The Leagues Cup is here. Depending on your perspective, it is either an innovative tournament, combining all of the teams from two of the top leagues in the Western Hemisphere together in a first-of-its-kind competition with both real prize money and a CONCACAF Champions League berth on the line – or it’s a cynical marketing exercise and cash grab that compresses an already-compressed MLS schedule and is one of the reasons the league has mostly ignored international windows this season.
Likely it’s a bit of both, but so far, the games have been fun to watch, featuring plenty of goals, dark arts exhibitions, more than an occasional red card or penalty call – and did we mention there are no draws?
The Fire’s first matchup is in Minnesota against a team that the Fire previously beat 2-1 at Soldier Field – but the roster has been bolstered significantly since then and the team will almost certainly present a stiffer challenge, assuming Minnesota push to win this one – a single point against the Fire will assure their passage to the knockout rounds.
All-time (MLS): 2W-1D-3L, 8 GF/ 10 GA, 7 pts out of 18
Last Match: April 8, 2023: Fire 2-1 Minnesota at Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
MLS Record: 7W-7D-8L (28 pts)
Leagues Cup: 1W-0D-0L
Minnesota took on Puebla, went up a goal then five minutes later, down a man, and then in the second half dropped three more goals on the Liga MX side, winning the contest 4-0 despite playing the majority of it with 10 men. Minnesota came into the Leagues Cup with just one loss in their past five league matches, going 2W-2D-1L in that stretch.
MLS Record: 8W-8D-7L (32 pts)
The Fire beat Toronto 1-0 in their most recent game, capping a three-game winning streak at home. Since the June international break, the Fire have been one of the hottest teams in MLS, going 5W-0D-1L in that stretch, including notching their first-ever win over the Portland Timbers.
Despite the tremendous amount of fun soccer played during the first matchday of games around the league, there was an issue: The Fire, just like one out of every three teams in the competition, did not play. With an odd number of teams in a group, one squad will always be left watching someone else’s game, but with three team groups and no draws, the problem is compounded.
There are no draws in this competition – a tied game after 90 minutes plus stoppage time goes straight to penalty kicks. A victor in regulation time gets three points; winning off PKs gets two, and just making it to PKs gets one – but realistically, that isn’t likely to matter much, as the first tiebreaker is the head-to-head match result between two teams.
That means there’s a strong argument to be made that this match doesn’t matter for either team, or at least, doesn’t matter much. A single point – losing in PKs – is enough to see Minnesota through to the knockout rounds. Two points – winning in PKs – is enough to guarantee them first place in the group, and there’s no difference in taking two or three points.
Even if Minnesota loses against the Fire, the Loons still advance if the Fire beat Puebla or stay level with them through the end of regulation. If the Fire beat Minnesota and lose to Puebla? It all comes down to goal differential, and Minnesota is frankly sitting pretty at +4 in that department.
The Fire, who have yet to play a game, mirror Minnesota here: A regulation loss just means they need to top Puebla on Monday and they advance (though in the second seed). A victory in regulation is nice, but unless they beat Minnesota by four or more goals, Minnesota still tops the group and they need a point against Puebla to make the top seed.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Injured: Ryan Jiba, Robin Lod
Suspended: Michael Boxall
The Fire beat Minnesota in early April, but that squad was, in many ways, a different team than the one the Fire will face on Thursday at Allianz Field. In April, the Loons were still without Emannuel Reynoso, the all-time club leader with assists – and a guy who can score, adding 10 goals in 29 matches last season, even as he also added 11 to his assist tally. Reynoso failed to report to the club camp in January, reportedly dealing with family issues, and was suspended by the league as a result.
Missing his star player, Minnesota United Head Coach Adrian Heath took to his comfort blanket – and as an English coach, that meant playing out of a 4-4-2, particularly when trying to secure a point on the road.
Since returning to camp and settling things with his club and teammates, Reynoso scored 4 goals in just 5 league starts this season, in addition to doing, well, this in their Leagues Cup opener against Puebla, scoring a brace even as his club was down a man.
In addition to Reynoso, the club also added a DP forward in the form of Finnish international Teemu Pukki, formerly of Norwich in the EFL Championship. Though he has only recently joined the team, Minnesota’s attack has looked notably more dangerous and as a result, Heath put felt confident enough to revert to playing out of a 4-2-3-1 with Pukki as the target center forward and Reynoso pulling the strings in the #10 role.
With normal starting center back Michael Boxall suspended for the match, look for #12 Bakaye Dibassy to slide into his spot at the right and #4 Miguel Tapias to take the left spot at CB. With Boxall out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see #31 Hassani Dotson revert to a more defensive role in the double pivot, ceding his spot in the left wing to #8 Joseph Rosales.
