Minnesota United will face the best team in the league Tuesday in the MLS is Back Tournament and hopes to be a little closer to full strength.
Playmaker Kevin Molino, who left the Loons’ second group game at halftime because of a hamstring injury and sat out last Wednesday’s draw against the Colorado Rapids, could return in time for the team’s first knockout-round match against the Columbus Crew SC.
“[He was] training today,” United coach Adrian Heath said Sunday. “And barring any sort of reaction to what he did today, he’ll train tomorrow. Then he should be available for the game on Tuesday.”
The Crew came through its group with a perfect record, conceding no goals and scoring seven. United, meanwhile, had a win and two draws in its group, and one of the main critiques from Heath about his team’s performance has been not moving the ball around enough to create scoring chances.
Molino can help with that.
“On the field, Kevin’s a really dynamic player,” winger Ethan Finlay said. “A guy that … is always a very impactful player, maybe doesn’t always show up in the score sheet, whether it be goals or assists, but he has an ability to make an impact. He has an ability to attract one, two, three players around him and then to wiggle out of those situations.”
Set piece focus
Finlay scored twice in the Loons’ final group stage match, one off a Jan Gregus free kick that Finlay toe-flicked in at the near post.
The winger said capitalizing on those opportunities was a focus not only in that Colorado game but in general for his squad. And it’s something the team trains for “extensively,” offensively and defensively.
“We always feel like we have some guys who can get on the end of balls, whether it was me … the other night [or] guys like Jose [Aja] and [Michael Boxall] are some big bodies, and Aaron [Schoenfeld] when he’s on the field,” Finlay said. “So we’ve got a lot of attacking prowess around the goal, especially on set pieces, and think we can be dangerous. Something we were very good at, I thought, last year.
“… It’s really about being in the right spots, and that’s exactly where I was: in my spot.”
Straight to penalties
Now that the MLS is Back Tournament has progressed to the knockout round, a few aspects have changed. For one, the group stage points counted toward the MLS regular season, however that should resume in the future. The knockout-round games will not, with teams instead playing for a 2021 CONCACAF Champions League berth and a share of the $1.1 million prize pool.
“Well, obviously, the first three games, they went towards the regular season, the points, and sometimes maybe in that situation, depending how the game’s going, you might settle for point,” Heath said. “But at this stage now, we’re at win and advance, lose and go home. So I think that will affect some of the games.”
Also unlike other soccer tournaments, games tied after 90 minutes of regulation will go to penalty kicks rather than short periods of added time.
“I don’t think that the fact that there’s penalties straight after will change the approach of many teams, certainly won’t from our point of view,” Heath said. “We’ll try and go win the game in the 90 minutes. And I think it’s quite exciting now. We’re getting to that stage where suddenly the teams ... now are two games away from being in a final. So you can feel as though the excitement has been ramping up a little bit, and we’re looking forward to the game.”