The Minnesota United soccer team made their debut in MLS in a blizzard in March 2017. I was amongst the more than thirty-five thousand people that braved the miserable sub-freezing temperatures to see the return of professional soccer to the state of ten thousand lakes. The Loons could not take advantage of their home-field advantage and were trashed 6-1 by Atlanta United, the league’s other expansion franchise that year. This game had followed a beatdown 5-1 shellacking by Portland in the team’s inaugural game. It was an ignominious start. The rest of that year was brutal. A record of 10-6-18 with a staggering -26 goal differential.
Certainly as compared to the other expansion franchise, this was a harsh beginning. Atlanta went on to the playoffs that first year. Minnesota had a marginally better second year (11-3-20 and -22 GD) but it still finished towards the bottom of the Western Conference. They had finally signed their first Designated Player in Darwin Quintero, who had a remarkable season, but the team’s defense was still lousy. It didn’t help that the team still was playing in the University of Minnesota’s Gophers football stadium as its soccer specific stadium, Allianz Field, was still under construction. For the second year in a row, the Loons missed the playoffs while Atlanta won MLS Cup.
Fast forward to Season 4 and how things have changed. The contrast between the two franchises couldn’t be starker. It illustrates two competing philosophies for building a soccer franchise, one based on winning immediately versus one of building a foundation for the future. While Atlanta relied on a huge payroll advantage, elite players (they had two DP’s their first two years in Joseph Martinez and Miguel Almiron versus none for Minnesota), a stadium filled to near capacity of 80 thousand per game, and a world renowned coach in Tata Martinez, the Loons quietly built up their team with little known players and coaches. They built a foundation by spending wisely, drafting good young players out of college, and building a team with a defensive first philosophy in mind.
The architect of that plan has been the head coach and general manager Adrian Heath, who also coached the precursor franchise, the NASL’s Minnesota Thunder. After getting more control over roster decisions last year, he has made a number of roster moves to suit the kind of team that he has wanted on the field: a sound defensive team that is opportunistic when on offense, a team that lacks a true star but is evenly balanced throughout. This is a workmanlike team that is one of the best defensive teams in MLS.
In the middle of the summer, Heath pulled off his biggest move to date when he signed Emanuel Reynoso from Boca Juniors. Heath finally had himself a true number 10, a player able to dominate the game with his control and passing abilities. He may not be flashy like Quintero was, but he has been instrumental in making those around him much better. Reynoso’s ability to hold and find runners with exquisite passes have made Lod and Molino much more effective scorers than they were before his arrival.
In their fourth season, in the most difficult of circumstances operating in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, Minnesota’s model seems to have gained an advantage over Atlanta’s approach.
In the MLS is back restart tournament in July, the Loons were second in their group and got to the semi-finals before bowing out. Atlanta went 0-3 without scoring a goal.
Once the regular season resumed, the Loons once again made the playoffs by finishing in the top four of the West while Atlanta finished in the bottom three of the Eastern Conference. How the tables have turned !
In the 2020 playoffs, United got their first every victory by pounding Colorado 3-0. After withstanding an early Rapids offensive, Minnesota struck for two quick goals to take a 2-0 halftime lead, with Emanuel Reynoso getting the assist on both goals.
Heading into their quarter-final matchup game against Sporting KC, Minnesota had lost 6 straight games in Kansas City while being outscored 15-1. On a cool December night, the Loons absolutely killed Sporting KC 3-0 to reverse that streak. The Loons scored their trio in the last 20 minutes of the first half, completely against the run of play. In the first 25 minutes, it was Sporting that could easily been ahead by 2 or 3.
Sporting KC’s Johnny Russell had a chip cleared off the line by Boxall in the first 5 minutes. In the 15th, Dayne St. Clair somehow saved a ball that looked partly in. KC had other chances as well as they were in total control in the first 25 minutes.
Starting in the 27th, Minnesota started their full-frontal attack from which Sporting KC never recovered. After a beautifully worked build-up play in the middle, Reynoso found a streaking Kevin Molino on the left hand-side. Molino marched in all alone against Tim Melia for the first goal. In the 35th, the same pair struck again. Reynoso chipped a beautifully weighted pass to Molino, who once again found himself all alone agains the KC keeper. Molino didn’t have to dribble this time as he hit it first time beating Melia on the left post. Reynoso finished his 3 assist night just two minutes later with a corner kick that found Bakaye Dibassy’s head for a powerful header to make it 3-0 and essentially finish off the game.
It was the second straight 3-0 victory for a team that hadn’t won a playoff game in their franchise history. It was the second straight 3 assist game for Reynoso and second straight two goal game for Molino.
The precursor franchise to Minnesota United, the Minnesota Thunder, had a dynamic duo called Batman and Superman (Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra). Both started and played in the MLS first two years but are now long gone. The 4th year version of the franchise has found a better pairing with Reynoso and Molino, a more gifted and more talented pair who, liked their predecessors, have found an alchemy between them that has been hard for defenses to stop.
This was not just a statement game, it was was Minnesota United’s most important victory in their 4 years in MLS. The Loons now play the Seattle Sounders for the Western Conference championship. It will be a match of one of the best franchises in MLS for the past 5 years against an upstart ready to knock off the kings from the West Coast. Ozzie Alonso, the Loons defensive midfielder, is going back to the city where he plied his trade for 9 years before being traded to Minnesota.
Seattle won MLS cup last year and have been playoff contenders for what
feels like forever. But Seattle will not have their fans in the seats. They will not have their traditional huge home field advantage. To me, it feels like a changing of the guard. I wouldn’t bet against The Loons.