on Allianz Field. Fans returned to their seats with a sigh and the player’s shoulders dropped as they turned back on defense. It felt like the game might be over. But it didn’t happen. The team recovered and they pulled themselves back into the game, building to Ábila’s 72nd minute glancing header, securing the first win of the season and setting up an eleven game run of results in which they’ve gone 6-1-4, a run they are still on.
That first win against Vancouver was not pretty and the subsequent results have not all been convincing, but the season was turned around and a kind of identity was found. As Tyler Miller said after the midweek tie against LAFC, the team is “starting to find this resiliency that, maybe was lacking, or we didn’t know we had earlier on in the season. Now you’re really seeing guys that, when we’re faced with adversity, we’re able to handle it, we’re able to bounce back and have belief in ourselves, no matter what the scoreline is or how the game is going.” A thought repeated by Hassani Dotson: “This season we’ve had good play but with the first four losses that we took, we looked at each other and we realized that we needed to play with a little more grit, little more energy. That’s showed in the last two results coming back. And getting a good result for us. The mentality has been ‘it’s not over until it’s over’ and keep fighting and keep pushing and do your best and the rest will take care of itself.”
Tonight’s game marks the end of a good stretch of games since that first win against Vancouver. The season, it seems, has been salvaged. Minnesota is walking away from a tough run - having faced Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and LAFC, with a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday included, all without their captain, Michael Boxall - with at least seven points. They will certainly feel good about that. But as they remain in the middle of the pack in the West, currently in 6th with teams 4-8 all within five points of each other, this last game of the stretch is as important as all the rest. With Vancouver second to last in the West these are the games that good teams should win, but after three tough and emotional games their mentality will certainly be tested tonight. A win tonight and the rest of the season is Minnesota’s to take; a loss and it will seem they still have a lot of questions to answer.
Going into the game tonight the biggest question is still the offense, which, in spite of the run of results, has not yet found its form. As head coach Adrian Heath mentioned on Friday, part of that is bad luck and bad timing. Just after Fragapane and Hunou were signed, Robin Lod headed off to the Euro’s. And now that Lod is back Fragapane is out with an injury. And through all of it Emanuel Reynoso has struggled to get and stay at full fitness. Although the offense is on paper creating a lot of chances, those chances are rarely threatening so that, except for the developing chemistry between Lod and Reynoso and the intensity of Niko Hansen, the offensive play has rarely reached the level of its statistics. With Fragapane travelling with the team but listed as unavailable and Ábila not travelling, tonight might again be a struggle.
Early in the midweek game against LAFC Chase Gasper sustained a hip flexor injury, ending the longest run of minutes by a Loon this season. In that game, as he had done in Romain Métanire’s absence on the right, DJ Taylor showed himself to be more than capable of locking down the outside back position, as he will be called on to do again. Michael Boxall, meanwhile, remains close to being ready to play and has travelled with the team, but it is still a question whether Heath will give him one more week to recover or risk a quick return.
If their last meeting was a turn-around game for Minnesota, the loss plunged Vancouver into a rough run losing five straight. But after going six games with only one loss, even as that has really been a run of four ties, Vancouver may have settled down. They are also, though, still trying to figure out a preferred XI and tonight will be without Caio Alexandre and Lucas Cavallini, both unavailable due to yellow card accumulation suspensions, and it is not clear if goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau will be available after Canada was eliminated from the Gold Cup.
But more importantly for Vancouver tonight marks the end of their long Covid dislocation. With the Canadian teams able to again travel across the border, this will be Vancouver’s last ‘home’ game in Rio Tinto Stadium. They began their return home this week, training at their own facilities in Vancouver before returning to Sandy for the game, creating a bit of travel that will make tonight’s game feel like a true road trip for both teams. And now that the pandemic bubble has been broken will the players be distracted with thoughts of home? Or will they find the determination to leave Utah with a win? For both teams, it seems, tonight’s game is a marker in the season and a true test of determination and mentality.
Caio Alexandrea - out (yellow card accumulation)
Lucas Cavallini - out (yellow card accumulation)
Bruno Gasper - questionable (left ankle sprain)
Andy Rose - questionable (right hamstring)
Franco Fragapane - out (undisclosed)
Ike Opara - out (undisclosed)
Dayne St. Clair - out (international duty)
Michael Boxall - questionable (thigh injury)
Chase Gasper - questionable (hip flexor)