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Minnesota United FC vs. LA Galaxy | 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview

MINNESOTA UNITED FC vs. LA GALAXY
Allianz Field | Saint Paul, Minnesota
10.20.2019 | 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs | Round 1
7:30 p.m. CT (ESPN, WatchESPN app, MNUFC Radio on SKOR North)

2019 Records:
MIN: 4th place (15-8-11 overall, 10-1-6 at home)
LAG: 5th place (16-3-15 overall, 5-10-2 on the road)

Two weeks removed from the end of the regular season, Minnesota United will open the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs at Allianz Field with a first-round matchup against the LA Galaxy, presented by Cub, Taylor Communications and Minnesota Lottery. The Loons will be tasked with defending their home soil against a dangerous attacking opponent they nevertheless fought to a goalless draw at Allianz Field early in the season. The visitors boast one of the most lethal attacks in MLS, featuring Golden Boot runner-up Zlatan Ibrahimović – who scored 30 goals in 2019 – and the dangerous, creative and pacey newcomer Cristian Pavon. While the Galaxy have been so dominant on offense this season, they have faced a multitude of struggles on defense. What will remain constant is that a packed house and temperatures in the mid 50s will create a true Minnesotan playoff atmosphere as the Loons look to benefit from the home field advantage that Allianz Field has provided in its historic inaugural season.

As the final Round One matchup, kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CT on ESPN, streaming in the ESPN app and on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North. You can also follow along with timely game updates on Twitter by following @MNUFCMatch.

Heading into Sunday evening, Minnesota United will be no strangers to the win-or-go-home format that comes with this year’s playoffs. In their run to the U.S. Open Cup Final, the Loons played in five other single elimination games this season. Minnesota’s unprecedented run in the Open Cup allowed young players like Hassani Dotson, Chase Gasper and Mason Toye to make a name for themselves as Head Coach Adrian Heath frequently rotated his squad amid a busy stretch of MLS games. While all three used the opportunity to experience a new type of competition with heightened intensity and emotion, the Loons will hope that this year’s Cup run will help in preparing the entire squad for what is to come in this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs.

“We know every cup run can help you massively in terms of performances, players getting minutes, everybody is getting minutes,” said goalkeeper Vito Mannone. “It creates that cohesion of a winning mentality which is again, knockout games. You need to progress and progress. Since the start of the Cup, we said five games to the final, we can do it. The playoffs are a new tournament. It’s four more games in front of us. We start from zero-zero so it’s game on.”

The two-week layoff from MLS action since Decision Day has provided ample time to gear up for the LA Galaxy. Although a two-week break can be a prime opportunity to rest players ahead of the intense MLS Playoffs, Heath was sure to keep his player’s legs moving to avoid stagnation. At the same time, Jan Gregus, Kevin Molino, Rasmus Schuller and Robin Lod were called up to represent their respective national teams while Mason Toye and Hassani Dotson were both selected to participate in their second U.S. U23 camp in Miami, Florida. Heath has been careful in balancing preparations during this two-week period for a squad that has had tired bodies coming off a strenuous regular season, players traveling and others who remained in Minnesota during the break.

“We’ve had a long preparation for the guys that have been here but we’re still short four players who played last night or yesterday,” said Heath after training this Wednesday. “They’re not back in yet which is never ideal but I think most coaches will say that they’ve enjoyed the time to work with the group. We had time after the Seattle game to give two or three people two or three days’ rest just to get them away from the building, freshen the mind up, freshen the body up and we’ve done that and we’ve gradually progressed in our work.”

Mannone – who was a part of the squad that trained vigorously throughout the two-week period – couldn’t wait for Sunday to come any sooner.

“To be honest, I’ve had enough of waiting,” said Mannone. “It’s a long one but it works in our favor because we recover, we prepare well but at the same time, once you’ve been playing, you want to play every three or four days. You want to get in action and we can’t wait for it.”

Speaking of action, Minnesota United and the LA Galaxy have already met twice early this year. Although the Loons fell 3-2 on the road to the Galaxy in mid-March, the return fixture – a 0-0 draw at Allianz Field at the end of April – was a game in which multiple missed chances for MNUFC left them feeling hard done by. As both games were almost six months ago, a slew of changes have been made throughout both teams. Most notably, in August the Galaxy signed Argentine forward Cristian Pavon on loan from Boca Juniors. Pavon has since proved to be a force to be reckoned with in MLS – scoring three goals and tallying eight assists in the 11 games he has featured in for the Galaxy.

“They’ve added one or two pieces,” said Heath. “They’ve got a new coach at the start of the season so they’re probably a lot more familiar with the way that he wants to work now and what’s expected of them. We’ve watched them and we know that they’re really good going forward.”

In terms of big players, there are few who have built a reputation the size of LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic who has become a household name during his time in Los Angeles. Second only to likely MLS MVP Carlos Vela, Ibrahimovic finished the 2019 season with a whopping 30 goals. While Ibrahimovic has become one of the most feared goal-scorers in the league, his team’s defense has left much to be desired, conceding the most goals of any team that qualified for this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs. As most marquee games dictate, it will be up to both side’s biggest and most-experienced players to step up to turn the tide in their favor. An experienced MNUFC defense – buoyed by the recent announcement of Ike Opara as the 2019 Defender of the Year – will have to shut down Ibrahimovic for a second time at Allianz Field this year while Minnesota’s attack will look to create chaos against a defense that has leaked goals on the road this season.