(note: based on training reports and published information, not an official report)
Out: Chris Mueller
Questionable: Victor Bezerra, Federico Navarro, Wyatt Omsberg
The forced 11-day break between matches was an unwelcome one for the Fire who had been in the midst of the best roll they’ve had in, arguably, the better part of a decade, but also came at a welcome time for a team where injuries had slowly but surely started to take a significant toll on player availability.
Well, we’re back, and… it looks like the Fire still aren’t at 100%, with Federico Navarro, Wyatt Omsberg and Victor Bezerra not training with the full squad. Truth be told however, virtually everyone on the Fire squad was playing at something under 100% and some were closer to being on the injured list than being real starters in a way that was doubtless causing real man-management issues for Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas.
Many of those issues have hopefully been solved, at least in part by the arrival of Ousmane Doumbias, whose visa issues and transfer certificate have been sorted out making him available for selection on Thursday. Although he’s recently arrived, if Navarro is out, he should get the start.
He has more of a two-way game than either of Klopas’s options in the double pivot, and although the Swiss League is now notably not the same quality as MLS squads, his highlight reel is one of a box-to-box midfielder in a way that the Fire really haven’t had since say,t he departure of Dax McCarty.
It’s not clear if Carlos Terán is 90’ healthy yet – if he is he edges out Mauricio Pineda but if he’s not, the homegrown gets the nod at center back.
The format of the League’s Cup presents an interesting challenge for a coach – normally, the druthers of many a squad-maker is to put the best XI on the pitch at the start, hoping for an early lead that allows the bench to see the result through, but the League’s Cup’s “no draws allowed” policy adds a wrinkle. Because of that, I’d expect Kei Kamara to stay on the bench at the debut in favor of Georgios Koutsias, with Kamara coming off the bench ensuring his availability for PKs should they be necessary.
At the same time, this is the first time in a long time that Xherdan Shaqiri has had a break that didn’t involve him switching continents for matches, and so I’d expect him to start, quite possibly with the expectation that he will go 90’.
Klopas has been known to experiment with formations, but against Minnesota I think it’s likely that he’ll stick with what’s worked before, and instead will have focused his energy on set pieces and better defending, say, by actually man-marking on corners, so a 4-2-3-1 is most likely.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Shoot!.: It’s an entirely new competition and the Fire have as many shots on goal as everyone else at the beginning of their first match. Maybe, just maybe they can focus on getting more of their goals on target
- It’s just a game: As odd as this is to say for the debut match of a tournament, but here’s the thing: in a lot of ways, being top two in a three-team group takes the pressure off. Just play your game, let the results follow. A single point makes a difference, no points just makes it a single-elimination tournament for the Fire on Monday in Bridgeview. Play the game, stick to the plan and it’s all upside.
- Ousman-ia: Doumbia is not the DP striker Fire fans were teased in the offseason, nor is he even really a designated player, and yet – highlights of his tenure in Switzerland, including some playing with Marie Haile-Selassie at FC Lugano – suggest that he’s got the kind of two-way game playing out of the d-mid that the Fire have lacked for years. In a 4-2-3-1, the “-2-” are frequently the engine – leading the recovery on defense and sparking the attack the other way – and the Fire not having a player who was equally capable on both sides of the ball has been a major weakness in the lineup. Is Doumbia the answer to everything? No. Is it possible that he can give the team a dimension it has lacked? Yes. Let’s be optimistic.
Game one won’t be as nice. Saving it all for Puebla.
Prediction: Minnesota 2-0 Fire
“I got better things to do with my time. I don’t care anymore.“ Fire win. Nothing matters. This competition is a joke.
Prediction: Minnesota 1-2 Fire
We stay hot!
Prediction: Minnesota 1-3 Fire
Minnesota are quite frankly in unpredictable form at the moment, but on the other side of this matchup the Fire are on a hot streak. A mix of that consistency should see the Fire come out with a win, but with both of these teams vastly improving since their last matchup, it will be a hard battle regardless.
Prediction: Minnesota 1-2 Fire
Klopas had 11 days to give his squad R&R to prepare for this and it’s one game removed from just being a knockout tournament. Minnesota have been humming but so have the Fire, my money is that he’s got this.
Prediction: Minnesota 1-2 Fire
Prediction: Minnesota 1-4 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Thursday, July 27, 2023, 7:30PM
Location: Allianz Field, St. Paul, Minn.
Forecast: 83’F expected at kick off, with 60% humidity, winds WSW at 11 mph, 62% cloud cover and a 28% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free
Radio: 890 WLS-AM (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)