Minnesota’s 2-0 win over San Antonio on Saturday sent a message to the rest of the NASL: this is United’s season to control.
The team still has seven games to go in the fall season, but not only does Minnesota have one more game still to play than most of the league, they have the league lead – a two-point gap over San Antonio in the fall season, and a five-point margin in the combined standings.
With Minnesota already in the playoffs, thanks to a first-half championship, it’s the combined standings that really matter; a first-place finish means a #1 seed, and the chance to potentially host both the semifinals and the finals in the playoffs. Given that the games will take place in mid-November, it could mean a significant weather-related home-field advantage for Minnesota, as well as a chance to play in front of a raucous home crowd.
Minnesota also gets both second-place San Antonio and third-place New York at home yet this season, and plays the three worst teams in the league – Ottawa, Atlanta, and Indy – over the next three weeks. It’d be difficult to arrange a more favorable schedule for a United team that’s potentially in line to win both halves of the NASL season – and set itself up for a run at the league championship.
Saturday’s 2-0 win in San Antonio was the team’s most definitive positive statement yet. The Scorpions have been the only other consistently good team in the league this year, and now Minnesota has beaten them twice at home in 2014, both times by a pair of goals. Miguel Ibarra scored both goals for United, one either side of halftime, including a second (http://www.gfycat.com/ThickDimwittedHowlermonkey) where he makes the entire Scorpions team appear to be standing stock-still. Throw in the fact that United had the two best chances of the game that didn’t lead to goals, and you start to see a picture of a Minnesota team that’s coasting at the head of the pack.
Besides San Antonio, the only other team even remotely near Minnesota in the combined standings is New York, nine points adrift – and the Cosmos are reeling, having slipped to sixth in the fall standings after losing 5-4 in Carolina on Saturday. The rest of the league is at least 14 points behind United, and with only seven games to go, it would take a collapse of historic proportions for any of the league’s bottom seven to get anywhere near Minnesota.
There’s no doubt that United head coach Manny Lagos would put the kibosh on any such speculation; he has so far succeeded in getting his team to treat the second half with respect, even after clinching a playoff spot. Even after a mini-swoon of three games without a win, nothing about Minnesota suggests a complacent side that’s looking forward to November. By all appearances, Lagos has succeeded in getting United to focus on dominating the league.
Anything can happen during the playoffs – something that Minnesota fans well know, after a pair of championship-game appearances following sixth-place finishes in 2011 and 2012. No matter what happens in the postseason, though, one team winning both halves of the season would stand as a dominating performance – and right now, Minnesota appears on track for that type of season.