Match Preview: MNUFC at LAFC

Minnesota United is in the national spotlight again this week, as the Loons visit Los Angeles FC in a game that will be on FS1 (9pm Sunday).

I’m sure this run of national TV games has everything to do with broadcasters that want to see how Kervin Arriaga is developing in the Loons midfield, and nothing to do with the opponents for these games being Chicago and LAFC, teams from two of the three biggest markets in the country.

MNUFC-LAFC has been a truly strange series in the teams’ short MLS history, about which more below; several of the Loons’ most exciting moments have come in Banc of California Stadium. It’s been rare, though, that both teams have been this good; Los Angeles is first in the standings, Minnesota is seventh.

Who Will Be The Chosen One(s)?

The game kicks off after 9pm (never trust a national broadcast for an on-time kickoff), but the real excitement for Loons fans will start an hour or so before the game, when the team posts the starting lineup on social media.

Through eight games, as long as everyone was healthy, there was pretty much no question who would be the front four in the MNUFC attack. Reynoso-Fragapane-Amarilla-Lod. Write it in ink. The only exception was against Austin, when Adrian Heath sent the Loons out in a 4-3-3, this having been the only thing to be even marginally successful against Seattle the previous week.

This tactical tweak worked less well against Los Arboles Verdes than it did against the Sounders, and so the Loons reverted to the ol’ 4-2-3-1 against Colorado, hoping that something would change and the team would finally score some goals.

And nothing happened and nothing happened and nothing happened, except that Bakaye Dibassy scored, which is not a repeatable outcome. And so with 20 minutes to go, Heath threw up his hands and hauled off Franco Fragapane and Luis Amarilla, moved Robin Lod up front, and inserted Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Abu Danladi on the wings.

Ten minutes later, Lod had scored and Danladi had scored and the Loons, losers of two straight, were back in the win column.

Last week, Heath wrote down the same usual front four to start against Chicago, but perhaps in pencil this time. And nothing happened and nothing happened and nothing happened, but this time, the coach got Danladi and Hlongwane ready with 30 minutes to go, not 20.

And 30 minutes later, the Loons were up 3-0, having scored 60% of the goals allowed by Chicago this year.

What’s a coach to do?

I’m utterly fascinated by this decision. Not least because the Loons’ marquee acquisitions over the past two years have been Franco Fragapane, Adrien Hunou, and Luis Amarilla, and this would require none of them to be in the starting lineup.

Which way will Heath go? According to Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, he still hasn’t made up his mind (as of Thursday, anyway). And whatever his decision, I’m certain he would love to be making it at a time other than a road game against the league’s top team.

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I Regret To Inform You That LAFC Is Good Again

As a Minnesotan, it’s hard not to be a little envious of LAFC. After MLS’s spectacularly misbegotten Chivas USA experiment finally blew up on them, the league was determined to put a decent second franchise in what is probably the soccer capital of the United States. So they gave LAFC nearly four years to assemble the proper celebrity-laden ownership group, build the perfect stadium in the perfect spot, get the big-name coach (Bob Bradley), and sign some superstar players.

LAFC was announced as an expansion team in 2014, the Loons in 2016, but while the Loons had to have a squad ready to go six months later and play two seasons in a college football stadium, LAFC got the luxury of time.

And lo and behold, LAFC was good, right away. Fifth in year one, Supporters’ Shield in year two, Champions League runner-up in year three.

Give GM John Thorrington credit, in that it wasn’t a fait accompli that this would happen – see Inter Miami for another team that was given plenty of time, and still face-planted – but for other expansion teams, it had to feel a little unfair.

So, frankly, it felt a little bit like justice when LAFC tanked in 2021. The team’s defense was bad, the goalkeeping was awful, and the offense was even worse at finishing its chances than MNUFC was, and it all piled up into the team missing the playoffs and Bradley getting fired.

LAFC hired USMNT stalwart Steve Cherundolo in the offseason, even though he’d never been a top-division head coach before, and so schadenfreude fans everywhere hoped that LAFC might be done in again by its own hubris.

And so I am completely annoyed to report that LAFC, instead of having the common courtesy to be bad again, is in fact good. They needed a goalkeeper, so they traded for Vancouver’s Maxime Crepeau, who in simply being average this season has been a huge upgrade for LAFC. They needed defending and defensive midfielders, so they got Ryan Hollingshead from Dallas and Kellyn Acosta from Colorado and Ilie Sánchez from the free-agent market. And Carlos Vela is healthy and has scored four goals and is probably going to sign a contract extension.

I don’t know where LAFC gets off, having the gall to be good, fun, and well-run.

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What Happened Last Time?

Given everything I just said about envy, you’d think this series would be one-sided, Seattle-style, but in fact LAFC has beaten Minnesota just one time, way back in May 2018. The Loons were utterly overmatched that day – Darwin Quintero played as a lone forward, which gives you some idea how hopeless things looked at the time – but since then, Minnesota is undefeated in five games against LAFC.

This includes a mid-July game that same year where Christian Ramirez scored twice and Miguel Ibarra scored once and the Loons won 5-1, which apparently so impressed Bradley that LAFC traded for Ramirez a week later. It includes the Mason Toye Game, where Minnesota beat LAFC 2-0 thanks to Toye finishing the only two chances the Loons had the whole match. And it includes one of the great Hassani Dotson bangers of all time, with Dotson scoring in the 95th minute to give Minnesota a 2-2 draw.

Courtesy MNUFC

What Do The Numbers Say?

7.7 – The number of post-shot expected goals that Crepeau saved for Vancouver last season, tops in MLS. In 2021, Tomas Romero started the most games in goal for LAFC, and was at -4.2. (FBRef.com)

21.41 – The expected goal difference that LAFC had last season, according to American Soccer Analysis. In reality, LAFC scored 53 and allowed 51, making the team the “unluckiest” in MLS – and perhaps pointing to a team that really was not that bad last year.

1.48 – Minnesota’s expected goal difference in the seven games they’ve played that weren’t the 1-0 win in New York

-2.71 – Their expected goal difference in the game against New York, a game which will drag their numbers downward for much of the year

1.02 – Goal-Creating Actions per 90 minutes for Carlos Vela this season, second in MLS behind Thiago (again from FBRef.com)

0.90 – Goal-Creating Actions per 90 minutes for Emmanuel Reynoso this season, fourth in MLS

Prediction

The Loons haven’t been good on the road for awhile now, and apart from that frozen opening-day draw in Philadelphia, haven’t been that good this season, with a semi-miraculous win in New Jersey and a loss in Austin. But strange things happen in Los Angeles. I’m predicting LAFC 2, Minnesota 2.

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