Minnesota United reached its 12th day in Orlando training for Sunday night’s MLS is Back Tournament opener against Sporting Kansas City in a strictly made-for-TV event.
“It feels like four months,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said in a video conference call.
Four months, actually, is the time since Minnesota United played its last MLS game and began the season 2-0 with victories at Portland and San Jose.
Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down soccer from Europe to Allianz Field, which sat empty for the Loons’ March 15 home opener and every other scheduled home game since then.
How do they find that same form and momentum that produced an 8-3 goal differential in those two games?
“Well, that’s the trick,” Heath said. “I spoke to a lot of coaches since we’ve been down here and nobody knows where they’re at until they start to play again. You think the team is in a good shape. You think they’re physically in good condition, but there’s nothing like games. You can’t replicate it in training, as much as you try.”
The Loons will try to pick up where they left off in the tournament’s Group D that also includes Real Salt Lake and Colorado. Sporting Kansas City and Colorado both started the season 2-0, just as the Loons did, and Real Salt Lake went 0-0-2.
“It’s a little unfair to expect teams that haven’t played a game in three months or more to all of a sudden be in game form and game shape,” Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. “We know all are working hard to get ready for not just the first game but all three games. You’ll see the quality of play increase from game to game.”
The Loons are expected to play at least their three group games without 2019 Defender of the Year Ike Opara. He remained home when his teammates left two Sundays ago because of what he tweeted is a “pre-existing” condition for which he’s receiving treatment in Minnesota. He said his absence was agreed upon between his team and the league.
They also might be without defensive midfielder and captain Ozzie Alonso for Sunday’s game. He didn’t participate in a rain-shortened scrimmage with Chicago on Wednesday because of what Heath called a slightly tight hamstring.
Alonso trained “a little bit” on Friday, Heath said.
“Knowing Ozzie as I do, if he can get out there, he will get out there,” Heath said. “We don’t want to risk him just to get him into the first game.”
Heath declared the rest of his players who are in Orlando healthy and ready to play.
Alonso on Tuesday called himself “excited” to play again after so much time gone.
Former Vancouver and Orlando City defender Jose Aja will play alongside Michael Boxall at center back, and Hassani Dotson is expected to play with Jan Gregus in the midfield if Alonso doesn’t play.
“It’d be nice if momentum lasted four, five months,” Boxall said.
He said all that time spent locked down at home and then training as a team this last month particularly has allowed the team’s front four — veterans Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino and relative newcomers Luis Amarilla and Robin Lod — to grow together.
“They’ve had a lot of time to work that,” Boxall said. “They just need to put it all together.”
Heath calls these past 12 days in Orlando “an eternity” for a team in need of an opponent after a scrimmage with Columbus last Sunday was canceled on short notice and another with Chicago on Wednesday was called at halftime because of storms.
“The lads just want to play now,” Heath said. “They’ve done an awful lot of training and they’re ready for the serious stuff. Let’s get back to playing now.”