ST. PAUL - Now that Minnesota United has traded away fan-favorite forward Christian Ramirez, his successor at striker will find himself under the microscope.
Angelo Rodriguez, signed to a high-priced Designated Player contract on July 10, will have to prove the Loons front office made the right move and endear himself to supporters heartsick over the Aug. 6 departure of Ramirez, the club's all-time leading scorer and top ambassador since the NASL days.
United coach Adrian Heath said trading Ramirez to Los Angeles FC in exchange for $800,000 guaranteed - and up to $1 million potentially - was predicated, in part, on Rodriguez's debut performance in a 2-1 loss to Seattle last week. Rodriguez had two shots, including a header off the post, in 69 minutes against the Sounders.
"He gave us some strength," Heath said after the game. "He had a great header; he probably feels like he should have scored. He led the (front) line well, backed in. He will give us a presence up there, which is, I think sometimes what we've needed."
Rodriguez's second opportunity is expected when the Loons (9-13-1) face the Los Angeles Galaxy (10-8-5) at 9:30 p.m. CT Saturday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
When international players arrive in Major League Soccer, they're often given time to acclimate to a new country and a different league. But with Minnesota sitting ninth in the 12-team Western Conference and only 11 games remaining, now is the time for Rodriguez, a 29-year-old Colombian, to produce.
When the Loons acquired Rodriguez last month, Ramirez was mired in a season-long drought - the worst of a Minnesota career that started in 2014. He was averaging a goal per 269 minutes before Rodriguez's signing, but it shot up to one per 102 minutes from then until he was traded. He watched the Seattle game from the bench.
But Ramirez had a team-high 14 goals in the club's first MLS season last year; Rodriguez has one double-digit scoring season in Colombia.
From the start of 2017 to last Saturday, Minnesota scored 1.5 goals per 90 minutes with Ramirez on the field and 1.0 when he's off, according to MLS commentator Ben Baer. They average 1.2 points per game when he starts and 0.8 when he's on the bench.
One key for Rodriguez's production will be his partnership with Loons' attacker Darwin Quintero, Minnesota's first Designated Player.
"We tried to have an understanding between each other," Rodriguez said Saturday in Spanish through a translator. "We had a couple of good plays. I think we're getting to know each other, and well, that was the first game."
Saturday's game is the first of five straight road matches for the Loons, the worst road team in MLS. To improve on their 1-9 road record, they will likely need to contain Los Angeles forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Since Ibrahimovic, 36, arrived from Manchester United in March, he has scored 15 goals (including five game-winners) in 17 games.
Defender Brent Kallman said the Loons need to be "hyper-aware" of the 6-foot-5 Swede and might need to foul him early to try to disrupt rhythm.
"He is so good at finishing that you really have to close him down anywhere inside or outside the 18(-yard) box," Kallman said. "You can't really allow him to get a clean shot off because he will really hurt you. Then you got the threat of he's huge, and he's really good in the air."