Match Preview: Colorado at MNUFC

Wednesday night, Minnesota United welcomes the Colorado Rapids for the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup, an exciting matchup- no, I can’t do this. I can’t do it.

The Loons have played the Rapids four times in the last two years. They played them on April 16 and they’ll play them again on August 6. With this matchup, that’ll be six games in two years. That’s too many! The world needs fewer matchups between Minnesota United FC and the Colorado Rapids! And MNUFC could have gotten a date with League One champion Union Omaha! Everyone, resent the cruel random twists of the blind draw!

Here is my ranking of the potential fourth-round matchups:

Fun and exciting: Minnesota vs Union Omaha, Colorado vs. Northern Colorado Hailstorm
Geographically nonsensical but still fun: Minnesota vs. Northern Colorado, Colorado vs. Omaha
Dull, boring: Minnesota vs Colorado, Northern Colorado vs. Omaha

Neither of those fun options happened. About all that would have been worse would have been a 453rd cup game against Sporting Kansas City. The semi-random draws in the US Open Cup may match things up in a vague geographic sense, but within those parameters, you get what you get. And what the Loons get is another game against Colorado.

Union Omaha plays Hailstorm FC on Wednesday… and again on May 28, too. Sigh.

Changes and choices

Besides being something different, fun, and exciting, one thing the Loons’ third-round match against Forward Madison allowed them to do was to play what some dubbed the “MNUFC 1.5” lineup. Eight of the starting eleven in Madison have also started an MLS game this season, so it was not exactly a half-strength side, but neither was it the Loons’ full-strength first string, either.

Due to illness and injuries and departures, five of those 11 starters played on Saturday against FC Cincinnati, while Nabi Kibunguchy played (and got sent off) on Sunday for MNUFC2. And it’d be pretty much impossible to construct a starting eleven without using anyone who played last weekend, or who will likely play on Sunday in Seattle. At least a few players are going to play multiple games this week – but who, and how many?

It’s a little hard to know what approach MNUFC will take with this year’s USOC, solely because we really don’t have that much history to go by. The Loons reached the final of the 2019 USOC and the semifinals of the 2020 MLS Is Back tournament, so they’ve had success the last two times they’ve played in in-season tournaments.

That said, before 2019, you have to go back to 2005, when Melvin Tarley and Johnny Menyongar were knocking goals in for the Minnesota Thunder, before you find an edition of the Loons that put together a cup run. (That team famously beat Real Salt Lake, Colorado, and the Kansas City Wizards, before finally losing to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the semifinals.)

Starting Sunday, the Loons play four MLS games in fourteen days, heading into the international break – and if they can beat Colorado tonight, they’ll add a fifth game to that list. Adrian Heath and company are going to have to find a way to balance quality in the cup, and remaining competitive in league play.

The mushy middle

We’re ten games into the MLS schedule, and we’re only sure of a few things about the MLS Western Conference. (NOTE: certainty subject to change.)

  • LAFC is good
  • Sporting KC is probably headed for a rebuild
  • Seattle probably is not the second-worst team in the conference, but is exhausted from winning the CONCACAF Champions League
  • San Jose is not as bad as Matias Almeyda made them look
  • Vancouver is not as good as Vanni Sartini made them look (last season)
  • Everybody else is subject to the whims of fortune and fate

Colorado is in the “everybody else” bucket right now, along with Real Salt Lake, Portland, Houston, Nashville (though now they finally get to play some home games), and Minnesota. Those teams are the mushy middle, where every team has a pretty okay defense, but hasn’t scored enough goals. Every one of those teams is searching for a spark.

This is the Rapids’ first U.S. Open Cup game of the season, so they have no prior form in terms of picking lineups. They are, however, coming off a 1-0 loss at San Jose, which – apart from a missed handball call that could have given the Rapids a second-half equalizer – was about the quietest Earthquakes game in four years or so. (The Earthquakes had won just one other game 1-0 since the beginning of 2020.)

Of note in that game, striker Diego Rubio – who scored at Allianz Field on April 16 – did not start against San Jose, but new Rapids number 9 Gyasi Zardes did. (Also, old friend Collen Warner started in midfield for Colorado.) Zardes has played three times for the Rapids, but has yet to score; we’ll see if Colorado deems him ready to play again in midweek.

What happened last time?

Last time the Loons played an MLS team in a U.S. Open Cup game, they lost the final to Atlanta United. Chase Gasper scored an unfortunate own goal in the tenth minute, Pity Martinez doubled Atlanta’s lead six minutes later, but Robin Lod’s first goal for MNUFC early in the second half trimmed the deficit. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was sent off with a quarter-hour to go, but the Loons couldn’t capitalize.

Atlanta got to play in both the 2020 and 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, thanks to that win. Not that anyone is bitter about it.

Courtesy MNUFC

Colorado’s last USOC game was a fourth-round matchup at home in 2019. They lost to New Mexico United on penalties. New Mexico United also beat FC Dallas away in the fifth round, before the Loons steamrollered them in the quarterfinals.

What do the numbers say?

5 – Number of years since Colorado won a U.S. Open Cup game.

0.99 – Goals added above average for Colorado center back Auston Trusty, per American Soccer Analysis. Trusty is sixth among MLS center backs this season.

4.52 – Expected goals for Diego Rubio this season, almost more than any other three Rapids put together.

4.77 – Expected goals plus expected assists this season for Aziel Jackson in MLS NEXT PRO, third in the league. Jackson made his first-team debut for the Loons in their third-round game against Forward Madison.

Prediction

Until we see the starting lineups, we won’t quite know who’s trying to win this game, and who’s trying to eke by (if anyone). The Loons haven’t been good at home this year, but they did beat Colorado at home already, so I’ll predict a 1-0 Loons win.

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