Minnesota United FC looks to continue its fast start and clinch a spot in the knockout rounds of the MLS Is Back tournament Friday night when it faces Real Salt Lake in their second set of matches in Group D.
The Loons (3-0-0) showed resiliency in their tournament opener, scoring a pair of goals in second-half stoppage time to defeat Sporting KC 2-1 on Sunday. Taking full advantage of a disjointed SKC defense after keeper Tim Melia was sent off for obstructing Aaron Schoenfeld’s open path towards goal, Minnesota drew level on an own goal and then stole all three points when Kevin Molino scored a poacher’s goal in the 97th minute.
“At one stage today, I’d taken a point willingly,” MNUFC coach Adrian Heath told the Star-Tribune. “To come out with three points is huge for us … I’m not going to sit here and say we played well. That’d be foolish and I thought Kansas City was very good. We can and will play better than we did tonight.”
Heath will have some selection dilemmas to work through for this contest. Already without two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, captain Ozzie Alonso, and striker Luis Amarilla, Mason Toye is questionable after absorbing a hard hit that forced him off just before the hour.
Heath used only three of his allotted five substitutions, which could mean a reserve role for Ethan Finley – who had a goal chalked off by VAR – for this match. The Loons boss is counting on Molino to use his veteran instincts once more to help keep the side moving forward.
“We’re going to need him and Kev pretty much epitomized the whole performance really,” Heath told the club’s official website after training Thursday. “Not only energy but craft and guile and things in the final third which are…that’s why they go for the most money, the people who score and make goals because that’s the hardest thing in football and when Kevin’s at his best, that’s what he can do.”
Minnesota’s only four-game MLS winning streak in club history came from June 29-July 13 of last year.
Real Salt Lake (1-0-2) can also clinch a spot in the final 16 with a victory after dispatching Colorado 2-0 on Sunday. Albert Rusnak scored in the first half and Damir Kreilach scored on 76 minutes – shortly after Rusnak was stopped on a penalty — to seal the victory for RSL, who controlled play for much of the contest versus their Rocky Mountain rivals and put six of their 10 shots on target.
“Last year we showed how close we are as a team and how difficult we are to break down. We showed today that we are a very good team and starts with defending,” Kreilach said. “At the end of the day – at any time – we are able to create chances and keep a clean sheet. This is just one game and we’re going to build up and continue on our path.”
RSL coach Freddy Juarez does not have the same personnel issues as Heath, but he is fully expecting the Loons to bring their best.
“It’s a good team,” Juarez told The Salt Lake Tribune. “The results from last year and the results from starting this year have shown they’re a good team. … They will defend if they have to defend, and they will bring it to you if they need to bring it to you. So we’re expecting a very, very tough match.”
Minnesota United took four points in the two meetings last season, winning 3-1 in the most recent matchup in September when Darwin Quintero bagged a brace on either side of halftime.