A 3-0 win over FC Dallas on Nov. 8 saw Minnesota United FC clinch a home playoff berth as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. The reward for that win? Playoff soccer in the middle of November at Allianz Field. An outdoor venue. In the snow.
Playing at home will be advantageous for the Loons in the first round, but there are plenty of obstacles that could, or are, holding them back. Injuries have hampered their success on the field of late, halting them from playing certain individuals in their natural positions, while relying on squad depth and backups to fill in for key starters who have missed minutes. Key midfielders Jacori Hayes and Ozzie Alonso have been sidelined with injuries, and their status for the Loons playoff match is still unknown. The COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in the squad too, with multiple players having to quarantine due to either contracting or being exposed to the virus.
The biggest threat to the Loons success heading into the playoffs, however, is the current ongoing FIFA international window.
The Loons have shipped out four players on international duty, with Jan Gregus, Robin Lod, Kei Kamara and Romain Metanire all traveling to represent their respective countries on the international stage. Loons head coach Adrian Heath has adamantly said throughout his tenure in Minnesota that he will never hold a player back from wanting to represent his country. He sees it as a “massive honor,” and that he knows from experience with the English national team. None of the four will be available for selection for MNUFC on Nov. 22 when they host the Rapids, as they will all have to quarantine for a minimum of nine days upon their return to the U.S.
With selection issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, squad injuries and international duty, the Loons will have to get creative when fielding a starting XI on the 22nd. Here’s how I would do it:
Defense: The key for the Loons going into the match is going to be keeping a clean sheet. Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair has been playing lights out as of late, and his stock is only rising. The Rapids will be without striker Diego Rubio, who is also on international duty at the moment, and that leaves the Colorado attack rather flat footed.
Assuming the Loons have a healthy Michael Boxall, he’s an automatic starter. The Kiwi has been the most influential player on their back line this season. Alongside Boxall, I would start Bakaye Dibassy at LCB — their partnership, when both are available, has been top-class. Chase Gasper then gets the nod at LB.
The biggest question for the Loons is who starts at RB with no Metanire. For me? I think it’s a no-brainer slotting Hassani Dotson there. He returned from injury on the final day of the season, and assuming he’s healthy, he starts there for me.
Midfield: The Loons midfield has been incredibly shorthanded as of late, but with the looming returns of both Alonso and Hayes, there might not be as much to worry about as previously thought. If both are healthy, Alonso and Hayes would be the two holding midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 formation for me. With no Gregus, getting those two back to match fitness should be the Loons’ top priority ahead of their date with the Rapids.
If neither are available, things get complicated. The second string options in the midfield would be Marlon Hairston and James Musa, but neither have started a match together or are natural defensive midfielders.
Attack: The key to the attack for Minnesota United is going to be the linking interplay between Kevin Molino and Emanuel Reynoso. Molino, who leads the Loons in goals, and Reynoso, who leads in assists, will keep the ball moving in the final third for Minnesota.
Molino was voted MLS player of the week on Nov. 9th, while Reynoso was voted MOTM in the Loons series finale against FC Dallas on Nov. 8th. Molino will line up at LW while Reynoso will be central at the CAM position. At RW would be Ethan Finlay, who has shown sparks and moments since his return from injury, but has struggled to show consistency on the pitch.
They will need the league veteran to step up in what might be their biggest match of the season. The only looming question for the Loons is who to start up top. Aaron Schoenfeld was declared out with an injury ahead of Decision Day, and with no Kamara, that leaves newly acquired Reno F.C. striker Foster Langsford as the only other natural No. 9 on the roster. Assuming Schoenfeld is healthy, he starts, but if that isn’t the case, Langsford has to be your man.