After a brief international break Minnesota United begins what both Adrian Heath and Ethan Finlay agreed is the biggest week of the season with a trip to Seattle to face the first place Sounders. In this wildly compressed and strangely paced season Minnesota has a congested September with another pair of three-game weeks, and during the first week Minnesota faces three of the four teams that sit in front of them in the standings - at Seattle on Saturday, at Sporting Kansas City mid-week, and at home against the LA Galaxy on the weekend. Heading into the final stretch of the season the gap between the top four, with the Colorado Rapids the only team of that group that Minnesota isn’t playing in September, and the middle of the pack is holding: Minnesota sits 5 points behind fourth place LA Galaxy but only 6 points ahead of 11th place FC Dallas. With a game in hand against Seattle and the Galaxy and two games in hand against Kansas City the gap to the top four may not be as big as it seems, yet this week remains Minnesota’s best on the field chance to move into contention for a home playoff game and separate themselves from the middling bunch.
In MLS competition Minnesota has had little success against the Seattle Sounders, with their only win in eight tries coming earlier this year when the Loons ended the Sounders’ record breaking thirteen game unbeaten streak to start the season. That win, though, was against a severely injury-depleted Seattle team that was due for a loss. The more relevant history may still be the heartbreaking conference final collapse in 2020 and the 4-0 loss that began this season. Yet even though they are at the top of the table Seattle is having a strange run of form: prior to a loss to the Portland Timbers at home before the break they had been on a three game win streak. They are also, though, winless in their last four at Lumen Field.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is coming off an important road win against Houston. If the Loons are as good as they hope to be they should have been able to easily handle the last place and struggling Dynamo. But that win was still important. It got Adrien Hunou back on the score sheet while also giving the team a bit of confidence on the road. “I think it gave us that confidence,” Finlay said this week, “we know we can do it. We’ve been so close… It is a little bit of validation that this group can go on the road…. We can do this, we can close this thing out.” It was not a pretty game, Finlay admitted, but grinding out a win on the road might be the kind of momentum the team needs as they head to Seattle.
Many in Minnesota hoped the international break, with only Jukka Raitala and Romain Métanire called into national team duties, would get Minnesota over its injury troubles. “The break’s come at a really good time,” Heath noted midweek, especially “for the seven or eight injured that we’ve got who are now a lot lot closer to being available for selection… They’re all a lot closer now to being available….. They’re all a lot closer to playing now than they were two weeks ago.” And it was a good break as Franco Fragapane, Joseph Rosales, and Ján Greguš have recovered and are available tonight. The injury list has not been cleared - Juan Agudelo, Niko Hansen, Justin McMaster, and, most importantly Robin Lod and Emanuel Reynoso remain out - but the team is getting closer to full fitness.
As encouraging as this progress is, the most meaningful news to come out of the break for MNUFC is the two year extension of Michael Boxall’s contract. “I’m delighted that [my daughter] Maxwell has given me permission to stay here for a couple more years,” Boxall offered for the official announcement. Since his signing in 2017 Boxall has become the cornerstone player for the club as the roster has often ebbed and flowed around him. Though a quiet signing at first his presence and quality have slowly built and after a year playing alongside Ike Opara from whom he seemed to absorb the skills of on- and off-field presence he has rightfully become the captain of this team. It is a well-deserved extension.
After their own horrific run of injury troubles over the first half of the season Seattle appears to be back to full strength. The Sounders have, of course, been wildly successful with a new formation and an out-of-necessity XI, often playing the kids in a new to Seattle 3-4-3/3-5-2 formation that mostly ignores the left side of the attack. Much of their success can be attributed to the phenomenal season Raúl Ruidíaz is having up front with a league-leading 14 goals, the rise of the Roldan brothers who are both now league best in midfield and on the wing, and the continued rock-solid play of João Paulo who has controlled the middle of the field. Now, with Nicolas Lodeiro back as their attacking midfielder and defender Nouhou and goalkeeper Stephan Frei probably available, this team, aside from Jordan Morris, who is recovering amazingly fast from knee surgery, is mostly back to full strength. And with new Brazilian winger Léo Chú, who by all appearances is quickly acclimating to his new home, it is hard to imagine how good this team might be. Which poses its own problem: how will head coach Brian Schmetzer imagine this full team? Will they continue to play the 3-4-3/3-5-2 that has been so successful during Morris’ absence? With 8 clean sheets and only 19 goals conceded do they want to change this defense and their goalkeeping duties? Seattle is also heading into a tight run of play with their own set of two three-game weeks so that Schmetzer will also be thinking of how to integrate this new team and keep them fresh at the same time. Even if they are not yet used to playing together this will be a Seattle team that looks much different than the team Minnesota beat in July.
After the chemistry that new Loon Fanendo Adi and Hunou seemed to share in the second half against Houston a team in search of goals might be tempted to start them together in a rarely used two-forward formation. But with a healthy Fragapane able to relieve Hassani Dotson of his out-of-position play on the left and a still absent Reynoso creating a hole in the middle of the attack it seems likely that Heath will stick with his preferred road 4-3-3. In most other circumstances grabbing a point on the road, grinding out a win against the best team in the West, would seem an appropriate goal, but at this point in the season, at the beginning of this week of games, that might not be enough.
Jordy Delem - out (ACL tear)
Jordan Morris - out (ACL tear)
Abdoulaye Cissoko - questionable (concussion)
Minnesota United FC:
Juan Agudelo - out (thigh)
Niko Hansen - out (groin)
Robin Lod - out (calf)
Justin McMaster - out (thigh)
Emanuel Reynoso - out (hamstring)