Minnesota United FC head coach Manny Lagos refused to say that tonight's game at Carolina is a must-win game, given that the standings are tightly compressed enough that anything could happen. "There's a lot of parity in our league," he said, "but we know the importance in the game. It has a lot of ramifications. I don't think you can go to that extreme [of calling it a must-win], but I don't think you can make light that it's a big game."
With three games to play, United is third in the NASL standings with 14 points, two behind Carolina and three behind Atlanta. Minnesota plays both teams in the next three weeks, so technically they control their own destiny - but in order to stay in control, they need wins, not draws, and certainly not losses.
On the bright side for Minnesota, they have a number of players who have been through the playoff wars the past two seasons, when the team made the championship finals, both years as the playoffs' lowest seed. "It’s a little different because it’s a league game rather than a playoff game," said Lagos. "But we have a lot of guys that are the same core of guys that stepped up in big moments over the past couple of years, and I would like to think that they would be ready for the game this weekend. "
Two years ago, Minnesota defeated Carolina on penalties in a playoff game at WakeMed Soccer Park, the RailHawks' home field. Those who were part of that game should probably draw on that memory of winning a big game at Carolina - without remembering that they lost 4-3 that day, but went to penalties on aggregate, thanks to Minnesota's 1-0 win in the first leg.
The helpfulness of the bye week
United has had two weeks to heal up after a bruising win over Fort Lauderdale - and they're getting closer to having a full squad to choose from.
Midfielder Aaron Pitchkolan and striker Etienne Barbara are available tonight, having made the trip to Carolina. So too is winger Miguel Ibarra, who suffered a bruised knee two weeks ago but has recovered enough to be part of the squad.
Still missing is center back Connor Tobin, who will be out another 3-6 weeks with an ankle injury, according to Lagos. Goalkeeper Daryl Sattler, who has been dealing with a groin injury for several weeks, also did not travel, putting a damper on any possible goalkeeping controversy. Matt Van Oekel will get the start again tonight, backed up by Mitch Hildebrant.
For so long, injuries have been hanging over Minnesota's heads, forcing an uphill fight. At this point, though, the injury report can't be used as an excuse.
Tonight's game is at 6:00 pm Central time, and can be seen at NASL.com. If you're in a more social mood, the team is holding a watch party at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis.
For more on tonight's game, David La Vaque's game preview for the paper is here.