The East-West imbalance of the 2021 MLS season — and how Minnesota United is approaching it — came into focus Wednesday.
With only two of 34 games against clubs in the other conference, the Loons know games against East foes don’t carry as much weight as head-to-head matches against fellow sides in the West.
Amid three games in eight days, Minnesota brought a defensive-minded shape, left two starters back home and made wholesale attacking changes in the second half before falling 3-1 to D.C. United at Audi Field in Washington.
The Loons will go back on the road to face the West’s FC Dallas on Saturday and have one more game against the East: Philadelphia on Oct. 20, which also comes in the middle of a three-games-in-eight-day congestion.
Minnesota trailed 2-1 at the half.
Goalkeeper Tyler Miller kept the Loons in the game with a save of Ola Kamara’s penalty kick in the 52nd minute. The PK was charged to Bakaye Dibassy and was started with Franco Fragapane’s midfield giveaway.
In the 85th minute, Junior Moreno’s shot took a deflection of Joseph Rosales into the back of the net to seal the loss.
D.C.’s first penalty didn’t end as fortuitous for Minnesota. In the 23rd minute, Loons left back Chase Gasper was called for a penalty on his challenge of Andy Najar, and Kamara went to the spot. He put D.C. up 1-0 with his league-leading 17th goal of the season, including eight from the penalty spot.
Minnesota equalized in the 40th when Fragapane’s long-range free kick was well-placed into the box, and Dibassy got on the end for a leaping header to the back post.
Minnesota had nothing else of note in attack.
Just before halftime, Dibassy went out to the sideline, vacating space on the left side of Minnesota’s three-center-back shape. Julian Gressel filled the opening, one-touched a pass from Kamara and finished to put D.C. up 2-1 at the half.
The Loons changed their shape from a 4-2-3-1 to a 5-2-3 (and 5-4-1 in defense), showing their aim was to try to get one point in a draw against an Eastern Conference foe, with a six-point road game against a West side in FC Dallas on Saturday.
They rested Emanuel Reynoso and Ozzie Alonso, with one eye toward the road game in Texas. United manager Adrian Heath continued to show how he’s gearing up for the weekend when he made a quadruple sub at the 60th-minute mark, taking off all three of his starting midfielders.