Minnesota United faces the streaking Columbus Crew SC on Tuesday in its first game of the knockout rounds in the MLS is Back Tournament.
Or maybe not.
“Well, we probably won’t turn up because everybody’s crowned them champions already,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “So maybe they’ll give it to them.”
Joking aside, Columbus has rolled through the Orlando tournament. While United finished second in its group with a win and two draws for five points, Columbus won its three games by a combined margin of 7-0.
Including its two games in March before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the season, the Crew now has four victories, nine goals and just a 1-1 draw marring its record.
United also has yet to lose a game this season, winning three and tying the past two, but has conceded six goals. For this past Wednesday’s final group stage match against the Colorado Rapids, the Loons could have avoided meeting Columbus by either winning or losing by a couple of goals.
But that wasn’t really the Loons’ aim.
“Throughout the tournament, all the players have been watching all the games,” United left back Chase Gasper said, “and I think a lot of people have really tuned in to Columbus. They’ve been playing some great soccer, and they’re a great team. … At some point in the tournament, you’re going to have to beat the best in order to be the best. So whether it was Columbus or some other team, we’re going to come out swinging, and we’re going to come out fighting and give it our all in our game.”
They’ll need all that hype to combat Columbus’ talented trio. Forward Gyasi Zardes has a team-high four goals and midfielder Lucas Zelarayan is right behind with three goals and two assists. Midfielder Darlington Nagbe hardly misses a pass.
United winger Ethan Finlay spent 2012-17 with the Crew, but those three are all new additions since then.
“I’m going to come out, whoever the opponent is, and give everything I got,” said Finlay, who scored twice in the Loons’ 2-2 tie with the Colorado Rapids in their last game. “But obviously, it’s a former team of mine. I’ve got some former teammates that play on that team. So I won’t need any more to get up for that game. They’ve been one of the better teams throughout this tournament, and … it’s a great test for us. We’re a club that has great aspirations.”
Heath, for one, said he’s really looking forward to the matchup. His defense has managed well without reigning MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, who will not participate in this tournament because of a pre-existing condition. Playmaker Kevin Molino didn’t play against Colorado because of a hamstring injury, but will have five more to recover for the knockout stage.
The coach has already started brainstorming potential formation changes, something he believes is an asset of this team. He said he’s hoping a different lineup can “cause a few headaches” for Columbus.
In general, the Loons feel like they’ve steadily improved throughout this tournament. And given the stretch of time to recover, as well as a not-late-night start time, the circumstances could be optimal for tackling such a dominant team.
“I’m more than hopeful that we’ll be prepared for the game against Columbus,” Heath said. “ … They’re well-coached. They’ve got good individuals, spent a lot of money on a lot of players. And they’ve been very impressive.
“But I also know that Caleb [Porter, Columbus coach] will have enough respect for this group to know that it’s not going to be probably as easy as a lot of people out there think.”