Two weeks ago, Minnesota United seemed to be impossibly short of attacking players. Mid-season signing Franco Fragapane was dealing with a medium-term injury. Leading scorer Robin Lod injured his calf in training. And first-choice backup winger Niko Hansen hurt his hamstring, leaving manager Adrian Heath to play Hassani Dotson out of position at left wing.
The Loons gritted their teeth and tried to make the best of things. With a two-week rest coming after tonight’s game against the Houston Dynamo, Minnesota’s best hope was to pick up as many points as possible with a makeshift lineup, before getting healthy over Labor Day.
It turns out, when it comes to injuries, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
Three more Loons have since been added to the injury ward. Midfielder Jan Gregus sprained his ankle against San Jose. First-year winger Justin McMaster injured his thigh last week. And worst of all for United, Sporting KC so repeatedly kicked do-everything playmaker Emanuel Reynoso that he not only missed the midweek MLS All-Star Game, he’ll miss the game against Houston.
Even new signing Joseph Rosales, who we’ve yet to see with the first team, is already listed as out with a knee problem. Add in striker Juan Agudelo, who’s listed as questionable, and defender Bakaye Dibassy, who’s suspended due to yellow card accumulation, and it was almost easier to list the available Loons instead of the unavailable ones.
Despite the signing veteran striker Fanendo Adi, whose greatest skill at this point of his career is his ready availability, manager Adrian Heath may well not be able to fill out an entire eight-man bench for tonight’s game, unless he drafts in all four goalkeepers.
Social media stood ready to draft in 17-year-old keeper Fred Emmings, who stands 6’5”, as an emergency striker.
Heath has shown a willingness to change from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a more compact 4-3-3 on the road. With the injuries, though, who knows?
Here’s the available squad:
GK: Miller, St. Clair, Zendejas, Emmings DF: Métanire, Boxall, Kallman, Gasper, Raitala, Taylor MF: Alonso, Trapp, Dotson, Hayes FW: Finlay, Weah, Hunou, Adi, Agudelo (questionable)
On defense, Michael Boxall returned to the lineup against Sporting KC last Saturday, replacing Brent Kallman. “It was a really difficult decision, because I don’t think Brent Kallman has done an awful lot wrong - in fact, he hasn’t done anything wrong,” said Heath.
The change may serve Minnesota well, in that Boxall now has a game under his belt. He and Kallman, who had started eight consecutive games before last weekend, will likely be the center backs.
17-year-old Patrick Weah got his second appearance of the year last Saturday as a forward, though Heath described him as a “work in progress.” Said Heath, “He’s got a lot of natural talent. A lot of natural ability. The one thing he can do, he can beat people one on one. It’s a project. But there’s certainly some talent there.”
It seems unlikely that Weah would get a start, but Heath’s other choices might be Agudelo, in some unknown state of healthiness, or Adi, who hasn’t played this season.
(Spend enough time moving the available pieces around the board, and you’ll utterly convince yourself of your own unlikely arrangement. For me, that was a three-man central defense with Boxall, Kallman, and Jukka Raitala, and Hunou playing as a second striker while Adi plays as a target forward. Try your own version!)
At least, Heath was optimistic that some reinforcements might be ready by the time the Loons go to Seattle on September 11. “I’m hopeful when the two weeks are over, Lod will be available and Fragapane will be available,” he said.
The Loons’ three-game stretch last week was unkind to their spot in the standings. With only two points from the three games, United dropped into fifth place, seven points behind the LA Galaxy in fourth.
The only comfort is that many of the teams nearest them in the playoff chase are in disarray. Freddy Juarez, the coach of sixth-place Real Salt Lake, quit midweek to take a job as an assistant with Seattle, a bizarre turn of events even by MLS standards. Eighth-place Portland has managed just five points in its last seven games. Ninth-place LAFC has lost four in a row. 10th-place Vancouver, despite an eight-game unbeaten run in the league, just fired their own head coach.
Heath often says, “I’ll never turn down a point on the road,” but playing at Houston is a different story. The Dynamo is on a 14-match winless run and has plummeted to last place in the West.
The two-week break won’t look so positive to Minnesota if they don’t get a good result in Houston. And things don’t get any easier after the break. It’s another stretch of three games in eight days, and they’re all with teams in the Western Conference top four: at Seattle, at SKC, and home against the Galaxy.
The schedule is about to get quieter. If the Loons are lucky, they’re about to get healthier. But the only thing for sure is that, for the Loons and their quest for the playoffs, things are not about to get any easier.