I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for this godforsaken Orlando City winless stretch to come to an end. The Lions need three points desperately, which is something I couldn’t imagine saying at this point in the season just one month ago. Another thing I wouldn’t have suspected coming from my keyboard a month ago: it won’t be easy to win in Minnesota.
The Loons struggled mightily in the opening weeks of the season but have since turned into a respectable opponent for most teams. For Orlando City, however, Minnesota will be a downright dogfight. You’re already well aware that Adrian Heath and Kevin Molino will be facing their former team. Those two have shown they can be more than formidable when properly motivated and there will be no game this season in which they are more motivated than this one.
We’ve all watched those occasional moments when Molino looks disinterested on the pitch. Don’t expect any of those moments on Saturday. You’re going to get Molino’s best and all of the Loons will be trying to get Heath a win against his old club. These are the kinds of games that terrify me, especially on the road.
Here to help us learn more about the Loons is Garrett Denney from SB Nation’s Minnesota United blog, E Pluribus Loonum. Garrett was kind enough to answer my questions about the Loons and I responded to his queries as well. You can find my answers over at their place.
Minnesota United started the year as if it would be a historically bad expansion club and has turned things around to where the Loons are not the pushover they were early in the year. What changed and how did the Loons turn it around?
Garrett Denney: I don’t want to be too hyperbolic about the early days of our season but suffice it to say that the “this is fine” meme is not actually a meme at all, but an actual picture from inside the E Pluribus Loonum headquarters during Week 3. So, what changed? Thankfully, a whole bunch of stuff, beginning with the back line. While not solely responsible for those blowout losses early in the year, our defense was in a really terrible spot. Though Heath gave some slack to the back four, reality eventually caught up with him and he sat Vadim Demidov (the highest paid player on our squad and the defender most responsible for several ugly goals) and Jermaine Taylor (he looked outmatched almost every time he went one-on-one). The rise of Brent Kallman, one of the guys we brought up from the NASL, and the signings of Marc Burch and Sam Cronin from Colorado vastly improved our resiliency on the defensive side of the ball. Those changes gave our attacking corps time to put pressure on the opposing net, a critical change that eventually led to our first MLS win.
Obviously we have some fondness for Kevin Molino in Orlando. How important has the Trinidadian been to Minnesota this season and how do MNUFC fans regard the former OCSC midfielder? (Also, can we please have him back?)
GD: It didn’t take long for Molino to become one of the brightest stars on the team. Particularly in the early days, when our team was just trying to stop the bleeding, Molino’s physicality and technical skill showed that he was the best player in a Minnesota uniform. Even now, with an improved defense and a front four that is low key lethal, Molino is still the engine that drives much of our attack. Whether he’s beating multiple defenders out wide before delivering a cross into the box or burying a goal himself, Molino is easily one of the best — if not the best — signings this year. And no, you cannot have him back. (Note: Dang!)
Where do you see Saturday’s match being won or lost? What has to happen for each team to come away with the points?
GD: From Minnesota’s perspective, this very much feels like a week to get back to the basics. Each of the past two weeks, we have conceded an own-goal that was equal parts embarrassing and damaging to the end result. Sure, any team would blush in the face of a self-inflicted wound, but when that own-goal ends up costing you a draw, it stings exponentially worse. We certainly have the firepower to put multiple goals in the back of the net but it remains to be seen if we will marshal consistent service to the forwards to give them a chance. Our defense, on the other hand, may not be top of the league but don’t think it’ll be a cake walk on our end of the field. Sure, we’ve crumbled and shot ourselves in the foot a few times. But we are also the team that netted two in Denver and beat RSL, 4-2. If we can keep a cool head, particularly on set pieces, Minnesota wins this one. If not, Orlando goes home with three points.
What absences will Minnesota have this weekend and what is your predicted starting lineup and final score?
GD: Abu Dunladi was injured while starting last week, and is likely out a few weeks to heal.
Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Bobby Shuttleworth; Jérôme Thiesson, Brent Kallman, Francisco Calvo, Marc Burch; Sam Cronin, Ibson; Johan Venegas, Kevin Molino, Miguel Ibarra; Christian Ramirez.
Final score: Minnesota 2 - Orlando 1.
Big thanks to Garrett from E Pluribus Loonum for taking time to answer some questions about the Loons ahead of this historic first meeting.