What was already going to be a difficult run of games for Minnesota United, currently fifth in the West at 7-6-5, got a lot harder last Saturday. Starting a three game week dropping points to the LA Galaxy on national television was “disappointing” - the description repeated by head coach Adrian Heath and captain Wil Trapp after the game. But the much bigger loss must certainly be the injuries to Niko Hansen - a right hamstring injury sustained earlier in the week - and Robin Lod - a calf injury sustained on Friday - both expected to be out for extended but undisclosed at the moment spells. Add to this the still uncertain status of Franco Fragapane - “we all hope sooner rather than later,” Heath vaguely offered on Saturday, “but he’s got one of them injuries that you know if he goes again, it’s a three or four months job. So, we’re hoping. He’s very close... The next stage for him is maybe four, five days of really intense work. If he comes through that, then maybe he’ll be available” - and an offense that was already struggling to click, Minnesota has scored the fewest goals of any team currently above the playoff line, is now in further trouble.
Against the Galaxy Heath remained with what was already known, shifting Hassani Dotson out to the left and inserting Ján Greguš alongside Wil Trapp, a reorganizing of the line-up that was serviceable, but clearly not enough. The second half substitutions - Justin McMaster coming on for Greguš on the left allowing Dotson to shift back to his more comfortable inside position and the now regular appearance of Juan Agudelo for Adrien Hunou - provided a step up in attacking possibility and energy. There was, Trapp said after the game, “a little bit of a reshuffling in the lineup to start, but a natural winger coming in like Justin [McMaster], I think just gives a little bit more continuity of that position. Hassani [Dotson], for all his qualities, he would probably prefer to play in the middle of the field, but he still does a great job when he’s out there. It’s really just about damage control for that first part, and really getting guys comfortable and confident in what their role will be.” On the road and on short rest Heath will obviously be tempted to go more defensive, especially after watching the opening minutes of San Jose’s last game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, as the Whitecaps were able to find a number of openings on the counter-attack. Historically in the Heath-era Minnesota has been at their best in a counter-attacking mode. With so much of their offense unavailable tonight presents itself an opportunity to hunker into a low defensive shape, maybe offering Michael Boxall a first start in quite some time, and hope for the best from Agudelo, McMaster, or Patrick Weah, all of whom have more speed than Hunou, and steal a point or three on the road.
Travelling to the West coast for what will feel like a very late game on exceptionally short rest and now short handed, Minnesota will face a San Jose Earthquakes team, currently in ninth in the West at 5-7-7, that seems to have finally found its form. Although coming off their own disappointing result - the scoreless tie against bottom of the table Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday - San Jose is unbeaten in its last eight.
In many ways Minnesota will be facing a quite different team than they drew at Allianz Field in early July. Recent signings Nathan and Jeremy Ebobisse have quickly integrated into the team, Nathan bringing a level of intensity to the defense while Ebobisse continues the attacking form he developed with the Portland Timbers. Ebobisse will be especially important on the night as the Quakes’ leading goal scorer Eduardo ‘Chofis’ López will miss the game on a yellow card accumulation suspension, an opening that might, with San Jose’s own three game week, allow young Cade Cowell a start.
San Jose is also now a team playing with a level of tactical flexibility not previously seen in Matias Almeyda’s tenure as head coach. Known for his stubborn insistence on high energy and tight man-marking, Almeyda has this season run out San Jose in a number of different tactical and organizational systems. Still playing with the high-intensity they have shown in the past, San Jose now also plays with an interchangeability and trust, an at times organized chaos reminiscent of South American versions of total football, that is working for them. “They have slightly changed the way they play,” Heath noted on Monday before the team left for their flight. “They are not as man-for-man all over the field and in some of the games they are playing five at the back and the five at the front just get after it. It’s a bit more of a hybrid [system] from where they were.” Led this season from the middle by Judson and Minnesotan Jackson Yueill, and the offensive creativity of Chofis and Christian Espinoza, it is hard to know how much Almeyda will want to rotate his own team which, also playing on short rest, has an even shorter turn around on the back half of the week, especially given their own long list of questionable players. But whatever this new look San Jose offers on the night they are still the team that began their current eight game unbeaten streak in the midst of an eleven game winless run. Which is to say, on any given night they are a team capable of beauty and something else entirely.
If there is one bit of consistency on this San Jose team it is Chris Wondowloski. The all-time leading goal scorer in MLS, Wondo has mostly played off the bench this season. But if he makes an appearance tonight it will be his 400th with the club, an individual achievement to be celebrated regardless of the outcome of the game.
San Jose Earthquakes:
Matt Bersano - out (left knee)
Eduardo López - out (yellow card accumulation)
Jacob Akanyirige - questionable (left lower leg)
Benji Kikanovic - questionable (right thigh)
Tommy Thompson - questionable (left knee)
Franco Fragapane - out (thigh)
Niko Hansen - out (hamstring)
Jacori Hayes - out (hamstring)
Robin Lod - out (leg)