The national spotlight lands on Allianz Field on Saturday, as the Loons take on the Chicago Fire in a rare 4pm timeslot, with the game on ESPN and ESPN Deportes. It’s also a geographic rivalry – Chicago is the closest MLS team to Minnesota – that is somehow not a rivalry in the standings, since the two teams are in opposite conferences.
When MLS switches to smaller divisions, as I’m certain will happen at some point, a lot of this is going to make a lot more cartographic sense.
It’s been a good week for the Loons. Not only did they beat nemesis Colorado last week, they went to Madison and beat the Flamingos in the U.S. Open Cup. Throw in a four-goal win for a true reserve team in last week’s MNUFC2 game, a team that shared seven starters with the US Open Cup starting lineup, and it’s been a good week for the club as a whole.
Allow me to stipulate that I recognize that beating a USL League One team is an expected outcome, even though there were other MLS clubs that couldn’t manage it in midweek (Chicago, for one), because I think this is important to note: the Loons started eleven different players against Madison than they did against Colorado, and they won both games.
That’s some pretty good depth! These three-game weeks are going to happen more and more; the Loons already have five on the MLS schedule, not counting the one they just added by moving on in the Open Cup, and every time they progress in the Cup they’ll add another. 24 players played against either Colorado or Madison this week, and Minnesota’s going to need all of them contributing something if they are going to be able to do well in two competitions this year.
Did it on a cold, windy night in Stoke
The depth in the squad is good for the club, but for individual MNUFC players, it might not work out so well. And that’s why, for me, the most fascinating player on the Loons right now is striker Adrien Hunou.
Forget, for the moment, anything about paychecks and roster spots and Designated Players. Here is a guy who broke in with Stade Rennes, perennially in mid-table in Ligue 1, when he was still a teenager. After a couple of productive years with Clermont Foot (love that club name) in Ligue 2, he came back to Rennes and started contributing. Between 2016 and 2020, he made 55 starts and scored 22 goals – perhaps not a superstar, but certainly a productive piece, as Rennes climbed all the way into the Europa League and eventually Champions League.
Hunou scored in Europe for Rennes. He played in three Champions League matches, starting one of them. And at the end of his 2020-21 season in France he came to the USA and played another near-full season, starting 22 times for the Loons and scoring seven goals.
I give you this rundown just to ask you to put yourself in Hunou’s shoes for a second. After all those accolades, two months into the 2022 MLS season, he has played 18 total league minutes. He’s been on the bench for all seven league games this year, and gotten into a game just twice.
And that’s how, in just over 16 months, Hunou went from starting in the Champions League group stages, to starting for MNUFC2 on Easter Sunday against Colorado Rapids 2.
And yet, all of that said: in the last week, Hunou has scored goals on a freezing Sunday afternoon against Rapids 2, and then again on a freezing, rainy night in Madison. In terms of getting on with things, putting your head down and working and continuing to move forward, no matter the circumstances, I have to say – it’s hard not to have a ton of respect for Hunou right now.
No longer “Tire Fire FC”?
There will always be a lot of topsy-turvy moments in Major League Soccer; it’s a feature of the league, not a bug. Cincinnati and Charlotte have both been semi-competent at times this season. Austin is second in the West. Inter Miami just beat Seattle away, for heaven’s sake. But for all of the confusing things about MLS in 2022, the most shocking might be that the Chicago Fire are the best defensive team in the league.
It’s been a weird decade for Chicago. The Fire, which famously won MLS Cup in its expansion season, haven’t won a playoff game since 2010. They haven’t even made the playoffs since 2017, and in the last four years, have finished 20th, 17th, 20th again, and 22nd in the overall MLS standings.
This was supposed to be one of the easier non-conference games for the Loons, against one of the East’s struggling teams. Instead, Chicago’s in a playoff spot solely because of their defense; they’ve scored just five goals, but have allowed an astonishing two in seven games.
The big name for Chicago’s defense is goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina, who somehow doesn’t turn 18 for three more weeks. Slonina has been one of the biggest stories of MLS this season, and just this week incited the latest instance of Dual National Panic on USMNT Twitter, since the US Youth National Teamer is also eligible for Poland, which is planning to call him up this summer (no word on whether he’ll accept the call-up.)
Somehow, Chicago having a Polish keeper makes perfect sense.
That said, the numbers point more towards an excellent defense that’s getting things done for Chicago, rather than otherworldly shot-stopping from Slonina. The Chicago defense is disciplined and well-organized. If that keeps up, just from that sentence alone, rookie head coach Ezra Hendrickson will probably be named MLS Coach of the Year.
What do the numbers say?
4 – The number of scoreless draws that Chicago has this year.
3.8 – The number of post-shot expected goals the Fire have allowed this season, fewest in the league by over a goal. (FBRef for this and the following two numbers)
5.2 – The number of post-shot expected goals the Fire have created this season, fewest in the league except for Sporting KC.
1.00 – Post-shot expected goals saved above average, per 90 minutes, by MNUFC keeper Dayne St. Clair. Meaning the keeper’s hot streak has been worth a goal per game for the Loons.
-0.70 – Goals Added for Luis Amarilla, the lowest number on the MNUFC squad so far this season. Bongokuhle Hlongwane leads the Loons with 0.27. (American Soccer Analysis)
Yes, the Loons managed to score three goals last week. If they do it against Chicago too, then I guess we’ll talk. But given what these team defenses have looked like this season, there’s only one result that makes sense as a prediction: 0-0.