Minnesota United FC began their 2020 season in unprecedented fashion. With astonishing road wins against the Portland Timbers and the San Jose Earthquakes; they were on top of the league in every sense.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Flash forward four-and-a-half months, and we have the MLSisBack tournament in Orlando where teams were compiled into groups and eventually a knockout round — FIFA World Cup style. The Loons managed to find their way out of the group stage, and more surprisingly, they advanced to the semifinals of the tournament before falling to eventual runners-up Orlando City. Again, the Loons were garnering national attention.
When the league came together to create a plan for teams to return to their home stadiums, with some even allowing fans on a limited basis, Minnesota was still seen as one of the top contenders in the Western Conference.
What followed was disappointment, inconsistency, injuries, injuries and more injuries. Phase 1 was a disaster for the Loons. The restart saw them lose starters Luis Amarilla, Ethan Finlay, Ozzie Alonso and bench figure Aaron Schoenfeld for extended periods of time. Schoenfeld just recently made his return to the pitch, but the other three are still sidelined. And they still don’t have the reigning defensive player of the year, Ike Opara, due to unknown circumstances.
However, the Loons still have a chance at redemption. They have nine more matches, including four at home, to finish out the 2020 season; a season where the Loons were once in pole position in the race for a Supporter’s Shield. A season where they are now desperately fighting off contenders to sneak into the playoffs.
Minnesota United played nine matches over the first half of the league-issued restart and ended with a record of 2-5-2 (WLD). The Loons compiled a -5GD over those nine matches, collecting a measly 8 out of a possible 27 points against their opposition. In addition to that, the Loons are currently riding a four-match winless streak. It’s safe to say things did not go to plan nor did their early-season success carry over into the latter half of the season.
However, as noted above, the Loons have an opportunity to climb the Western Conference table and establish themselves as a dominant team once more.
Minnesota will have five home matches and four on the road to end their season. The nine matches will be played over the course of 36 days; an incredibly-tight schedule that has them playing three matches in one week at times. Those five home matches will prove crucial for the Loons, considering they haven’t won on the road since March 7th. They could earn up to 15 points at Allianz Field. If they were to manage five wins at home, that would all but secure them a playoff spot come November.
It’s a nice thought, but five wins at home seems to be an unrealistic expectation for Minnesota based on their form of late. The Loons currently find themselves sixth in the West, five points behind the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders.
Eight teams from the Western Conference will advance to the playoffs, but that doesn’t come without tight-knit competition. Currently, a mere six points separate first from eighth in the West in what might be the closest season there has been in recent years. It’s fair to say that there is no team from the West that could be excluded from playoff contention — 12th place San Jose only finds themselves four points out of 8th place, the lowest seed of the playoffs.
Minnesota finds themselves in a unique position though. Over their final nine matches of the season, they’ll play five matches against opposition that finds themselves outside the playoff picture. Their four remaining matches, however, will all be against teams who lie in third, fourth and fifth in the Western conference currently.
The key for the Loons here is not strictly earning results at home, but finding success on the road against the teams who find themselves looking in on the playoff race. Of the five teams who don’t find themselves in a playoff spot currently, Minnesota United will meet three times at home and twice away against those sides. If the Loons can draw or a win against those sides, they’ll be in great shape. Ideally, if Minnesota can acquire 10 points from those five matches, they’ll be sitting comfortably.
The bigger picture here is finding consistency. The Loons only claimed three points twice through their first nine matches of the league restart; that’s not good enough for a team who sees themselves as a playoff contender. Sacrificing points at Allianz Field is something they can no longer allow due to their struggles on the road.