When Minnesota United players returned last Thursday from a few days off, manager Adrian Heath started the training session on an easy note, having them take a seat on the grass at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
Heath then refreshed his team about where they sit in the Western Conference standings and the opportunities that lie just ahead. Minnesota (8-6-7, 31 points) is fifth in the West with just under 40 percent of the season remaining to move into the top four and take one of the coveted spots to host an MLS Cup Playoff first-round match in November.
The next three games look daunting, but they represent a great chance to gain ground. It starts with Saturday’s game at the first-place Seattle Sounders (12-4-6, 42 points), followed by Wednesday’s match at third-place Sporting Kansas City (11-5-7, 40) and then next Saturday’s home game versus the fourth-place L.A. Galaxy (11-8-3, 36).
“It doesn’t get any easier, does it?” Heath said in an interview after last week’s session. “… We’ve got three teams that have had a really good start so far.”
Minnesota has played one fewer game than Seattle and L.A. and two fewer than K.C.
Heath also has been reminding his side that this is near the time the Loons got red hot a year ago. In late September 2020, United FC went on an eight-game unbeaten streak to secure a home playoff game, then won two more games in the playoffs.
After their 2-1 comeback win at Houston on Aug. 28, Minnesota was off during the international break, while 18 of the 27 other MLS teams played games. The respite worked out well for the Loons, with two players away for World Cup qualifiers and a handful of players rehabbing injuries.
The break appears to help winger Franco Fragapane more than any other player. The new Argentine has missed the past eight games with a thigh injury but returned to full training on Thursday.
The Loons have had their top four attackers — Fragapane, Adrien Hunou, Robin Lod and Emanuel Reynoso — together during games for only 137 minutes this season, and that could change soon.
Lod (calf) and Reynoso (thigh) were progressing in their rehabs last week, but didn’t appear to be as far along as Fragapane. Backup attackers Juan Agudelo (thigh) and Niko Hansen (hamstring) also are on the road back to full training.
Minnesota could use more goals, where the team’s 24 goals in 21 games ranks fifth-worst in MLS. The Loons have been one of the stingiest defenses in the league, with 24 allowed. Both of those numbers improve dramatically after the Loons’ 0-4 start through early May.
The Loons’ first game in this upcoming stretch is arguably the toughest. Minnesota earned its first MLS win over Seattle in St. Paul in mid-July, but the Loons are 0-5 in games played in Washington, with two nightmares — the 3-2 loss in the West final last December, then the 4-0 defeat in the season opener in April.
The Sounders had six representatives in the MLS All-Star Game, but have gone 0-3-1 in their past four home games, so, again, opportunity is there.
“We’ve got to keep on the same vein we are doing,” Heath said. “Keep … believing in each other.”