Minnesota United finally got both forward Robin Lod and midfielder Emanuel Reynoso back into the starting lineup last Saturday, and the result was a 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy.
"Them two, when you look at the record, they're excellent when they play together," said manager Adrian Heath.
When you piece together that record, you find out that this might be an understatement, heading into Saturday's game against Houston. Over the past two seasons, the Loons have been two very different squads, depending on whether Lod and Reynoso are in the starting lineup.
With both in the starting 11 over the past two years, Minnesota has earned 1.87 points per game; without the pair in the starting lineup, they've earned 1.25 PPG.
In most seasons, a team with 1.87 points per game is going to be the top seed in the conference and perhaps the Supporters' Shield winner, while a team with 1.25 points per game is not going to make the playoffs.
The difference is almost entirely on the offensive end of the field. In 2021, Minnesota has played 12 games with the pair in the starting lineup, and 12 where one or both was missing. With both, they've scored 17 goals; with one or both missing, they've scored 10.
After injury layoffs, both are healthy again, and keeping them healthy is going to be a key component of the Loons' playoff drive. Heath acknowledged that while they plan workloads for players, health sometimes comes down to "a little bit of luck," noting that Lod's absence was due to an injury caused by a slip on the turf during training. "Those things, you can't legislate for," he said.
Quintero leads Houston's revival
When Minnesota beat the Houston Dynamo 2-1 four weeks ago, it was Houston's 15th consecutive game without a win, tying an MLS record for a single-season winless streak. The Dynamo ended that streak the following week. But since then, Houston appears to have turned things around.
The Dynamo has earned seven points in its past three games, and one of the biggest differences has been the return of a familiar face for Loons fans: Midfielder Darwin Quintero, who scored 21 goals for Minnesota from 2018-19, made his first three starts of 2021 in those three games.
He's been playing almost as a second striker in Houston's attack, though he's nominally a central midfielder.
Houston coach Tab Ramos praised Quintero's work on both ends of the field, a two-way game that's not always been a strength. "He's adapting to a new role, and I think he's doing a good job," said Ramos. "He's been effective both on the attacking end, where he's really special, and then also to help us not allow the other teams to play."
Closer MLS-Liga MX ties
This week, MLS and Liga MX announced a huge expansion of the interleague Leagues Cup. In 2023, it will involve every MLS and Liga MX team in a monthlong tournament that will have a group stage and a knockout round, like the World Cup.
Minnesota United has yet to qualify for a continental competition, like the Leagues Cup or the CONCACAF Champions League. Loons fans have had to settle for friendlies, which have brought Liga MX teams Leon, Atlas and Pachuca to town over the past few years.
The leagues haven't announced the 2022 format for the Leagues Cup, so it remains possible the Loons could play in the competition as soon as next season. As for the Champions League, though, it's likely that United's only possible entry would be via winning MLS Cup this year.