After a disappointing week and with a worrying list of injuries, Minnesota United hope to find some kind of form tonight against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Stadium, a place they have never won in six previous tries.
The last time these two teams faced each other, at Allianz Field at the start of the month, the Loons came away with a win on goals from Robin Lod and Brent Kallman. Since that meeting both teams have had a rough August. In their three games since, Houston has lost to Colorado and Real Salt Lake and held, lost, then recovered a tie against Dallas. Minnesota, during that same stretch, has lost to the Galaxy, and tied San Jose and Kansas City while playing a man up for most of those last two games. As Adrian Heath noted mid-week, tonight’s game is big for both clubs as the standings in the West are tightening. “That pack behind us and the playoff line is getting congested,” Heath said. “Teams are picking up a lot of points around there. Every game is going to be important.” Currently in 5th place in the West, Minnesota is seven points behind 4th place Los Angeles Galaxy and a home playoff game. But the Loons are also only nine points clear of the Dynamo who are currently bottom of the table. The gap in the West between the top four and the rest continues to grow, and if Minnesota is not careful they risk getting left behind.
And so again, for a team that believes it should be one of the best in the West, tonight feels like a must-win. “We are expecting three points,” Michael Boxall said mid-week. “We have gone through far too many matches where we have dropped points and let results slip away…. Our mindset from the beginning of the season,” he continued, “was to host a playoff game and that’s what we are still pushing for. We have kind of let results slip away and we have left ourselves with a bit more work than we would like to do.”
Since leaking goals the first four games of the season, mostly due to individual mistakes on defense, the Loons have become quite stingy. Conceding ten in their first four games they have held their opponents to thirteen goals since, recording seven clean sheets along the way. Unfortunately the offense continues to struggle. As Ethan Finlay noted, in a much publicized interview with Michael Rand, when asked about the team’s offensive identity, “I think our identity for a very long time has been a team that first and foremost is very tough to break down defensively. And I still think that holds true with some of the results we’ve had and goals against that we’ve had. Where I think we don’t clearly have an identity is the possession aspect and what we’re doing with it. Our possession numbers are up from previous years, but what are we doing with that, how are we taking advantage of that and is it an advantage for us. For me, it’s looking at those types of metrics and establishing if this is our best playing style and if this benefits us going forward and how can we maximize it. ... We need to be better in the final third.”
Whatever problems the offense has in the final third are now exacerbated by the long absence of Minnesota’s leading scorer Robin Lod. Like Lod in his first season with the Loons, designated player and presumptive striker Adrien Hunou has yet to find his rhythm in the offense, and, like Lod in that first season, it has become clear that Hunou is simply out of place where he has been played, at the front of this offense as it now works. Equally problematic is the continued play of Hassani Dotson out of position on the left side of the offense. Something must be done to get both Dotson and Hunou into more productive positions, something that Heath has not been able to figure out.
In many ways, of course, the offensive woes stem from the injury crisis that has hit Minnesota of late. With Franco Fragapane, Niko Hansen, and Lod all spending extended time on the injured list and Emanuel Reynoso not quite staying fully fit, missing the all-star game as well as tonight’s, it is understandable that the offense has failed to find its rhythm. It now also seems that Juan Agudelo, who left practice early on Thursday, and Justin McMaster are to be added to the injured or not quite fully fit list as well. With the injury crisis the team is going through, the recent loan of young Aziel Jackson to North Carolina FC is oddly timed as the team takes the field in Houston with only 13 or 14 field players.
On Friday the club announced the signing of 30 year old journeyman Fanendo Adi. The Nigerian forward had his most productive spell in MLS with the Portland Timbers from 2014-2018 and was signed to a one year contract, an emergency signing. Having practiced with the team during the week Adi may be available tonight, adding his name to the long list of Minnesota United strikers.
With all of that, heading into the final long push of the season it is hard not to wonder after the internal feeling of a team that seems to still be searching for itself.
Houston comes into the night with their own struggles. Winless in their last 14 they will be looking for only their fourth victory at home on the season. The club brought in head coach Tab Ramos, who will miss tonight’s game due to a family medical emergency, in 2019 to begin a rebuild around youth after a successful stint coaching the U-20 national team. That task was made almost impossible by the disruptions of COVID-19 last season and continues to be a work in progress this season.
Led up front by Maximiliano Urriti, with six goals and two assists, and Fafa Picault, with six goals and three assists, Houston’s offense has been joined of late by young Toronto FC product Griffin Dorsey while they wait for recent LAFC signing Corey Baird to find his place in the attack. Often playing in a 4-3-3 Matías Vera has moved into a more attacking midfield role alongside Adalberto “Coco” Carrasquilla, the young Panamanian midfielder on loan from FC Cartagena, sitting ahead of Darwin Cerén or Derrick Jones in the defensive midfield position. If on paper this looks good, Houston, like Minnesota, has one of the worst offenses in the league, tallying only 23 goals on the season, one better than Minnesota. But unlike Minnesota, who have been good in the build-up of play but unable to score, Houston has been unable to control the ball, averaging 44% possession on the season while completing only 76% of their passes.
Houston, like Minnesota at the beginning of the season, are also suffering from individual mistakes on defense, conceding 32 goals so far this year, 6th worst in the league and nine more than Minnesota. Although the back line of Teenage Hadeb, Adam Lundqvist, captain Tim Parker, and Zarek Valentin is fairly well set, they have struggled.
The absence of Reynoso tonight presents an opportunity for Minnesota to try something different in an effort to get their offense going. Heath has often preferred a defensive 4-3-3 on the road, but he has also been at his most creative when forced into decisions he wouldn’t otherwise make. Maybe tonight, with so few options, he will find a way to give this offense a new look and a stronger identity. If not, this could be another game in a long and difficult August.
Nico Lemoine - out (right groin injury)
Corey Baird - questionable (lower body injury)
Tyler Pasher - questionable (right lower body injury)
Bakaye Dibassy - suspended (yellow card accumulation)
Franco Fragapane - out (thigh)
Niko Hansen - out (hamstring)
Joseph Rosales - out (knee)
Ján Greguš - out (ankle)
Robin Lod - out (calf)
Emanuel Reynoso - out (thigh)
Justin McMaster - out (thigh)
Juan Agudelo - questionable (thigh)