It has taken most of the season to happen, but in a mid-week match in late September Minnesota United finally face an Eastern Conference opponent. After a second year when being responsible to player’s health has been more important than a balanced schedule, Minnesota last played D.C. United in 2019, so there is not much recent history. There is not much of a longer history, either, as the two teams have only faced each other three times, with Minnesota holding a 2-1-0 record in those games. So the conference heavy schedule this season makes it difficult to know what to expect. As Tyler Miller said before traveling out east, “It’s always difficult when you cross conferences and you don’t play against these teams that often and you don’t have a feel for how exactly they are going to play.”
It’s also difficult to make any cross conference comparisons, even as many consider the West to be the stronger conference this year. But there is a surprising similarity between the Western and Eastern conferences heading into the final push of the season. Both Minnesota and DC United sit in 6th place on 37 points. While the West continues to be led by 3 teams, the Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, and the Colorado Rapids, the East is led by 2, the New England Revolution and Nashville SC. And in both conferences there is a tight cluster of teams who are, at the low end, fighting to stay in the playoffs and, at the high end, searching for a home playoff game. For the West that means 7 points separating 4th place Portland from 10th place San Jose, while in the East it means 9 points separating 3rd place NYCFC from 11th place NY Red Bulls. And at this point, securing a home playoff game or having an early end to the season seem to be distinct possibilities for DC United, who are 1 point out of a home playoff game and 1 point clear of being out of the playoffs, as they are for Minnesota, who are 3 points out of a home playoff game and only 4 points clear of being out of the playoffs.
Minnesota comes into tonight’s game with the ambiguity they have carried all season. After a convincingly strong win against the LA Galaxy they struggled to what Ethan Finlay called a “somber three points” against the Houston Dynamo. With their preferred front four finally available against LA, and the defense doing what the defense has done, the Loons showed the early season promise that had the team and many fans dreaming of a top four finish. The creativity of Robin Lod and Emanuel Reynoso, the hard working skill and vision of Franco Fragapane, and the always-on effort of Ethan Finlay was able to produce 5 goals in just under 110 minutes. A productivity reminiscent of Minnesota’s 2020 playoff run. Against LA and at the start of the game against Houston, it seemed like Minnesota was getting ready to make a strong end of season push into the playoffs.
And then they offered 70 minutes of the kind of lackluster and sloppy play that has been too familiar all year, as a clean-sheet win against Houston was saved by Finlay’s effort covering for some optional defending and another outstanding performance from Miller in goal. Against a struggling Houston Dynamo that kind of performance, 20 minutes of good and 70 minutes of not so much, was enough to hold the win.
It certainly won’t be against a DC United team that has found it’s form.
After struggling of late to show the quality that had made them one of the best franchises in the early decades of MLS, new head coach Hernán Losada seems to have turned DC United around. Like Minnesota, DC is recovering from a rough start as the team worked to find the fitness to play a new high-intensity, vertical, and direct style. “As a young coach, full of energy like me,” Losada reflected in a recent interview, “you start and you want everything after a few weeks and that was something that I needed to understand – that I was arriving to a new culture, to a new club, a new mentality, a new league.” But now that he and his players have found their way DC looks to threaten the top of the table heading into the final weeks of the season.
In that same interview Losado also acknowledged that he is “paid to make players better,” a coaching philosophy reflected in Ola Kamara’s stunning campaign, as the 31 year old striker, who some thought wouldn’t find a place in the team, is the league’s leading goal scorer with 16 on the season, while chipping in 4 assists for good measure, in Andy Najar’s conversion into a solid center back after a series of injuries that almost derailed the young wingers career, in Jullian Gressel’s development into a creator out wide, coming into tonight’s game with 11 assists, and in the early development of young phenoms Moses Neyeman and Kevin Paredes.
Playing a direct and high-intensity style built around rejuvenated veterans and up-and-coming kids with a solid core, DC United is, as Miller said, “a dangerous club. They have been able to string a lot of good results together and they have made Audi Field a very difficult place to play.” With 9 wins from 12 games, yes, DC is very good at home. As is well known Minnesota has preferred to play a conservative 4-3-3 on the road, but with Hassani Dotson and Ján Greguš unavailable and Ozzie Alonso and Wil Trapp finally figuring out how to play together Heath might gamble on Ozzie having one more game in his legs, a gamble all the more risky against such a direct team. But that directness also often leaves DC United vulnerable on defense, as their 45 goals on the season is balanced by their 38 conceded. It is hard to imagine Minnesota wanting to let the game get too open, but they have shown they are at their best relying on a strong defensive performance and a moment of individual greatness. But in this first look at the East, it seems anything might be possible.
Brendab Hines-Ike - out (hip)
Adrien Perez - out (foot)
Ramon Ábila - out (groin)
Drew Skundrich - questionable (hamstring)
Chris Odoi-Atsem - questionable (quad)
Minnesota United FC:
Hassani Dotson - out (knee)
Ján Greguš - out (ankle)
Justin McMaster - out (thigh)