Loons vs. Columbus: Keys to the match, big storylines and a prediction

Columbus Crew at Minnesota United

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Allianz Field

Stream: Apple TV Season Pass

Radio: KSTP-AM 1500 ESPN

Weather: 54 degrees, party cloudy, 11 mph northwest wind

Betting odds: MNUFC plus-180; draw plus-260; Columbus plus-130

Series history: The Loons are 1-3-0 against Columbus in MLS play; the lone win coming in St. Paul in 2019. The two clubs haven’t played in MLS since 2020, but MNUFC topped the Crew in penalty kicks in the Leagues Cup round of 32 last season.

Synopsis: The reigning MLS Cup champion Crew kick off a difficult stretch for MNUFC, with four matches against the league’s best clubs. The Loons go to Orlando City next week, host LAFC March 9 and travel to Philadelphia Union on March 30. New permanent head coach Eric Ramsay is working toward his work visa and is expected to arrive as soon as possible in March.

Form: Both teams won their season openers. Columbus topped Atlanta United 1-0 at home and Minnesota beat Austin FC 2-1 on the road. But MNUFC has won only one of seven home openers (1-3-3), dropping points in all five debuts at Allianz Field.

RELATED: Check out Allianz Field’s new food items, with tips from the chef

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

Absences: Key attackers Emanuel Reynoso (left knee) and Bongi Hlongwane (fitness), Robin Lod (calf) and Franco Fragapane (calf) are all expected to be out. Kervin Arriaga (right knee) is available to make season debut.

Homecoming: Medina native Caden Clark came home to MNUFC in the offseason and contributed to the winning goal in Texas. On Saturday, Clark might make his first start for the Loons and will have approximately 40-45 family and friends to watch him live. ‘It’s going to be a special day for me,” Clark said. “… Probably be a little emotional.”

Homecoming (Part II): Former MNUFC striker Christian Ramirez, who scored 74 goals in a Loons short from 2014-18, returns to play in Minnesota for the first time. If “Superman” scores for Columbus, he vowed to not celebrate in front of fans he still holds dear.

Scouting report: The Loons new high-pressing tactic overwhelmed Austin in the first half, but won’t have the same affect on been-there, done-that Columbus. Especially not with MLS legend Darlington Nagbe patrolling the middle of the park.

Connection: After scoring his first MLS goal at Austin, Bran said he talked to fellow Costa Rican teammate and ex-Loons captain Francisco Calvo before coming to Minnesota on a one-year loan. On Tuesday, Bran relayed Calvo’s message: “That I was going to like it a lot. The city was really beautiful, the fanbase, the stadium.” Calvo left on sour terms when he was traded to Chicago in 2019, but its noteworthy that he still vouched for MNUFC.

Key stat: 21. Loons’ point total at home in 2023 — the worst production across a full slate since joining MLS. They even managed 25 in their dismal expansion season of 2017.

Prediction: After making a great first impression at Austin, Saturday will be a reality check for MNUFC. The shorthanded Loons lack offensive quality, while Crew forward “Cucho” Hernandez’s deadly right foot looms large. Crew coast to 2-0 victory.

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