A “winning streak” is technically defined as three or more wins in a row. Minnesota United has never accomplished this modest feat in MLS. Riding on the backs of Miguel Ibarra and Darwin Quintero, playing as well as any attacking pair in MLS right now, the Loons have a chance to pull it off and put the Western Conference playoff race on full notice. But to do it they will need to cut down one of the best teams in the league, and perhaps the best expansion team in history.
The two teams previously clashed in May, with Los Angeles claiming an easy 2-0 win and Minnesota slumping its way to into a forced 4-3-3 formation due to numerous injuries and outages. Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye scored for the home team with stars Diego Rossi, Carlos Vela, and Latif Blessing dealing the assists. Minnesota will be hoping that playing at home, with a now-preferred lineup, will reverse the fortunes in this return match.
M Sam Cronin (cervicogenic dysfunction) – Out
M Kevin Molino (torn ACL) – Out
M Ethan Finlay (torn ACL) – Out
D Jérôme Thiesson (right leg injury) – Out
F Abu Danladi (left leg injury) – Questionable
D Marc Burch (left knee) – Questionable
D Eric Miller (left hamstring injury) – Questionable
Los Angeles FC
GK Quillan Roberts (right fibular fracture) – Out
M Eduard Atuesta (left ankle sprain) – Out
M Lee Nguyen (suspended) – Out
Whenever a club plays another club that is objectively better on a man-by-man basis, there is an important strategical question to answer, a Hallows or Horcruxes call one must make when it matters most: do you obsessively mark the opponent’s best players and reactively attempt to absorb their strengths, or do you drop the gas pedal and try to keep the ball away from their threats by playing aggressively? I have been periodically recommending this year that Minnesota typically does not have the talent to win the majority of its individual battles over the course of a game and, as such, the team must try to play to the weaknesses of its opponent, and continually adjust its own game plan, rather than try to exert its will over its foe.
At home, with good recent form, and with Ibarra and Quintero looking as hot as anything Los Angeles have on offer, I am finding myself sneaking out of my shell. Make no mistake, the visitors will get their chances on Sunday; you you do not throw Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande, Benny Feilhaber, and Latif Blessing on the pitch together and expect to just defend better than they attack. But, the truth is, even if Minnesota completely parked the bus, the opposition would still get plenty of chances and, given the propensity for individual errors on defense, Los Angeles would probably capitalize on a few. But the Loons’ offense has been clever enough to make just about anyone look foolish the last few weeks, and the longer the home side is maintaining the ball in dangerous places, the less time the opponent has to punish while on the ball.
I have not uncovered any new ground here. It is the question each team must ask each week. It is also an approach not lacking in risk. Los Angeles played Portland twice in the last week. In the first match, Portland crowded the box and played for the counter: the game ended in a 0-0 stalemate. In the midweek US Open Cup game, Los Angeles repositioned Vela from the right wing to the center of the park and asked him to be a counterattacking catalyst. Essentially, Los Angeles allowed Portland to counter, then tried to win possession back and quickly break into transitioning, countering Portland’s counter and taking advantage of the more open defense in doing so. Los Angeles won 3-2.
Put Minnesota in Portland’s position, and it is easy to see the Loons are not likely to do what they did by just bunkering and keeping the opponent off the scoreboard. But Minnesota is much more likely to pull off what Los Angeles did to Portland in return, allowing the visitors to come forward inevitably, and then attacking the spaces left behind. It is not quite the same as bunkering and playing overly defensively; it is more about transitioning quickly, whatever else happens.
Regardless of good form and home field advantage, this should not be an easy game. For the first time in a long time, however, there is a little swagger to the players and in the stands that feels almost like the Loons could hang with anyone. No better time to test that than against one of the finest teams in the league.
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