“Our experienced players are going to have to show up,” said Heath. “Our back four is going to have to show up. They have [Uriel] Antuna on one side, [Cristian] Pavon on the other side and Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] through the middle, there’s a lot of goals there. We’re playing against one of the best strikers in the last 15 years so we are going to have to be at our best. They’ve probably conceded more goals than they would have anticipated this year and their away record at times, has not been what it should have been but I know what big players are like. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”

“He’s a great player,” remarked Mannone of Ibrahimovic. “He’s a champion but he knows himself that he’s not playing one against 11. He needs his team and his team have been there for him this season. We know the danger can come from anywhere. We need to focus on ourselves and our game because we can put this team under a lot of pressure if we want to.”

For potentially the last time this year, Allianz Field will host a Minnesota United home game in what has been a spectacular inaugural season. With a sellout crowd expected to be on hand to watch the team’s first-ever MLS playoff game, the atmosphere that has made so many teams crumble this season will once again come to the fore on Sunday night.

“That’s been one of the fun things for me is watching that connection between the team and the supporters grow during the year,” said Heath. “They’ve been incredible all year but we’re going to need them this weekend.”

“The fans can’t wait, we can’t wait,” said Mannone. “We need to push together to make history again because history has already been made this season. Why not? Why not progress one more and then one more?”

If Minnesota United wins on Sunday, its next game would be a Western Conference Semifinal at the Banc of California Stadium against the number one seeded LAFC. That game will be on October 24 with kickoff scheduled for 9:30 p.m. CT live on ESPN, streaming in the ESPN app and on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North.

INJURY REPORT

Minnesota United FC

  • None

LA Galaxy

  • QUESTIONABLE: M – Romain Alessandrini (knee surgery)
  • QUESTIONABLE: M – Perry Kitchen (groin injury)

FIRST TOUCHES

  • Come early for a pregame party on the Great Lawn beginning at 4:00 p.m. with a performance by Shredders (P.O.S., Sims and Lazerbeak of DOOMTREE), a DJ set from DJ Matty Matt, plus food trucks, beer tents, giveaways and special activations from sponsors including Cub, Star Tribune and Element Electronics.
  • This is Minnesota’s first appearance in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
  • The Loons went 0-1-1 against the Galaxy during the regular season, drawing 0-0 at Allianz Field back in April.
  • The winner of this game travels to play LAFC in the Conference Semifinals.
  • Ike Opara was named the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year. He is the first MNUFC player to win an MLS year-end award for on-field performance.
  • Vito Mannone became the first MNUFC player to appear in every game and play every minute of an MLS season.
  • Opara, Mannone and Hassani Dotson were named as finalists for MLS year-end awards. Opara was a finalist and won the Defender of the Year, Mannone is in the final three for Goalkeeper of the Year.
  • Osvaldo Alonso has the most MLS Cup Playoff experience of any MNUFC player, with 25 appearances in the competition. He has played in the postseason every year of his career, except for 2015 when he suffered an injury that sidelined him for the playoffs.
  • Alonso’s team has never missed the MLS Cup Playoffs.
  • Alonso, Opara and Lawrence Olum have all won the MLS Cup during their careers. Alonso lifted the trophy in 2016 with Seattle Sounders FC. Opara and Olum won the 2013 title with Sporting Kansas City via a shootout.
  • LA Galaxy holds the record of five MLS Cup titles. Their last win came in 2014.
  • Jan Gregus finished the season tied for the seventh-most assists in the league with 12 and third-most corner kicks at 127.
  • Mannone finished the regular season with 129 saves, the second-most in MLS behind the Galaxy’s David Bingham with 141.
  • Mannone’s 11 shutouts was the third-best total this season.
  • Minnesota’s +9 goal differential is the best in the Western Conference besides LAFC’s +48.
  • LA was the least fouled team in the league this year, suffering just 306 fouls during the season. The Loons were the third-least fouled team with 337.
  • The Loons finished the year tied for the second-most games with three or more goals scored this year, reaching that mark nine times.
  • MLS switched to a single-elimination playoff format ahead of this season. This is the first year that the league has ever used a completely single-elimination format playoff bracket.
  • Matt Lampson played for MNUFC in 2018. He made nine appearances for the Loons and won the MLS Humanitarian of the Year Award. Lampson and Ethan Finlay were teammates on Columbus Crew SC from 2012 through 2015.
  • LA Galaxy Assistant Coach Dominic Kinnear played the 1999 and 2000 MLS seasons with MNUFC Sporting Director Manny Lagos on the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
  • Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius and Collin Martin played for D.C. United from 2013 until 2015.
  • Servando Carrasco played with Osvaldo Alonso with Seattle Sounders FC from 2011 to 2013. He also played with Ike Opara on Sporting Kansas City in 2015. He then joined Kevin Molino and was coached by Adrian Heath on Orlando City SC from 2015 to 2016.
  • David Bingham and Opara were teammates with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2011 and 2012.
  • Daniel Steres and Alonso played together for Seattle Sounders FC in 2012.
  • Diedie Traore was a part of the FC Metz academy while Romain Metanire played for the first team in 2016.
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