Minnesota United earned three elusive points on the road Saturday at Austin FC — and still just kept pace in the Western Conference playoff race with five games left.
The Loons' 1-0 victory determined by Franco Fragapane's 16th-minute goal briefly moved them into fifth place before LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake each won late out West.
That returned the Loons back to the seventh and final playoff spot, four points ahead of pursuing Los Angeles FC and Vancouver. The latter club defeated Sporting KC on Sunday and pulled back within one point of the Loons.
Next up: A rare Eastern Conference opponent — third-place Philadelphia — on Wednesday at Allianz Field.
The Loons now play those final five regular-season games — three home, two away — in just 19 days, ending with a "Decision Day" finale at the Galaxy on Nov. 7. Included are two teams ahead of them (sixth-place Galaxy and second-place Sporting Kansas City) and LAFC and Vancouver chasing them.
"I said before the week started, we've got like six Cup finals coming," Loons coach Adrian Heath said after Saturday's win. "We spoke about that to the players before the game. The last few weeks, it has been like playoff football. Everybody did their job tonight, which I was really pleased with."
The Loons rebounded from last week's "hugely" disappointing home loss to Colorado with rediscovered defensive commitment and some luck on a night when goalkeeper Tyler Miller made crucial saves early and late that delivered his 11th shutout this season.
It's his career season high for clean sheets and ties Vito Mannone's club-record 2019 season.
They did so just as players have returned from injuries and international duty, including just-back starters Robin Lod, Michael Boxall and Romain Metanire.
Lod, Fragapane, Emanuel Reynoso and Adrien Hunou started together up front Saturday for just the third time this season, and the first time since July 18 against Seattle.
"It's just nice to get all four of them back on the field playing together," Heath said. "Maybe we can get a little consistent run with them all playing and then we'll go from there because certainly the four have got goals in them. They've got movement and intelligence as well."
Boxall teamed again with center-back mate Bakaye Dibassy on Saturday while 35-year-old veteran Ozzie Alonso and young Hassani Dotson teamed in the defensive midfield. Heath called Alonso "incredible for his age and performance" on Saturday and called his team's collective defensive commitment "really resolute."
"We defended like our lives depended on it, which is what you have to do on the road," Heath said.
Heath coached a game in Austin's gleaming new Q2 Stadium on Saturday for the first time since he coached the USL's Austin Aztex for two seasons more than a decade ago.
That was his first American coaching job and it planted a MLS seed in Austin after Heath and the Aztex moved to Orlando two years later and eventually MLS.
"It was nice to see a lot of old friends, a couple people I've forgotten came up to me before the game," Heath said. "Their owner came and said, `You must be pleased seeing it because we started it.' It was nice to see. Great atmosphere, by the way. This club is going to go up in strength, for sure."
New daddy Wil Trapp remained home in Minnesota and missed his second consecutive game after his second son, Charlie, was born hours before last week's game.
"He's got a family issue and it was important that he sort it out," Heath said. "When it comes to family issues and children, we always let the players decide. We've had some good news today, so a little bit more encouraging for him. He'll be back for Wednesday for sure."