For aspiring Minnesota United, ‘playoff mode’ hits now
To host a home MLS Cup playoff game at Allianz Field in November, the seventh-place Loons need to overcome an eight-point gap over fourth-place Portland.
The math is daunting for Minnesota United.
To host a home MLS Cup playoff game at Allianz Field in November, the seventh-place Loons need to overcome an eight-point gap over fourth-place Portland. (The Western Conference’s second, third and four seeds host first-round playoff games, while top spot gets a bye.)
Minnesota has seven regular-season games left to play, while the Timbers, fifth-place Real Salt Lake and sixth-place L.A. Galaxy each having six matches remaining. MNUFC (10-9-8, 38 points) will make up that difference when third-place Colorado comes to Allianz Field for a 3 p.m. kickoff Sunday.
So, is hosting a third straight home playoff game really attainable?
“Sure. Win seven games,” United owner Bill McGuire said during an interview Tuesday, the banner day his club was awarded the 2022 MLS All-Star Game.
Sitting across the table in the stadium’s suite level was MLS commissioner Don Garber, who replied: “Easy, peasy, lemon, squeezy.”
The commish and the owner both know how hard it is to put together a run like that. It’s the type of pace that would be out of left field for this Loons side, which has had to scrape together goals in 2021. It’s the type of streak that would set a MNUFC record, yet also not be completely unlike the eight-game unbeaten run (4-0-4) the Loons strung together at the end of the 2020 season.
With the Loons on edge of the playoff picture, just getting in at this stage of the season is the paramount goal. Three teams on the outside are within five points of Minnesota. If it goes south and MNUFC misses out on the playoffs all together, it could become, well, “stressed, depressed, lemon zest.”
By Chief Soccer Officer Manny Lagos’ calculation, the Loons’ route to a home playoff game focuses on the old adage: three points with home wins and one point with away draws. If Minnesota does that with four home games and three away to finish the year, they would average 2.14 points per game over the stretch, which would be more than half a point above their current pace of 1.41.
Manager Adrian Heath said for any of this to matter in a month’s time, Minnesota must beat the Rapids on Sunday.
“In the confines of my office, we’ve been through every sort of eventuality that we think teams are going to get,” Heath said Friday. “For the players, they just have to win the next game. Don’t get too focused on what is coming up after.”
Like a voodoo doll, the Rapids have stuck it to Minnesota in painful ways this season. Minnesota was desperately trying to get out of an 0-3 start to the season and took a 2-0 lead in Colorado on May 8 but gave up three goals in the final 33 minutes. On July 7, Minnesota came out flat and got smoked 2-0 on the road.
The club points to these games among the worst of the season.
The Rapids were on a 12-game unbeaten streak (6-0-6) before a 3-0 loss to first-place Seattle last Sunday, and Heath put Colorado coach Robin Fraser behind New England’s Bruce Arena for “manager of the year” this season.
The Loons have three starters (center back Michael Boxall, leading scorer Robin Lod and right back Romain Metanire) away on international duty, while the Rapids midfield could be a place to exploit with two key players gone (Mark Anthony-Kaye and Kellyn Acosta).
In the Loons last seven games, six are against teams in the playoff picture, four with playoff spots. They will play five games in a 16-day stretch by the end of October.
Three points on the road against last-place expansion side Austin FC next Saturday seems like a good opportunity to offset the pending challenge of Eastern Conference third-place side Philadelphia Union coming to St. Paul on Oct. 20.
L.A. Galaxy coach Greg Vanney mentioned the higher stakes this time of the year after a loss to MMUFC in mid-September, a comment Heath brought up Friday.
“It’s like you just sense that it’s more like playoff time,” Heath said. “The games mean so much more. … I think the gravity of losing a game now and somebody behind you winning and then you are looking at everybody’s fixtures, it’s almost like we are in playoff mode now. That is how we have to approach all the games.”
Loons' remaining schedule
Saturday — Colorado Rapids, 48 points
Oct. 16 — Austin FC, 25
Oct. 20 — Philadelphia Union, 42
Oct. 23 — Los Angeles FC, 34
Oct. 27 — Vancouver Whitecaps, 37
Oct. 31 — Sporting Kansas City, 52
Nov. 7 — Los Angeles Galaxy, 39