Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
Of the six matches that comprise this weekend’s opening round of the MLS Cup playoffs, none is bigger than Sunday night’s marquee contest between Minnesota United and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s LA Galaxy. It’s the Loons’ very first postseason match. It could be Ibrahimovic’s last in the league after two dominant seasons.
“There’s a real buzz in the city. People are talking about it,” Minnesota coach Adrian Heath told Yahoo Sports Thursday in a phone interview. “I know no one gives us a chance because it’s the Galaxy, but the people who think we have the best chance are the important ones, because that’s the players.
“Honestly, I fully expect us to win the game on Sunday.”
Minnesota United has been one of the stories of the season in MLS, but they’re only starting to get some national attention now. After consecutive ninth-place finishes in the Western Conference, the club turned the corner this year. They opened sparkling new Allianz Field, where they’ve lost just once. They reached the U.S. Open Cup final, falling narrowly to Atlanta. They’re actually the favorites against the Galaxy. The spotlight will only grow brighter with a victory.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Loons’ improved fortunes was the offseason acquisition of a pair proven MLS difference-makers in longtime Seattle Sounders destroyer Ozzie Alonso and former Sporting Kansas City center back Ike Opara — who on Thursday was named MLS’s top defender for the second time in three seasons — to play in front of veteran English Premier League keeper Vito Mannone. Slovakian playmaker Jan Gregus was another key arrival.
“The spine of our team got stronger,” Heath said. “That was the turning point for us.”
1. United assistants Ian Fuller and Mark Watson had known Alonso since their days as teammates with the lower-league Charleston Battery, but Heath wasn’t sold until he spoke with the 33-year-old Cuban, who had been unceremoniously pushed out of Seattle after a decade as perhaps the league’s top defensive midfielder. “The one question people had was, is he going to be fit, is he going to have the same motivation?” Heath said. “But he was so disappointed in the way that it ended for him in Seattle. I knew we’d get an incredibly motivated player. That’s what we got.”
2. Alonso’s contributions have been invaluable. He was named captain after Costa Rican Francisco Calvo was shipped to the Chicago Fire midseason. “Even this week in training, we had a little round-robin five-a-side tournament and Ozzie was absolutely devastated because his team didn’t win the final, and it’s the week leading up to the biggest game we’ve had as a club,” Heath said. “That gives you an idea of what he’s like.”
3. Meantime, Opara wanted to come to Minnesota because his wife is from the area. “We got two really experienced, good players who were motivated to be here,” Heath said. “Sometimes you can’t put a price on that.”
4. The club did its homework on all its new recruits. It had to. “We have to have people that want to be here for the right reasons,” Heath said. “We know we’re not L.A. We’re not New York.We’re not gonna get players to say, ’Oh yeah, I want to go to Minnesota.’ We know that. What we can do is be the best at what we are. We have a new training ground. The stadium is the best in the country. And anybody who comes here says ‘I didn’t realize it was such a great place to live.’ I was one of them.”
5. The Loons arrived in MLS in 2017, same year as big-spending Atlanta. The model for Minnesota, though, is more like SKC’s. Sporting missed the playoffs this season, but they’ve been a contender for the better part of this decade with a core built through the MLS SuperDraft. Perhaps no team has drafted as well as Minnesota over the last few years. Guys like Mason Toye and Hassani Dotson have emerged as key cogs. “We’ve had four or five (draft picks) on the field at the same time numerous times this year,” Heath said.
6. Heath wouldn’t admit it, but this season has been vindicating for the 58-year-old Englishman. Some fans called for his head during those first two seasons, but the club stuck with its three-year plan. When he touched down in the Twin Cities in December of 2016, the Loons had just two players under contract. There was no practice facility then — the team worked out at different times and locations every day. The long Minnesota winter kept them on artificial turf until June. “As good as this year’s been, for us to get 10 wins that first year, I think the people at this club deserve an enormous amount of credit.”
7. Heath was fired 18 months into a similar three-year plan in Orlando. Orlando City still hasn’t made the playoffs since entering MLS five seasons ago. The Lions; attendance has fallen from second in the league in 2015 to seventh this year. I couldn’t let him go without asking about the sorry state of things in Central Florida.
8. “I put 24 hours a day for six-and-a-half years into that club,” said Heath, who still spends winters at his home in the Orlando area. “That will always mean something to me. I would never talk about the club in any disparaging way. All I will say is when we were building that club, I thought we could compete with anybody in this league off the field.
“You couldn’t walk anywhere in the city without seeing purple shirts,” he continued. “Maybe they’ve lost a little bit of that. I don’t want to get into the whys. Obviously I’ve been away now for a few years.”
9. A good interview is like a dance. There’s a rhythm to it. Bruce Arena has always been the best quote in MLS — I’d say Heath is a close second — but Sam Stejskal did a masterful job drawing the New England Revolution boss out on a number of topics in this wide-ranging Q&A.
