Three storylines for the MNUFC Home Opener
MNUFC was stuck with one of the weirder schedules in Major League Soccer this year, in that their bye week - every team will get one this year, because there are an odd number of teams in the league - came in week two. And so the Loons won their season opener in Dallas, then immediately got two weeks off. But now, finally, it’s time for Minnesota’s home opener, so here’s a look at the three headlines that we’ll all be talking about this weekend.
As time passes, Minnesota’s first home game in MLS will be remembered more and more for the several inches of snow that fell, and less and less for the fact that the Loons lost 6-1 to fellow expansion team Atlanta. The orange ball! The crews clearing the lines of the penalty area! Let these remove your memories of Vadim Demidov and company!
Well, it’s six years later, but it’s about to happen again. St. Paul got three inches of snow Thursday night into Friday, with four to six more predicted to fall on Saturday. The Loons posted a video of the grounds crew desperately clearing the field Thursday evening, something they’ll likely have to do multiple times before kickoff on Saturday. Assistant groundskeeper Peter Braun Jr. tweeted “[praying hands emoji] that the field heat keeps up” on Thursday morning.
While the snow on turf in 2017 was bad enough, the Loons’ 2022 home opener - from a field perspective - was almost worse. A freak thunderstorm, in 33 degree weather, dropped nearly an inch of rain on the Twin Cities. Lightning delayed the game for 75 minutes, during which time the field became a mudpit, and couldn’t recover until the summer.
Two months later, the team began adding a “hybrid” synthetic layer to the field, in hopes of stabilizing it.
The Allianz Field crew has struggled with the playing surface ever since the stadium opened. In 2019, the first year of the stadium, any sort of stress would result in huge divots coming out of the turf, and the club discovered a drainage problem towards the end of the year and had to replace the entire field.
Fixed or not, though, both last year’s home opener, and another thunderstorm that postponed a US Open Cup match against Colorado, temporarily turned the field into Lake Allianz.
Drainage problems aside, hybrid pitch or no, snow’s not going to help - and it’s not like the grounds crew can re-grow a lot of grass in March. Minnesota’s next home game is two weeks away.
As Braun said: if only the home opener was before the snow.
Annual injury crisis arrives before spring does
Per Andy Greder on Twitter, Minnesota’s annual injury crisis has arrived early this year.
Center backs Doneil Henry, Brent Kallman, and Mikael Marques are all out for Saturday’s game, as is left back Ryen Jiba. Defensive midfielder Wil Trapp is doubtful.
Assuming all miss the game, this leaves the Loons with just two healthy center backs, one left back (plus teenager Devin Padelford), two right backs, and zero defensive midfielders.
One assumes the Loons would probably play a midfield of Kervin Arriaga, Hassani Dotson, and Robin Lod, with Joseph Rosales in reserve. But Arriaga would be the backup center back, and Dotson would probably be the backup left back, so both better be prepared to play a full 90 minutes on Saturday night, regardless of the weather.
Up front, Emanuel Reynoso is still nowhere to be found, and Bongokuhle Hlongwane is questionable as well.
Maybe it’s a good thing that Tani Oluwaseyi saw his first-ever MLS action against Dallas; that might be the only way the Loons have more than three players with MLS experience on the bench in this game.
Reporting on the Red Bulls
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that New York was one of the main MLS destinations for big-name European talent. Thierry Henry! Bradley Wright-Phillips! Juan Pablo Angel!
Anyway, the newer versions of RBNY (NYRB? I’ve never been clear on this) aren’t so much like that. They’ve got really good players; people talk about attacking midfielder Lewis Morgan as a breakout star, and left back John Tolkin is just 20 years old, and headed for a move to Europe, maybe as soon as this year. But it’s much more about youth than big names these days in Harrison, New Jersey.
You’d have to be a true European soccer hipster to know much about new striker Dante Vanzeir (he fired Union St. Gilloise back to the top division in Belgium for the first time in a half-century, then propelled them to the Europa League!), but New York is excited about him, as well as super-sub striker Cory Burke, who they signed from his role as a super-sub striker with Philadelphia.
The Red Bulls are a model of consistency; they’ve made the playoffs for 13 consecutive years, the longest stretch in MLS. That said, they haven’t won a playoff game since 2018. They’re just always there, which is why the expert predictions for this season are all over the map; some have them in 10th, some have them in third. It’s hard to get a read on a team that just always wins.
The Red Bulls are going to line up and they’re going to get in battles all over the field, and they’re going to press and run and generally try to cause havoc. What I don’t know is if the snow, a great agent of chaos, will help or hurt them. They haven’t scored a goal yet this season, but they also haven’t allowed a shot on goal in two games (except for a penalty kick against Orlando, also the only goal the team has allowed).
Who knows what to expect on Saturday? Based on everything, it could be a rugby match - punt it long, and hope for a defensive player to slip and fall.