Minnesota United reached the playoffs last season for the first time because it strengthened its previously porous defense down its spine with three vital acquisitions.
But MLS 2019 Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone turned down team offers that would have made him the league’s highest paid at his position and returned to Europe this season. The MLS Defender of the Year for a second time, Ike Opara hasn’t played since this season’s July restart because of an undisclosed reason, so veteran Jose Aja has played his position.
Captain Ozzie Alonso at age 34 is a year older, and his workload is monitored with each passing season. He didn’t travel to Houston for Wednesday’s game in a bit of maintenance on a team that is playing six games in 24 days.
The Loons have lost three consecutive games — all in this regular-season restart in market — since hip surgery sidelined new starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller for the season. They’ve surrendered eight goals in those three games, which coach Adrian Heath attributes to poor defending rather than backup goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh’s play.
“He’s not come into the team at a particularly good time,” Heath said. “We’ve lost three games and we concede eight goals. Maybe there’s one or two of the eight you might look back on and say, ‘I could have done a little bit better,’ but I don’t think we’ve defended particularly well in front of him.’ ”
Heath said Friday during a video conference call with reporters that he’s hopeful Opara will play again this season.
“At the moment, we’ve got no immediate thoughts of playing him in the next couple weeks and we’re hopeful at some stage he will,” Heath said. “But it is day-to-day, week-to-week, really. It’s not an awful lot I can expand on that.’
But then he did, addressing what Opara’s nine-game absence has meant to his team.
“Obviously you miss his Ike’s leadership, his personality, his athleticism, his general defending of the box,” Heath said. “He scored two goals in the attacking box. He’s a two-time Defender of the Year; we’re going to miss him. If we can get him back at any stage, we’re going to try to. But at this moment, he’s not available and we have to put that to one side and move on with what we have.
“But we certainly are hopeful, at some stage.”
Recently signed French left-side defender Bakaye Dibassy’s presence — perhaps as soon as Sunday’s game against Real Salt Lake — will help while Opara remains out of the lineup but still around the team.
There’s also nearly two months left in the current transfer window in which the Loons already have been active by signing Emanuel Reynoso and Dibassy.
“The Ike situation has been an issue for us,” Heath said. “Any team in this league would miss having him available. … We will assess it daily.”
Alonso will return to the starting 11 on Sunday after he rested Wednesday during a busy stretch in this restart.
“He’s fit, but he’s getting no younger,” Heath said. “Six games in 24 days is going to be tough for everybody.”
Last season’s band broke up but conceivably could get back together right down the middle again.
Heath has chosen to go forth in Miller’s absence with veteran Ranjitsingh rather the second-year keeper Dayne St. Clair. Mannone is a free agent after he played 12 games on loan this season to Esbjerg in the Danish Superliga and could be hired to help in a playoff chase.
“Trust me, you’re not the first person who has mentioned Vito’s name, as you can imagine,” Heath said. “I wouldn’t rule anything out, but at this moment in time we haven’t decided to go down that road.”