And we are reminded at times that soccer means very little just as it can be a place of joy in sadness.
Minnesota United begin the second half of their season tonight against the LA Galaxy, a team they haven’t faced since 2019, a game that saw the Loons eliminated from their first MLS playoff appearance. After a disappointing 2020 the Galaxy have been resurrected under head coach Greg Vanney currently sitting at 3rd place in the West with a 10-6-2 record. Minnesota, meanwhile, continues its run of great results, having lost once in their last 13 since dropping their first four, and having risen to 5th in the West, with a record of 7-5-5. Historically the Galaxy have had the better of the Loons, winning five of their previous seven encounters and drawing twice. But playing at Allianz Field is getting even tougher for visiting teams as Minnesota hasn’t lost at home in their last six. The nationally televised game this evening sets up to be the highlight of the weekend as the Loons, facing a top of the league team, try to prove they are more than merely playoff contenders, and the Galaxy work to confirm their regained relevance.
Much of LA’s turn around this year can be attributed to the surprisingly quick success of Galaxy legend Vanney. As Minnesota head coach Adrian Heath said in anticipation of this weekend’s game, “I look at what Greg has done in such a short period of time. It’s amazing, really. Considering where the Galaxy were. So, he’s done a great job. He did a great job at Toronto. And we know, it’s going to be really, really difficult this weekend.” As a player Vanney was one of the league’s best defenders and for six seasons a central piece of the Galaxy’s early success. He has returned to his first professional home after a long stint in charge at Toronto FC, where he led the Canadian club to a domestic treble in 2017.
Vanney has enjoyed such quick success with the Galaxy by finding ways to mix a young crew of talent with established players and veterans. The return to form of Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, before going down with a calf injury in late June, was the best story in MLS. (If you haven’t seen that interview yet it is still worth a watch ) And veteran and established players like Jonathan dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget in the midfield and Jorge Villafaña on defense have provided the support from which youngsters Efrain Alvarez, Julian Araujo, Kévin Cabral, and Samuel Grandsir have developed into exciting levels of play. Alvarez and Araujo are especially promising, both having recently committed to play for Mexico at the international level (a decision that is quite difficult, as Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa recently wrote about in an important piece for The Players’ Tribune).
With the work of their front office during the secondary transfer window the Galaxy will also be adding to the mix Finnish defender Niko Hämäläinen and young Serbian forward Dejan Joveljić, with Joveljić’s signing being especially important for the Galaxy as Chicharito recovers from his injury. If the speed with which Vanney has been able to get these players together as a team has been surprising even more so is that their success has come without the full preferred XI being available due to injuries and international call-ups. The team heads into the second half of the season with a nearly full roster and a lot of questions to answer as to how to get the best of the players they have. Tonight’s game, then, is a first chance to see how good this Galaxy team can be. As Vanney noted, the game will be an “opportunity ideally to get some new faces out there to get them sort of into the mix and into the flow of the group and we’ll also have the opportunity to get some guys some minutes together who maybe are just starting to develop relationships on the field. So, this is a good opportunity for us.”
Although on a great run of results and now firmly established in the middle of the standings in the West, Minnesota is likewise still waiting to have their preferred XI available this season. Tonight should see for the first time the full defensive line as Michael Boxall appears fit and ready to play. With the success that Brent Kallman has had, Heath noted this week that there has been no rush to hurry Boxall back, allowing him plenty of time to fully heal. And the defensive unit has been quite good in spite of its unsettled nature, with Kallman and DJ Taylor stepping in to help the team collect six shut-outs. Although it may take a game or two to get fully sorted out it will certainly be good to have a full strength and full health starting defensive line playing as the team moves into the second half of the season.
Minnesota’s offense, though, will have to wait at least another week to be in full form as Franco Fragapane is not yet available. In his absence Heath seems to have settled on an offensive front of Ethan Finlay, Adrien Hunou, and Robin Lod playing around Emanuel Reynoso, a decision that has led to some awkward substitutions as the team continues to be in search of wingers when Lod is moved into a forward position. Even as the results continue to come, they have not been convincing largely because the offense has not been able to sort itself out.
In a wonderful look at the first half numbers, Spencer Hanson pointed out a rather shocking statistic: in the first half of the season Minnesota had a G-xG (the number of goals scored minus expected number of goals scored) of -5.2, 23rd worst in the league. It is possible to take from these numbers that, with a relatively good xG, the underlying fundamentals of the offense are in place - they are creating chances - and all that is needed is a bit of patience for the team to catch up with what it is capable of. But as the Loons enter into the second half of the season surely patience must be getting tested and something else will be necessary. Whether we see that tonight or not remains a question.
It is telling, though, that the biggest news to come from the secondary transfer window as we head into tonight's game is not a new signing but the departure of two players and the announcement of a new CEO. After doing very little to recognize the buy-out of Ike Opara’s contract the club did even less to acknowledge that Ramón Ábila had been waived. The only official announcement came after Ábila had been picked up by DC United, while the club acquired $75,000 in 2022 General Allocation Money from D.C. United for the right of first refusal for defender Jose Aja. The terms of the deals are not quite clear, with, most importantly, no indication of how much the Ábila signing will cost the team.
The one signing of note from the secondary transfer window was 20 year old Honduran youth international midfielder Joseph Rosales on an 18-month loan from CA Independiente de La Chorrera of the Liga Panameña de Fútbol. Rosales is still recovering from recent knee surgery and so will not be available until after a few more weeks of rehabilitation.
The more important signing, of course, is new CEO Shari Ballard. When the club announced that current CEO Chris Wright would be stepping down at the end of the season they also indicated that a new CEO would be named within the month. Without context or much transparency many fans worried that this short timeline was an indication that MNUFC would take the easy path, hiring as Wright’s successor someone from within the fraternity of Minnesota soccer. With the choice of Ballard, who has spent much of her career at Best Buy and is well connected with Minnesota, the club has done something much more interesting than that. Joining Chicago Fire FC president Ishwara Glassman Chrein, D.C. United president of business operations Danita Johnson, and longtime Vancouver Whitecaps FC chief operating officer Rachel Lewis, Ballard comes into the league at an exciting time. What will come of that excitement, for the league and the club, remains to be seen, but for now, it seems, this can be a moment of optimism.
And so as we head into a game that has all the makings of a ‘game of the week’ it is possible to feel that sometimes sports are important for all the stories that lie just outside the field.
Franco Fragapane - out
Michael Boxall - questionable
Jacori Hayes - questionable
Ethan Zubek - out (Health & Safety protocols)
Javier Hernández - questionable
Victor Vázquez - questionable