Rafael Márquez must have really missed Major League Soccer.
The Atlas FC captain will likely make the trip from Guadalajara to Minneapolis, fresh off El Tri’s Confederations Cup participation. He’ll no doubt be the focal point of the visitors, and for good reason. His time with New York Red Bulls was incredibly polarizing, and he’s quite easily the biggest star for Los Zorros.
(Quick sidebar: I’m stunned that I found a reason to reference the Designated Report series again.)
However, more than a few eyebrows raised at the prospect of Minnesota United playing an international friendly in the middle of a busy July. This match will snuggle into a month that features four league home games.
The Loons will have two weekends off due to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament that pilfers most MLS rosters of multiple players. On the surface, it may seem odd to schedule a pickup game four days before a Western Conference clash. While there is some truth to that, Minnesota is hardly alone in hosting an friendly against international opposition.
This summer, seven MLS sides will host Gold Cup-break friendlies. Rather than word-vomiting in a paragraph, here’s a chart. It’d look great laminated, I’m sure.
You can see a pattern. Manchester United is a part of the International Champions’ Cup, and is using the friendlies above as preseason tuneups. Swansea’s preseason tour, meanwhile, consists of Philadelphia, North Carolina FC, and the Richmond Kickers. Eintracht Frankfurt is making a pass out west before heading to Columbus.
Minnesota’s friendly, then, is a bit unique. Instead of hosting a European club, scheduling Atlas FC represents a focus on reaching a different fanbase. Atlas has a notable following in the Twin Cities, as Liga MX does in general. Atlas also played a friendly against North Carolina this past March, posting a 2-1 victory.
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Last season, six MLS sides hosted international friendlies during the Copa América Centenario break. Of the six, four made the postseason that year: Seattle, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake, and Philadelphia. Only the Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City SC missed the playoffs… and their fates were surely sealed before then.
Speaking of Seattle… When the Sounders hosted West Ham United on July 3, 2016, they were near the bottom of the Western Conference. The Sounders saw it as an opportunity to help inspire their team to improve results. Then-rookie Jordan Morris scored a brace in the second half, and once Nico Lodeiro was added to the fold, Morris’ stock kept rising. We know how that ended up for Seattle.
Last season, Seattle was seen as a talented side that was snake-bit by both injuries and international call-ups. The Sounders failed to replace Obafemi Martins after his move to China, and it took a third DP to reinvigorate the Rave Green. Minnesota, however, is unlikely to ride this to a trophy. That’s just fine: before the season, I picked the Loons to finish eighth and I stand by that. That said, there’s much more that can be gained from a match like this.
A game like this can do a lot for a player’s confidence. In 2014, Minnesota hosted Swansea between the NASL’s Spring and Fall seasons. Newcomer Brent Kallman had struggled for playing time up to that point, but has since repeatedly referenced that game as a turning point in his development. By 2016, he was a regular starter for Minnesota. That hasn’t changed to this date.
Along with Swansea, Minnesota hosted Club Léon (2015, 2016) and AFC Bournemouth (2016) during the summer. This was much easier to justify given the nearly two-month break the NASL season contains. Last summer’s Bournemouth fixture gave crucial minutes to young players Ish Jome and Jack Blake. It also involved a Kevin Venegas knee injury that nearly ended the full back’s season, and, well, we all know what happened with Sammy Ndjock that day.
On this year’s roster, there aren’t many young prospects. Still, guys like Jome, Collin Martin, and Joe Greenspan could see this as a chance to test themselves in game action. Players who aren’t regular starters (like Kevin Venegas, Justin Davis, and Rasmus Schüller) could also take the opportunity to boost their stock in Adrian Heath’s eyes.
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