The MLS is Back Tournament has served up its first marquee, win-or-else clash of the knockout stages — and one of the protagonists has already dropped a headline-making hot take to match.
Thanks to Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with the Colorado Rapids, Minnesota United will meet impressive Group E winners Columbus Crew SC in the Knockout Stage on Tuesday, and Loons head coach Adrian Heath made clear that he’s seen and heard the hype about the 3-0 Crew.
“Well, we probably won't turn up because everybody's crowned them champions already, so we'll give it to them,” wisecracked the expressive Englishman postgame.
“I know they’re a very good team, they’re well-coached, they’ve got good individuals, spent a lot of money on a lot of players. And they've been very impressive,” continued Heath in a slightly more earnest tone. “But I also know that Caleb [Porter] will have enough respect for this group to know that it’s not going to be, probably, as easy as a lot of people think.”
It’s not the first time “Inchy” has accused MLS pundits — including and especially those who inhabit this very website — of taking his team lightly. It’s vintage Heath to suggest that his side is being overlooked and underrated ahead of a matchup with a team that finished 15 points behind his in last season’s overall standings. That said, he and his players were generous in their praise for the proactive, pass-happy Crew, who currently top this year’s truncated table with 13 points from five matches.
“Throughout the tournament all the players have been watching all the games and I think a lot of people have really tuned in to Columbus. They've been playing some great soccer, and they're a great team,” said Loons left back Chase Gasper, who then channeled a bit of Ric Flair in his outlook on MNUFC’s trophy ambitions.
“At some point in the tournament, you're going to have to beat the best in order to be the best,” he said. “So whether it was Columbus or some other team, we're going to come out swinging, we're going to come out fighting and give it all in our game.”
Winger Ethan Finlay was the star on Wednesday, scoring both of Minnesota’s goals, and he’ll be as fired up as anyone for next week’s showdown with his former team.
“I won't need any more to get up for that game. They’ve been one of the better teams throughout this tournament,” he said. “It's a great test for us. We're a club that has great aspirations and we're playing a team that is, I think, probably in the Supporters’ Shield lead right now, if I remember correctly.”
Aside from a stumbling start to their first game, an eventual comeback win over Sporting KC, the Loons have been quite good in their own right at MLS is Back, particularly given the absence of reigning MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara and injuries that have hampered first-choice striker Luis Amarilla’s fitness. Finlay credits the depth, diversity and commitment of their roster.
“This team has never been built on one person or one talent. I think every year this team got better because they’ve added better pieces, pieces to this puzzle,” he noted. “So a very deep squad I feel like we've assembled this year, and it really starts with our work ethic and our heart and our desire, and we saw that obviously in the first game. Tonight we came up a little bit short.
“I think if you look around the league, there's no team, really, that has been unbelievable and maybe been to their top standard, and that's just a product of the circumstances that we're dealing with here,” Finlay added. “But we're continuing to put [in] more positive minutes, possessing the ball and being good in the attack, defending well throughout this tournament.”
Heath reckoned that MNUFC haven’t quite regained the rock-solid form that made them one of MLS’s most impressive performers before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down. He vowed to do his utmost in that regard as the do-or-die segment of MLS is Back cranks up, adding that he expects playmaker Kevin Molino to recover from a hamstring issue in time to play a role on Tuesday and hinting at possible tactical wrinkles.
“I know where we were before, before the break. And I don't think we've reached them levels at this moment in time. But I’ve felt that we have gotten better each game,” he said. “And I'm hopeful – in fact I’m more than hopeful – that we'll be prepared for the game against Columbus.
“Do we revert back to our normal shape, or do we stick with what we've got, or do we do something different?” he added after a game in which he tweaked his team’s structure in central midfield to accommodate Molino’s absence. “The one thing about this group of players that we have is that we can move it around somewhat and maybe make a different shape altogether that might cause a few headaches for Columbus.”