Loons at Austin FC: Keys to the match, projected starting XI and a prediction

Minnesota United at Austin FC

When: 7:30 p.m. CT Saturday

Where: Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas

TV: Apple TV MLS Season Pass

Radio: KSTP-AM 1500

Weather: 70 degrees, clear skies, 7 mph north wind

Betting odds: Austin minus-105; draw plus-275; MNUFC plus-240

Synopsis: Season opener for both Western Conference clubs that missed MLS Cup Playoffs in 2023. MNUFC interim head coach Cameron Knowles will be on the Loons’ sideline for the first time, and he will hold down the position until new permanent head coach Eric Ramsay arrives, likely sometime in March.

Form: MNUFC is 3-3-1 in season openers with a minus-5 goal differential since 2017. To begin 2023, the Loons beat FC Dallas 1-0 on a Mender Garcia goal and MNUFC went unbeaten in its opening five matches.

Projected XI: In a 4-3-3 formation, LW Franco Fragapane, CF Teemu Pukki, RW Sang Bin Jeong; CM Hassani Dotson, CM Robin Lod, CM Wil Trapp; LB Joseph Rosales, CB Micky Tapias, CB Michael Boxall, RB DJ Taylor; GK Dayne St. Clair.

Scouting report: The Loons’ new high-pressing tactic might leave them exposed to one-on-one defending on the back line. They will need to mark Austin’s top threat, Sebastian Driussi, in those transition moments.

Absences: Emanuel Reynoso (left knee) and Bongi Hlongwane (U.S. green card) are out. Kervin Arriaga (right knee) is questionable. Driussi (hamstring) questionable.

Key stats: Driussi, an Argentine No. 10, has scored or assisted in Verde’s previous two season openers. He had 15 total goal contributions (11 goals, four assists) in 2023.

Quote: “It’s exciting to get that opportunity with the players,” Knowles says about his position. “We’ve put a lot of work into the preseason and we’ve put a lot of work into this week in their preparation. It will be great to see how that unfolds.”

Prediction: The Loons scored only three total goals in four preseason games, but the Finnish pair of Pukki and Lod combine for a big goal in Texas. But in a twist, it’s Pukki assisting Lod’s finish. That goal sweetens Lod’s return from a season-ending knee injury in 2023. It will serve as a second-half equalizer in a 1-1 draw.

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