Minnesota United is riding high on a four-game winning streak, two in MLS games and two in the U.S. Open Cup. The Loons have scored 17 goals in that stretch and are coming off their best win of the MLS season — 3-1 over San Jose on Wednesday, July 3.
But the Loons’ next game against Montreal on Saturday night might be a perfect opportunity to ease off the throttle and rotate in a handful of reserve players. This could serve them well as the season grinds on and the stakes get bigger going into October.
There are many reasons to consider this game one of the least important so far this season:
It’s on the road, where Minnesota is 3-6-0 this year, so hunkering down defensively to earn their first away draw would be seen as a positive outcome against a quality opponent.
United played the exact same 14 players — 11 starters and three subs — in their most recent MLS wins, over the Earthquakes and Cincinnati on June 29.
As an Eastern Conference foe, a result against Montreal means less for Minnesota with the Loons’ primary goal making the MLS Cup playoffs against competition from the West.
It’s Minnesota's third game in a condensed stretch of six league or cup matches over 22 days. (The club’s friendly vs. Aston Villa on July 17 shouldn’t seriously be included in this mix because it matters little, if anything.)
With two recent wins in the U.S. Open Cup, the Loons have a newfound bonus on their calendar. They play New Mexico United, a lower-level club, in the quarterfinals of the national tournament at Allianz Field next Wednesday. A win there, and Minnesota can begin to see a possible trophy on the horizon.
After Saturday, United’s next MLS games are against FC Dallas on July 13 and Real Salt Lake on July 20. These two Western Conference opponents are in the thick of the playoff race, and a result like the win over the Earthquakes would drastically improve Minnesota’s standing.
United coach Adrian Heath said Wednesday he was concerned about managing minutes against the Earthquakes.
“I wanted to win the game,” Heath said postgame. “We will assess (Thursday) where we all are. Chances are there will be some changes for the weekend because you just can’t go again. It’s impossible to put that amount of energy in three times in a week with traveling as well. …
“We need to freshen it up a little bit and get the lads a little bit of a rest — who have probably done more minutes than most.”
Here are a few changes Minnesota could make Saturday:
Center back Ike Opara appeared to tweak his right hamstring in the 56th minute against San Jose but stayed in to finish a 90-minute shift. “Day at a time, game at a time,” Opara said postgame. “We’ll assess moving forward and see what the outlook looks like, but I’m hoping to be out there every single game.” Heath could decide otherwise, with capable backup Brent Kallman expected to be well rested.
Midfielder Kevin Molino has two goals in his past two substitute appearances and could give a few attackers a breather, primarily Miguel Ibarra, who hasn’t scored since March 9.
With a yellow card issued Wednesday, Darwin Quintero is one more booking away from a one-game suspension. A card Saturday would mean the Loons’ most-dynamic attacker would have to sit out the Dallas game the following weekend. Staving off that scenario could be part of Heath’s logic.
Defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso, 33, leads the team with 1,576 minutes this season. Heath was proactive in removing Alonso in the second half of the win over Cincinnati, and his replacement, Lawrence Olum, might get more playing time Saturday.
Forward Mason Toye is another top option. He scored his first MLS goal against Cincinnati and had an assist on Molino’s clinching goal Wednesday. He could come on for Angelo Rodriguez, but Heath has been proactive in taking Rodriguez off early the past two games.