Minnesota United played 34 regular-season games to reach its first MLS playoff game, Sunday night at home in Allianz Field against an L.A. Galaxy team as showy as the city from which it comes.
United earned its way by transforming in its third MLS season from porous to playoff bound.
Now that the Loons are there, they’re hoping another Allianz Field sellout crowd from the Wonderwall to the Brew Hall will do its part to take them a little further.
“The most important thing is can we get the crowd engaged early on, ignited into the game?” asked United coach Adrian Heath, who will coach his first MLS playoff game as well. “Can we go and do all the things that make people excited to be in the stadium?”
That’s what United has done all season while losing just once at Allianz Field, to Philadelphia on June 2.
“Can we get the ball in their half?” he said. “Can we get in the box? Can we get crosses? Can we get shots? We can do that by playing on the front foot, by playing in their half of the field. All these things go into making this a vibrant atmosphere we’re going to need this weekend.”
The Loons will play their first home game since a 1-1 draw with LAFC three weeks ago. In between, the team chose to remove their new stadium’s grass damaged in some areas by drainage issues and sodded anew a grass field on which St. Thomas and St. John’s play a college football game Saturday.
“I’m not too worried about the field because they’re going to have play on it as well,” said United striker Mason Toye, one of six Loons called to play for his national team (U.S. Under-23 national team for Toye and teammate Hassani Dotson) during a nearly two-week FIFA international break between the regular season’s finale and the playoffs’ first round. “If we can think less about the field and more about our jobs, that will help us out a lot.”
United lost to the Galaxy in L.A. 3-2 and played it to a scoreless draw six weeks later, but the two teams haven’t played each other since late April.
Since then, the Galaxy signed Argentinian World Cup forward Cristian Pavon using targeted allocation money in a transaction that still leaves Heath bemused. The Galaxy also welcomed back veteran midfielder Romain Alessandrini, who injured his knee in April and didn’t play for the next five months.
United hung onto home-field advantage for the playoffs’ first round when the Galaxy lost its final two games to teams that missed the playoffs. The Galaxy also allowed one more goal than it scored all season.
“I don’t know if it helps or hurts,” Heath said about the long gap. “It’s a different team now, I think it’s just a different game. It’s a win-or-go-home situation.”
It’s also 90 minutes or more where every little thing looms large, just like the U.S. Open Cup final in which United lost at Atlanta United.
“Every moment matters, right?” said United veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay, who played seven playoff games with Columbus in 2014 and 2015. “Early corner kicks, early free kicks. Every moment matters more, absolutely. I think you’ll feel that in the energy of the stadium. Our fans have done a really good job, late in games they start to get going because they feel the urgency. I imagine that will start from the first minute Sunday.”
A moment’s meaning seemed to overwhelm both teams when United played NYCFC in Allianz Field’s first game, a careening 3-3 draw in April when United couldn’t contain all its energy even after scoring an early goal.
“I thought about that game, how crazy it was,” United defender Ike Opara said. “It didn’t even feel like real life. I hope it’s more stable emotionally for everyone involved this time. That leads in our favor. When things get hectic, helter-skelter, anything can happen.”
Heath calls Sunday’s opponent “the standard bearer of this league” and called Zlatan Ibrahimovic “one of iconic players of his generation” who at age 38 still is capable of winning a playoff game by himself.
The Galaxy was one of MLS’ eight charter members in 1996, and it has won a league-record five titles and played in four other finals.
Heath said he has encouraged his player to “embrace the challenge” that’s coming their way.
“It’s going to be a tight game,” Heath said. “It’s going to come back to those slim margins, as big games always do. Who can convert when you get the opportunity? Which team doesn’t beat itself and make the big mistakes when it matters?”
And maybe just how much more noise can an Allianz Field sellout create.
“We’ve asked the supporters to bring their ‘A’ game and we’re going to need the team to bring their ‘A’ game as well,” Heath said. “It’s going to be really difficult, but we’re more than capable of winning it.”