Win and advance: Minnesota United faces 3-0 Columbus Crew Tuesday in knockout stage at MLS Tournament

Ethan Finlay #13 of Minnesota United controls the ball past Luis Martins #36 of Sporting Kansas City in the first half of their match in the MLS Is Back Tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on July 12, 2020 in Reunion, Florida. ((Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images))

The group stage is over at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida. Now, there are no more guarantees.

Minnesota United advanced to the knockout stage of Major League Soccer’s return-to-play event, going 1-0-2 in three games after about four months away from the game due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Loons scored a pair of goals in stoppage time to beat Sporting Kansas City 2-1 in their opener.

They followed that with a 0-0 draw against Real Salt Lake, and at the time, the top two teams in the group seemed content playing to a tie. Last week, Minnesota United finished group stage play with a 2-2 draw against Colorado Rapids to take second in Group D and advance.

The Loons earned five points towards the MLS standings over the three games and now have 11 points through five games, currently second in the Western Conference to Sporting KC. That’s great for when play resumes after the tournament, but now it’s about staying in Florida as long as they can. That only happens by winning. If it can't be decided in two halves, it'll go to penalty kicks.

“At this stage now, we’re at the stage of win and advance, lose and go home. So I think that will affect some of the games. We’ll try and go win the game in the 90 minutes and it’s quite exciting now, we’re getting to that stage where the teams that have won are two games away from being in the final,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said Sunday.

To get to the MLS is Back Tournament quarterfinals, the Loons have a tall task. They face Columbus Crew, which went a perfect 3-0 in Group E with wins over FC Cincinnati, New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United.

Columbus is off to a 4-0-1 start and is atop the Eastern Conference. The squad has also scored seven goals over three games, and not allowed any.

“Very convincingly dominated that group obviously, but I do think we’re probably going to be one of the best teams that they’ve played so far in this tournament. Hopefully we can show them a bit of a different look and disturb some of that possession,” said Loons’ infielder Ethan Finlay, a former Columbus player who scored both goals for Minnesota United against Colorado Rapids. “It’ll be a great challenge for us to play a team that was playing very well going into this tournament and has come in really good form. Whether we come out on top or not, I think this will be a great barometer for our season.”

Heath joked after the tie to Colorado Rapids that everyone is already anointing Columbus Crew the champions after its 3-0 start. In a knockout format, anything can happen.

That’s why they’re largely focused on themselves heading into Tuesday night’s match against Columbus, with a trip to the quarterfinals at stake.

“Right now we’re really focused on our game and what we can do to advance into the next round. We know that this league is full of really good teams and we know that if we want to win this tournament, we have to play the best,” defender Jose Aja said. “Whether that’s Columbus or whoever we play after Columbus, so we just focus on our game.”

The Loons should be the healthiest they’ve been since arriving to Florida heading into the match. Star defender Ike Opara won’t play in the tournament due to a pre-existing health condition, but Heath said Kevin Molino has trained and should return Tuesday after missing the Colorado Rapids game with a hamstring issue.

Ozzie Alonso, Mason Toye and Luis Amarilla have all missed time in the tournament with injuries, but all should be available Tuesday night.

Heath isn’t playing the underdog card to his team heading into the match, though Columbus Crew is favored. Instead, his hope is that the Loons continue their upward trend of playing a little better each match.

“We have to play better than we’ve done in the previous three games to win, but we’re capable of that,” Heath said.

Things change when you get to a playoff format. Win and stay in Florida, or lose and wait to see what happens with the MLS season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Players are aware, there’s money at stake, there’s pride at stake. Hopefully we see some good stuff,” Finlay said.