Minnesota United players have this week to rest, work and wait for four teammates to return from national team games played overseas before starting the MLS playoffs.
The Loons play Colorado in the first round, at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 22 at Allianz Field.
The pause, during November’s FIFA international play window, gives the club more time for starters Ozzie Alonso and Michael Boxall to train and heal, for striker Aaron Schoenfeld’s injured calf to recover, for Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson to find fitness.
Gasper and Dotson both were second-half substitutes in Sunday’s 3-0 home victory over FC Dallas that earned the fourth-place Loons a first-round playoff game for the second consecutive year.
“It’s a week where we can get some real work into two or three players,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “And it’s a week where we can give some others a rest. So it’s a welcome break.”
While they work and rest, four teammates left after Sunday’s victory to play as many as three games — friendlies, Nations League, African Cup of Nations qualifiers — before they return for a nine-day COVID-19 quarantine period.
That is expected to keep all four players from playing in that first MLS Cup playoff game. Heath said he expects all four players available for a second-round Western Conference semifinal game starting Nov. 29, if his team advances.
Robin Lod (Finland), Kei Kamara (Sierra Leone), Jan Gregus (Slovakia) and Romain Metanire (Madagascar) will compete, starting as early as Wednesday.
Heath called MLS’ arrangement with FIFA that sends players across the world for warmup games and cup competitions at playoff time a “disaster, not only for us” but for many other MLS teams, too.
But 10 MLS teams won’t lose a single player. First-round opponent Colorado striker Diego Rubio is headed to Chile’s national teams. No team will lose more than four players lost each by the Loons and Los Angeles FC.
“Our players are leaving today to play an international game on Wednesday, and we’ve got to bring them back and they’ve got to have nine days [quarantine] before the next game,” Heath said after Sunday’s game. “It must be a different COVID in Europe, I don’t know.”
Heath started Lod, Kevin Molino, Emanuel Reynoso and Ethan Finlay together Sunday, when his team played without a true striker. Schoenfeld remained out and Kamara tweaked his groin late in Saturday’s training.
Molino and Reynoso on Monday were named to MLS’ Team of the Week after they combined to score all three goals Sunday. Molino was chosen MLS Player of the Week for scoring two of those goals.
Heath said Kamara expects to be fine for his first game with Sierra Leone on Thursday at Ivory Coast in an African Cup of Nations qualifier that’s important to his West Africa country.
Kamara and his three teammates have been given permission to play for their country, even though Heath’s not quite sure what kind of lineup he’ll put together for that first playoff game without them.
“As I’ve always said, I will never stop players from playing for their country,” Heath said. “I know how much it means to them … I know what it meant to me. It’s important that we support everybody.”
The Loons beat Colorado 2-1 at Allianz Field two weeks ago, the Rapids’ second game back after a month’s pause because of games postponed or canceled by positive COVID-19 tests within the team. They played 18 of 23 scheduled games, but reached fifth place on a points-per-game system MLS used because of unbalanced schedules.
“We know it won’t be easy,” Heath said Sunday. “They’re probably really fresh, having missed that many games. Haven’t traveled, been at home. I don’t think they have any internationals, either. It’ll be tough for us. But, hey, if we show the same commitment and desire we showed this evening, it’s possible.”