10. Arena’s take on the current state of the U.S. men’s national team — made before the USMNT lost to Canada Tuesday for the first time in 34 years — were the biggest eye-opener. Arena didn’t mention Gregg Berhalter by name, but he was still scathing in his assessment of the squad’s performance under the former Columbus Crew manager. “I don’t think things are going great. I think there’s an inexperienced staff and it’s going to take them a little bit of time to get more experience and understand the international game,” Arena said. “They’re coaching the national team like it’s a club team.”
11. I mean, wow. Most coaches won’t criticize their counterparts at all publicly out of professional courtesy. For Arena to say that about a guy who served as his former assistant with the Galaxy is pretty shocking, even if he’s right.
12. The fact that former Philadelphia Union and current U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart didn’t bother to interview Bob Bradley, Jesse Marsch or Tata Martino for the national team job is looking worse and worse in light of Berhalter’s struggles.
13. It’s a shame that the USMNT’s pathetic showing in Toronto earlier this week sucked the air out of the playoff discussion, because every one of the six matchups this weekend is compelling. Say what you want about expanding the playoff field to 14 teams, but the win-or-go-home nature of the new format will force people to pay attention as the postseason rolls on.
14. Arena predicts upsets, but I can’t see more than one or two in the first round. However, I do think his Revs stun defending MLS Cup champ Atlanta United when the teams meet at the Benz on Saturday [1 p.m. ET, Univision]. Atlanta just beat New England there on Decision Day. But it’s been a funny year for the Five Stripes under first-year boss Frank de Boer, and all the pressure is on the hosts. Just a hunch.
15. Seattle and FC Dallas always seem to produce wide-open games; last month’s scoreless draw was an outlier. But Saturday’s meeting [3:30 ET, FS1] is probably the easiest of the six playoff openers to pick. While perennial playoff underachieves FCD drubbed Sporting Kansas City 6-0 on the final day of the regular season, they’ve been inconsistent all year. Meantime, the battle-tested Sounders enter the postseason hot yet again, having won in five of their last eight outings, and the attacking trio of Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz has been nearly unstoppable at home. Seattle advances.
16. Of the four Saturday games, the one between Toronto FC and D.C. United [6 p.m., TUDN] has the most intrigue. It could be Wayne Rooney’s last game in MLS, for one. Does England’s all-time top scorer have any more magic left? D.C.’s failure to beat shorthanded doormat FC Cincinnati two weeks to secure hosting rights makes Toronto the favorite, and the atmosphere at BMO Field is always special this time of year. But TFC has been only average at home this year, Jozy Altidore (calf) remains questionable and DCU has the third-best away record in the league. Still, I’m taking the Reds.
17. Saturday’s nightcap is Real Salt Lake-Portland Timbers [10 p.m., ESPNews/ESPN Deportes], and man is this one tough to call. Portland has won its last three meetings with RSL, but the Timbers will also be without striker Brian Fernandez, who voluntarily entered the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program earlier this month. Portland has also just been generally unconvincing this season, while the hosts enter the contest having won two straight. RSL goes through.
18. Before Sunday’s marquee Minnesota-LA encounter comes a delicious matchup between I-95 rivals Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls [3 p.m., FS1]. I’m a big fan of both team’s coaches — it’s also cool that former Chicago Fire teammates Jim Curtin of the Union and New York’s Chris Armas are now leading their hometown teams — and Curtin’s successful youth movement in Philadelphia has been one the the stories of the season in the East. The Red Bulls, on the other hand, have been all over the map this year, yet still more than capable of pulling off the upset. Union fans have waited eight years for a home playoff game, though. Talen Energy Stadium will be rocking. In a slugfest, I’ll take Philly after extra time.
19. The criticism Berhalter is getting right now is fair, but the idea that he’s over-reliant on MLS players just doesn’t square with the facts. The U.S. started five MLSers to the Canadians’ six on Tuesday. And it would’ve been seven had Vancouver Whitecaps center back Doneil Henry not been suspended for the match.
20. Once again, MLS released its 25 best-selling jerseys. And once again, the actual sales figures weren’t included.
21. Ibrahimovic topped the list for the second year running. But I’d love to know how his numbers compare to the 300,000 David Beckham jerseys the Galaxy moved in 2007. At the other end of the spectrum, how many people are buying Graham Zusi or Luciano Acosta shirts? No offense to either player, but I’d be shocked if either cracked triple-digits.
22. The league did not respond to a request for jersey sales numbers by publication time.
23. Apologies to the Canadian Soccer Association. I criticized the CSA a few weeks back for not televising the Canadian Championship final between TFC and Montreal. Tuesday’s historic win over the U.S. also wasn’t on terrestrial TV in Canada. The blame, I’m told, rests not with the fed but with broadcaster TSN. In the past, the CSA paid TSN to air its games. That changed when streaming service OneSoccer snapped up all the CSA’s content in a nearly $200 million deal. OneSoccer was willing to simulcast the match, but balked when TSN insisted on getting it for free.
24. Hopefully Canada’s victory drives enough interest in next month’s rematch in Orlando to make TSN reconsider.
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