Minnesota United plays Western Conference opponent Portland twice in four days at Allianz Field starting Sunday.
The 3 p.m. Sunday match, shown on ESPN, is an MLS regular-season game with playoff implications for a United team that is fifth in the Western race, four points ahead of the Timbers.
The rematch at 7 p.m. Wednesday is a U.S. Open Cup semifinal that has a trophy and championship at stake. The knockout-style tournament has been played across American amateur and professional leagues since 1914.
Which Portland game is more important? That’s easy.
“The next game is the most important one,” United defender Michael Boxall said. “Always.”
The forthcoming two games are a unique set of back-to-back games you could say approximate a playoff series if MLS hadn’t eliminated the two-game, aggregated-goals format from this fall’s playoffs in favor of a single-elimination tournament.
United didn’t sniff the playoffs in its first two MLS seasons but it’s different now, five months into their third season, with a remade roster and new Allianz Field opened. The top seven among 13 conference teams make the playoffs. Teams that finish in second through fourth place host a first-round playoff game while the West’s best team over the 34-game season gets a bye.
The Open Cup semifinal winner advances to play the winner of Tuesday’s Atlanta United-Orlando City match in the championship game. The champion team gets $300,000, a place in the 16-team CONCACAF Champions League starting next February, and a cup to put the cupboard, which would be Minnesota United’s first in MLS.
“They’re both very significant in and of themselves,” United midfielder Ethan Finlay said. “The Open Cup speaks for itself. That’s a very important game, but I think we said at the same of the year our goal is to make the playoffs. That has been a high priority for this club for three years and we can’t lose sight of that. I don’t imagine we lose sight of that on Sunday.”
United expects midfielder Kevin Molino back after he missed the team’s 1-1 home draw with last-place Vancouver on July 27 because of a hamstring injury. Newcomer Robin Lod, a Finnish national team attacking midfielder signed out of Spain’s second division, is expected to make his MLS debut either as a starter or substitute.
Each player’s presence will help fill the absence of star Darwin Quintero, who is suspended for the game because of yellow-card accumulations. He drew one last week against Vancouver that triggered the suspension when he kicked a ball over the goal after he had been whistled for a hand-ball violation.
“You leave yourself open to it, especially when you know one more yellow card and you’re going to be suspended,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “That was a bit frustrating, to say the least.”
Quintero’s suspension solves one dilemma Heath has Sunday in deciding how much to play his best players, with a second important game just three days later.
But make no mistake, neither game is bigger than the other. Except for Sunday’s game, of course.
“You just take the first game as it comes,” Heath said. “We know how important our league position is. We can affect the next game. We can’t affect anything for Wednesday. I think there will be two really motivated teams on Sunday. Then we’ll see where we are on Monday. We can’t even think about Wednesday. Let’s think about what’s coming our way on Sunday.”
After Sunday’s game, Portland plays its next 10 MLS games, and 11 of its final 12, at home. The Timbers started the season with 12 consecutive road games while workers renovated its home Providence Park.
A United victory Sunday would put it seven points ahead of a team it probably still will be jockeying for playoff positioning when the Loons visit Portland in September. A victory Wednesday would put them one game from winning a cup.
“We’ve put ourselves in position to achieve things we haven’t been too close to achieving our previous seasons,” Boxall said. “I don’t think we prioritize one over the other.”