Minnesota United returns home tonight with the chance to clinch a playoff spot for the first time in its three MLS seasons looming large.
The Loons come back from Sunday’s scoreless tie in Portland to Allianz Field, where it has sold out MLS games all season and lost just once, to Philadelphia in June.
Win tonight and they're in. There are other scenarios where they can clinch, too, even if they tie or lose: United advances if it ties, San Jose ties Philadelphia and Portland ties New England. Or if San Jose ties and Portland loses. Or if San Jose loses and Portland ties.
You’d think this is a game set for celebration.
United is 9-1-5 at home and a victory over an opponent that has lost its last three games would mathematically eliminate the visitors from the playoffs for the first time since 2010, before they became Sporting Kansas City in 2011.
SKC on Tuesday parted ways with French midfielder Yohan Croizet after he played two seasons there.
Could this set up as one of those “trap” games?
“It’s always a game when you have to win,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “I spoke about it before Portland. People think Portland has all those home games. Trust me, when you know you have to win games, it’s not easy.”
The Timbers are finishing a 10-game homestand and play 11 of their final 12 games at home in Providence Park after they started the season with a 12-game road trip while their stadium was renovated.
But the Timbers hasn’t used that late-season, home-field advantage to vault high into the playoff race. Instead, they remain just below the cut line with three games remaining.
Heath said he talked to his players about the difference when a team is expected to win.
“You go in with a different psychological mindset and that’s something we spoke about,” Heath said. “Go in and do what has gotten us results at home: Playing on the front foot, playing in their half, getting the crowd engaged in the game. That enthusiasm, that drive, that determination to go and get results and that’s what we proved at home. We need another one of them performances and I’ll take what comes.
“I always tell the players the level of performance is more important to me,” Heath said, “because I know if we play at a level that is acceptable to everyone, normally that’s enough to get us a win.”
Starters Ike Opara, Kevin Molino and Ozzie Alonso all are in their familiar places tonight after being a bit nicked up.
Opara played just the first half at Portland because he wasn’t feeling well. Molino got kicked in the ankle Sunday and United is managing Alonso to keep him healthy this late in a season when much has been asked of him.
Here's your MNUFC starting 11
23 Mason Toye
16 Robin Lod 25 Darwin Quintero 7 Kevin Molino
77 Chase Gasper 3 Ike Opara 15 Michael Boxall 19 Romain Metanire
1 Vito Mannone
Substitutes: Dayne St. Clair, Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat, Lawrence Olum, Hassani Dotson, Miguel Ibarra, Ethan Finlay, Abu Danladi.