Collapse or clinch? Loons’ season comes down to Decision Day

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			Collapse or clinch? Loons’ season comes down to Decision Day
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Minnesota United is on the brink of a complete collapse.

After being the hottest team in MLS in July and August and rising to third place in the Western Conference, the Loons are winless in the past six games, and given their form, on the verge of crashing out of the MLS Cup Playoffs field.

MNUFC, in the seventh and final playoff spot, needs a win or a draw against Vancouver in the Decision Day finale at 4 p.m. Sunday at Allianz Field to clinch a seed. If Minnesota loses to the Whitecaps, the club will miss out on the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The Loons could have clinched a playoff spot last weekend, but lost 2-0 at San Jose, the last-place team in the West.

“Right now, it’s flushing it, man, flushing it down the toilet,” captain Wil Trapp said Tuesday about how players are bouncing back. “Realizing there’s things that weren’t good enough in that game, and Vancouver is an organized opponent. They are going to very cagey in this affair.”

Are the Loons going to scratch and claw like their own playoff lives are on the line?

Manager Adrian Heath said postgame Saturday the Earthquakes wanted to win more than the Loons, and the sixth-year boss openly wondered about some of the players’ makeup. On Tuesday, he increased the scope: “As a staff, we have to take responsibility for that.”

Heath reported Friday a “good intensity” and “sense of purpose” in this week’s training. But we’ll see if that translates to Sunday.

Loons supporters are expected to bring it with the largest crowd in the four-year history of Allianz Field. The current mark is an announced attendance of 19,939 at the club’s first playoff game against the L.A. Galaxy in 2019.

The Loons’ preseason objective was to host a home playoff game. Despite the 0-5-1 skid, that’s somehow still possible — given how other teams have not made Minnesota pay for its poor stretch. If Minnesota wins and L.A. Galaxy, Nashville and Portland each drop points, the Loons could still host a first-round game in St. Paul.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Trapp said. “But we are only fortunate if we take advantage of it.”

The depths of this skid are historic. The Loons were also 0-5-1 in midsummer 2018 but that team was nowhere near as talented or deep as this year’s squad. That 2018 team had a minus-8 goal differential during its skid, while this year’s slump has a minus-12 goal differential.

The issues have been both offensive and defensive. Minnesota has allowed at least two goals in four of those six games while scoring just two goals total during that stretch. The Loons have been shut out four times.

“It’s strange because we had that long run where we lost one game in (11) and we had the best record for that period of time,” Heath said. “We are doing no different (things) than what we were doing then. This is the way sport is. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on it.”

The Loons’ slide came after No. 1 center back Bakaye Dibassy was lost for the season in the 2-1 win over Houston at the end of August. Minnesota is winless since, allowing 14 goals in six games (2.3 per game), including three in three minutes of a 3-0 defeat to Dallas and three over 15 minutes in a 4-1 drubbing at Kansas City.

Trapp said they need a “single-minded focus” on the task at hand and an emphasis on scoring the first goal. Minnesota is 14-4-4 when it nets the opener, including in the 1-1 draw with first-place LAFC on Sept. 13 — the Loons’ only point in the last 18 available.

That also was the last game Robin Lod played. The Loons midfielder exited at halftime and missed the next two games with a calf injury. He trained fully Friday, and barring a setback, he should be available to play Sunday.

Lod was in central midfield during the team’s hot stretch and could be back there again Sunday, with Kervin Arriaga suspended due to yellow-card accumulation.

“(Lod’s) an important piece, wherever we play him,” Heath said. Heath downplayed a fitness concern given Lod’s last game was nearly a month ago, saying he did cardio work without it affecting the injury.

Lungs will get a workout Sunday. Vancouver needs a win to jump over the Loons and into the playoffs, which means it will be going for goals. That’s just like Minnesota, which will likely create a wide-open and wild game.

The Whitecaps have won three straight games at home, scoring multiple goals in each. “They will be coming in with a lot of confidence,” Heath said.

The Loons were in a similar spot in the 2021 season finale and got a 3-3 result at L.A. Galaxy to net a spot on a wild Decision Day.

I know our supporters are going to be up for the game,” Heath said. “I know the players have to be up for the game. We’ve got to show more than we have in the last few weeks.”

BRIEFLY

Attacking midfielder Bongi Hlongwane (knee) sprinted during his rehab work Friday but has not tested his lateral movement. If he passes that next step, he could be available to play, if the Loons make the playoffs. … Heath said the club is “hoping to keep” 21-year-old midfielder Joseph Rosales beyond the loan that expires at the end of the 2022 season. The team would need to exercise a purchase option from Panamanian club Independiente de la Chorrea, and the cost is not believed to be expensive. … Heath said they will wait until after the season to determine the future of 23-year-old midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez. His loan is up at the end of 2022. MNUFC can go into another loan agreement with Mexican club Monterrey or purchase his contract. Another loan seems the more likely option.

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