Two games into the MLS season, Minnesota United’s already tenuous outlook has taken a significant blow.
Star midfielder Kevin Molino tore the ACL in his left knee and will most likely be out for the remainder of the season. He is expected to undergo surgery in the coming weeks.
The midfielder first appeared to injure his knee in the 36th minute of United’s 2-1 victory at Orlando City this past Saturday. He kicked a high ball with his left foot and then landed hard on that same leg. He immediately grabbed for his left knee, but after some treatment on the sideline, came back into the game.
But in the 49th minute in the second half, he collapsed with an off-the-ball, noncontact injury. He planted his left foot looking to change directions and again quickly reached for that left knee. He left the game on a stretcher shortly after and returned to the sideline about 10 minutes later on crutches.
Coach Adrian Heath said after the game the injury didn’t “look good” and those fears have now been confirmed. But the somewhat good news for the coach and his playmaker is that at least they know what to expect this time.
The 27-year-old endured the first major injury of his career in May 2015, back when he and Heath were embarking upon their first MLS season with Orlando City. Molino tore the ACL in his right knee and took about nine months to recover. His comeback in 2016 was the best year of his career, scoring 11 goals with eight assists.
When Molino followed Heath to the Loons for the inaugural season in 2017, he fell short of the double-digit goals and assists benchmark that Heath had set him to, finishing with seven goals and nine assists in an overall disappointing season for the club. But this year seemed off to a great start, as Molino scored twice in the season-opening loss at San Jose on March 3 before assisting on United’s first goal against his old club before his injury.
This loss also leaves a big hole in Heath’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system. Molino played the No. 10 role as the attacking midfielder who controls the team’s offense. There’s no real backup on the roster for that position, so this might be a time where Heath experiments with some other lineups, like a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, which he has implemented at times in the past.
In the four games without Molino last season, United went 1-2-1, and opponents outscored the Loons by a combined 9-4. United once played a 4-4-2 with strikers Christian Ramirez and Abu Danladi pairing up top. The other games were all 4-2-3-1 formations with either midfielder Ibson or loaned-out Johan Venegas playing in Molino’s spot. Ibson stepped in for Molino after he left the game Saturday. Venegas operated more as a false nine, a deep-lying forward.
Winger Ethan Finlay said after Saturday’s game that how the team responded to Molino’s injury to still manage three points showed the squad’s resiliency.
“You lose one of your best players, an offensive player going forward, in a 1-1 game on the road [at the time of the injury],” Finlay said. “It’s tough to lose a guy like that who you know is going to have his best performances, probably, against his old club. Our thoughts are obviously with Kev.”
Originally published in the StarTribune