Minnesota United Must Prove They Belong Among West’s Elite to Make Playoffs

Written By David Naylor (ZoneCoverage.com)

With eight games remaining in their third season in Major League Soccer, Minnesota United has an opportunity to make this season truly one to remember. The jokes about Heath’s three-year plan have almost faded to silence with an appearance in a U.S. Open Cup final and a current standing of second place in MLS’s Western Conference.

However, the opportunity remains for the Major League Soccer season to go remarkably pear-shaped in traditionally Minnesotan fashion. Minnesota, and most of the other teams in the playoff race in the West, has eight games left to play. Here are the league standings, as of Sunday afternoon. LAFC, who clinched a playoff spot on Saturday night, are basically uncatchable in first.

2 Minnesota United 42 points
3 Los Angeles Galaxy 41 points
4 Real Salt Lake 40 points
5 Seattle Sounders 40 points
6 San Jose Earthquakes 38 points
7 Portland Timbers 37 points
8 FC Dallas 37 points
9 Houston Dynamo 31 points
10 Sporting Kansas City 31 points

Portland plays late Sunday night against Atlanta and still has nine games to go after that. Dallas has just seven games to play, and San Jose has nine left. The other seven teams have eight remaining. While Houston and Kansas City are likely out of the race, both got positive results on Saturday and are not completely dead.

As it stands, it will likely take more than 50 points to secure a playoff position for any of these teams. I asked Adrian Heath what he thought it would take after Saturday’s draw against Orlando City, and he agreed: “I think it’s going to be a lot more than people think. A lot of teams are going to play each other, so I think anything over 47, 48 might get you in. Over 50 might get you in the top four.”

The difficulty for Minnesota lies in their schedule. With Orlando and Colorado done this week, they enter the most difficult portion of their calendar for the entire season, which was obvious from the schedule’s release and has not changed much with the season’s events.

Minnesota’s final eight games in the league are at Sporting KC, at LAFC, at Houston, home against Salt Lake, at Portland, home against Sporting KC, home against LAFC, at Seattle. They have yet to play the league’s best team, and play three more games against teams currently within striking distance of them. If you consider Houston and Kansas City still in range of the playoff race, every single game Minnesota has left is against a direct competitor for its playoff lives.

Compare this to, say, Portland’s schedule. The Timbers opened their season with 12 straight games on the road due to their stadium’s construction but are now receiving the fruits of that labor. The Timbers have just one of their final 10 games on the road and have already climbed their way back into the thick of the playoff race.

Here is a list of the average point totals of each of these nine teams’ remaining opponents. This is not weighted at all for home and away performance.

Minnesota United 40.75
San Jose Earthquakes 40.44
Houston Dynamo 39.63
Seattle Sounders 37.75
Portland Timbers 37.60
Sporting Kansas City 36.75
Los Angeles Galaxy 36.00
Real Salt Lake 34.75
FC Dallas 31.57

Minnesota’s two matchups against LAFC pull them to the top of this chart, but San Jose is close behind with matchups against each of the East’s top three teams to go, two of which are on the road. FC Dallas, who could well have been down with Kansas City and Houston had they not come back from three goals down to draw with Montreal on the road, have two of the East’s bottom three left to play, including league-worst FC Cincinnati.

With all of these conditions in mind, Minnesota’s three matchups against Kansas City and Houston must be viewed as must-win games as it stands. Just as they successfully did this week against Colorado, they must take care of business against the lower-tier teams in order to guarantee their playoff safety.

Should they get seven points in those three games, two of which are on the road, they would be at 49 points, right within the projected range of safety. If the Loons want to dream bigger, their home matchups against Real Salt Lake and LAFC are the next games to target.

By the time that LAFC comes to Allianz Field, they will likely have clinched the Supporters’ Shield, which they currently lead by 13 points over Philadelphia. One would think they might rest a few players to stay fresh for the MLS Cup race, particularly in a tricky road game.

While Real Salt Lake is a formidable opponent, consider the home-field advantage that Allianz Field is. Minnesota has played six of these eight teams at home already this season with RSL and SKC to play, and only the Galaxy has even gotten a draw. Minnesota has not lost to a single one of these teams at home.

When framed this way, targeting maximum possible points from those five games could get Minnesota as high as 57 points, which would likely be more than enough to earn a home playoff game regardless of the results of the road games against Portland, Seattle and LAFC.

The scenario Minnesota would prefer to avoid is going to Seattle on decision day needing a result. Should they take care of business and prove that they belong in this conversation of playoff teams, there will be no questioning the success of Adrian Heath’s third year.