ST. PAUL — Minnesota United’s high-flying start to the 2020 season — eight goals in two road wins — won’t mean much if the Loons don’t build on it during their longest home stand of the season.
The Loons are tied for the Western Conference lead with six points and kick off this month-long residency with the home opener against New York Red Bulls (1-1) at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 15, at Allianz Field. It is the first of four consecutive home matches over the next five weekends.
Going 10-1-6 in the first year of their brand-new St. Paul stadium in 2019, the Loons were one of four MLS teams to lose only one regular-season game at home. While that mark was blemished when United was the only club to lose a first-round home game in the MLS Cup playoffs, it’s still a high bar to clear for 2020.
“It’s really kind of an important moment early in the season, in my opinion, to kind of maybe try to move away from the pack and try to cement ourself as one of the teams that wants to be at the top throughout the season,” United midfielder Ethan Finlay said Tuesday. “That would be extremely important over the next four (games).”
United defender Ike Opara said it took about five games last season for the club to feel comfortable in its new home field. Having built a reputation for being tough to play against at home, Opara said there can’t be an expectation that that will just happen again.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of just because we are home, we’ve had good success here, we are automatically going to get three points,” Opara said. “It doesn’t work that way, so we’ve got to be of the mindset that now we are home and we have to drive the game and let’s feed off the energy of our fans.”
In the Loons’ two road win this season, they allowed the other team to control more than 60 percent of the possession, while they were clinical on the counter attack and on set pieces. It will be interesting to see if Minnesota alters its tactics against a Red Bulls team known to high press teams that try to play out of the back.
United used the same starting XI for both wins this season, but a change could be forced on the team Sunday.
Loons midfielder Kevin Molino strained his hamstring and left in the first half of last week’s 5-2 victory at San Jose. Molino, who scored twice in the 3-1 opening win over Portland, did not participate in Tuesday’s training session.
“We are hopeful,” United coach Adrian Heath said of Molino. “He is day-to-day at this moment in time. He’s had a really good start, and we’d like that to continue. He’ll probably be a game-day decision.”
This could be an opportunity for 19-year-old Thomas Chacon to crack, at least, the 18-player game-day roster. The Loons’ young Designated Player has to make that group this season.
Boot or Defender of the Year?
Opara laughed at a question on what would mean more to him: a third MLS Defender of the Year award or a first Golden Boot, which goes to the league’s leading scorer?
The Loons center back won MLS Player of the Week for his two-goal game in the San Jose win Saturday, and already is the league’s reigning defender of the year.
“One is probably not realistic, so third defender of the year,” he said. “Obviously I just want to do well and help my team perform.”
Allianz Field groundskeepers worked to fix drainage issues and replace the grass sod before their 2-1 playoff loss to Los Angeles Galaxy last October.
While the field is now firm in places, and it’s length has been left long before Sunday, Heath and players said they felt that it is in much better condition than the massive divots that came up throughout last season.
Midfielder Hassani Dotson is away with the U.S. Under-23 men’s national team for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico through early April. That means he will miss Sunday’s game against Red Bulls, the March 21 game against Montreal and potentially the April 4 match against San Jose. The final game in the home stand is against the L.A. Galaxy on April 11.
Backup goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh remains away from the club while the Canadian is working to obtain his U.S. green card.