Minnesota United plays in Sunday's MLS Decision Day at the LA Galaxy without suspended captain Ozzie Alonso, whose absence coach Adrian Heath calls a "huge miss" with a playoff spot at stake.
Hello, Hassani Dotson.
A week after he was a 90th-minute substitute for Alonso in a clutch 2-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City, Dotson returns to the starting lineup — and his most natural position and role among the many he has played this season.
Alonso is suspended for too many yellow-card accumulations. Included was one in the 72nd minute last Sunday. That makes him ineligible for a game in which a victory or draw will guarantee the Loons one of the Western Conference's last playoff spots.
A loss and things get more complicated.
Dotson is the plug-and-play option to play beside veteran Wil Trapp in the midfield.
"Ozzie is going to be a miss, his leadership, his experience," Heath said. "But this is the moment people like Hassani come to the fore because we know what he's going to deliver. We don't have any worries playing Hassani for sure."
Alonso turns 36 next week. Re-signed in March mostly with spot duty as a defensive midfielder and his veteran presence in mind, he emerged as a starter in 15 of 24 games he played this season.
He started five of the last six in a tense playoff race that will be decided on Sunday.
"He has been incredible the last six, seven weeks, " Heath said. "His level of performance and drive. I said to some of the younger guys, if you want to emulate any footballer in the MLS, don't look any further than your captain. He just epitomizes everything that's good about modern football players."
Dotson is the versatile 24-year-old signed to a new contract starting next season who plays everywhere from wing attacker and outside back on both sides to midfielder spots in Heath's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Dotson called his limited sub role last Sunday "a little disappointing to begin with."
"I'm just happy the team won," Dotson said. "I think this year I've taken a step forward. Played a lot more matches, started a lot more matches."
Dotson started three different positions in three games before he played the final few minutes in Sunday's must-win game against Sporting KC that the Loons did win.
"I think everyone knows my opinion of Hassani," Heath said. "I find it very difficult to leave him out of the team and that's why it was so difficult to do it on the weekend. He is more than adequate to step in."
Both Dotson and Alonso at differing times have formed a midfield partnership with Trapp that has left designated player Jan Gregus on the outside looking in. Gregus hasn't started a game since mid-August both because of injury and Alonso's bigger role alongside Trapp.
Heath calls Trapp an underrated "continuity" player who connects the Loons' back line with its attack. Heath laments Jacori Hayes' decreased role as well while he has called upon Alonso, Trapp and Dotson.
"If you look at it, we've got probably six players for two spots," Heath said. "It's difficult for us. It mainly has been done because of the form of the people ahead of them. They've played so well, you can't change it."
The Loons are 6-2-3 in games when Alonso and Trapp have started together, 6-1-4 when Dotson and Trapp started together.
"It's a shame that somebody so important to our group won't be on the field in a game like this for us," Trapp said. "All of us want to be playing into our 30s like Ozzie. The way his body just keeps going is a huge testament to his professionalism. Hassani, we know his quality, his versatility. He's a huge help for our group regardless which position he plays.
"We'll need a big game from him on Sunday."