As Minnesota United has advanced to the final four in the MLS is Back Tournament, the Loons have shown they belong in the league’s top tier. But one question remains: Are they still underdogs?
Head coach Adrian Heath has routinely said yes, fueling this debate in his comments to reporters. However, center back and team leader Michael Boxall sees it another way heading into the team’s semifinal match-up against Orlando City at 7 pm. Thursday, Aug. 6.
“I don’t think there’s any way we can be underdogs with how we feel about how we’re playing,” Boxall told the Pioneer Press on Tuesday. “Yeah, it’s going to be a tough match, but put me in a dog fight with my boys and I’m taking us all day.”
Outside views are mixed. FiveThirtyEight.com ranks Minnesota the second most-likely club to win the tournament. Philadelphia received 31 percent; Minnesota received 27; while Orlando and Portland each had 21. But the betting line has Orlando as a slight favorite in their semifinal against United FC.
The Loons feel they have improved in each of their five tournament matches. After winning one and drawing two to finish second in Group D — labeled the Group of Death for its quality — Minnesota edged Columbus, a previous tournament favorite, in penalty kicks in the round of 16. Then the Loons steamrolled San Jose 4-1 in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
Minnesota has used contrasting styles in those knockout games. Against Columbus, the Loons sat back defensively and tried to hit on the counter attack and on set pieces. Against San Jose, they were on the front foot, attacking the Earthquakes’ man-marking system throughout. Set pieces again were huge.
Meanwhile, Orlando City has been the tournament’s surprise. The team has never made the MLS Cup Playoffs and were dreadful last season, finishing 11th of 12 teams in the Eastern Conference. But in this tournament, Orlando City’s marquee win came in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks over Los Angeles FC, winners of the Supporters Shield for the league’s best record last year.
“I think it will be our toughest game so far,” Heath said of the match-up against Orlando City. “We will have to play probably better than we have at any stage in the tournament to win the game.”
This will be Heath’s fourth game against Orlando City, the club that fired him as head coach in July 2016. Over the better part of a decade, Heath had built Orlando up in USL — on the same ESPN’s Wide World of Sports fields the tournament is played on — and brought the franchise into MLS in 2015.
“Orlando City will never be just another team for me,” Heath said on a video conference call Monday. “I spent too many years working too many hours to make the club what it was and what it became.”
While Heath still has a home in Orlando, he said only three staff members within the Lions organization were there at the same time as him. While he might wonder “what if” on time in Orlando, he said there is plenty of “water under the bridge” with Minnesota.
When United knocked off Columbus after a month in the MLS bubble near Orlando, Heath said, “we’ve been here four weeks, what’s another two weeks going to take?”
The Loons had felt they were on the precipice of a transfer deal for Boca Juniors midfielder Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso a few months ago, only to see it dissipate. But now there’s renewed hope the club can complete the transaction for the Argentine attacker in the next week or so, Heath said. … United is also exploring opportunities for Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper to go on a trip to train with a club in the English Premier League or Championship once Minnesota’s season is complete. The objective would be to give the Loons’ young, rising stars a taste of how other clubs work.