MNUFC 2023 Season Preview: The team that nobody... wants?
If you’re an MLS Season Pass subscriber on Apple TV (or a season ticket holder, or a T-Mobile customer), and you’ve watched the Minnesota United FC-related content that’s already part of the subscription, you’ll note a certain historical angle to the coverage - full of references that date back past the Loons’ entry to MLS in 2017, back past owner Dr. Bill McGuire purchasing the team before the 2013 season, all the way back to when the team was the Minnesota Stars.
The Stars only existed under that moniker for three seasons, in the first of which they were the NSC Minnesota Stars. That year, 2010, the National Sports Center rescued Minnesota pro soccer from the ashes of the Minnesota Thunder - and the next year, 2011, the brand-new NASL took over ownership of the team. With a skeleton staff and a less-than-high-powered squad, Minnesota eked its way into the playoffs in both 2011 and 2012, but reached the playoff final both seasons and won the 2011 Soccer Bowl.
Those years were pivotal for Minnesota soccer. They brought Minnesota its second trophy, all-time, but more importantly, those teams brought enough fans and enough excitement that they convinced McGuire to purchase the team. Everything that’s happened since - the name change to Minnesota United FC, the logo change that gave us the Loons moniker, the leap to MLS, Allianz Field - flowed out of those 2010-2012 seasons. The playing of “Wonderwall” after wins came out of those years, as did a song, to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and referencing Minnesota’s status as a NASL-owned squad:
The team that nobody wanted
The team that nobody wanted
The team that nobody wanted
IS GOING TO WIN THE CUP
Even now, as Minnesota begins its seventh MLS season, you can sense some of that same underdog mentality around the club. They’re not big spenders. They don’t have famous faces. They’re the most Midwestern team in a country that’s entirely focused on the coasts. And just from those MLS Season Pass videos, you can see that same chip on the franchise’s shoulder: still the team that nobody wanted.
Which perhaps fits well with the Loons’ 2023 outlook, because the team that nobody wanted, has now become the team that nobody wants.
None of the experts are predicting the Loons will make the playoffs, even now that nine of the 14 teams in the West will do so. The oddsmakers have the Loons at +2800 to win MLS Cup, which means if you were to bet ten bucks on the Loons to win MLS Cup, you would lose ten bucks. Most of the team’s fans are pushing the panic button, underwhelmed with the team’s lack of splashy moves in the offseason.
And the main thing that’s causing all this angst is simple: Emanuel Reynoso, who has been the face of the club virtually since the moment he arrived in 2020, is missing. He was the one Minnesota player that most people, even pretty plugged-in MLS people, could name - and frankly, the way the team played, he was about all you had to know, to understand the Loons.
It’s kind of hard to describe how central Reynoso has been to just about everything the Loons have tried to do over the past couple of years. Lose the ball? The team’s pressing strategy was designed to push Rey high, next to whoever was playing center forward, and hope the duo could win the ball. Counter-attacking? Win the ball, turn, and find Rey. Building out of the back? Make two passes, and then get the ball to Rey, hopefully drifting into some half-space, and then let him turn and try to find some incisive pass.
This is not, especially, a new thing for Minnesota. The same was mostly true of Darwin Quintero when he was leading the Loons’ attack in 2018 and 2019, but Reynoso turned the whole thing up to 11 - more touches, more carries, more possession, more everything.
The one thing we’re sure of, at the beginning of this season, is that - at least to begin the year - the Loons aren’t going to have that specific option. Reynoso’s still in Argentina, missed the team’s entire preseason, and has given no indication of when he might decide to make his way to Minnesota. He’s been suspended without pay. At the moment, he is a non-factor for Minnesota.
So the key question for the Loons in 2023 is: does that change how they play?
Early indications are that they’re going to make the slight change of at least listing themselves in a 4-3-3, instead of the preferred 4-2-3-1 alignment they usually have favored in the past. That said, whatever the nominal alignment, the roles within the team will likely be pretty similar - one target forward, two wider forwards, a defensive midfielder and a mostly-defensive midfielder, and one player in the center with fewer defensive responsibilities and a more offensive mindset.
But the key is really not in whether the lineup is listed as a 4-3-3 or not. The key is whether the offense has that same plan, with the entire offense orbiting around that central creator.
The Robin Role?
So far, indications are that Robin Lod will be that single key figure. Lod has played everywhere in the attack for Minnesota, and despite this, over the past three years he’s got more goals than anybody else. He might be the best player Minnesota has at four different positions, right now, and so it probably makes some sense to just make the “Rey role” into the “Robin role,” and go forward with a similar look.
That said, as good of a player as Lod may be, he does not have the same strengths as Reynoso. Reynoso is constantly trying to beat defenders one-on-one - he attempted this 236 times last season, 81 more than anybody else in the entire league - and Lod is not. Dribbling past players is not a huge part of the Finn’s game, and so there’s not a lot of wisdom in a simple “get the ball to Robin” strategy. Get the ball to Rey, and he’ll try to beat one defender, and then the race for the goal is on. Get the ball to Robin, and he’ll hold off a defender, and probably make a fairly safe pass to a teammate.
The rest of the attack
All of this means that the spotlight will be on the other attacking players in the squad, especially since manager Adrian Heath has made no bones about his desire to bring in additional offensive pieces.
This may be a make-or-break season for striker Luis Amarilla, the man who’s still 13 goals short of the 25 (per year) he promised when he originally signed with Minnesota back in 2020. Amarilla had nine goals in 27 starts last season. Among guys who played at least 1,000 minutes, he was 57th in goals scored per 90 minutes. This is not a good enough return for a Designated Player in the number 9 role, and it puts him as the latest in a long line of misfiring Minnesota center forwards.
As the wide forwards - I hesitate to call them “wings” because neither one plays out near the touchline or provides width - Minnesota has Franco Fragapane and Bongokuhle Hlongwane. On the left, Fragapane has managed 12 goals and 11 assists over 50 starts, a decent return for a player who doesn’t play centrally. That said, he’s been quite streaky - he had no goals and one assist in his first 15 games last year, and then seven goals in his last 15 games - and, even as a 29-year-old, even when the Loons were scrambling to find healthy attacking players, he was rarely trusted to complete an entire 90 minutes.
On the right is Hlongwane, who brought joy and speed to the right wing last season as a 21-year-old. Unfortunately, he didn’t bring a whole lot else, with just two goals and four assists in more than 1500 minutes. Of the 400 MLS players who played 1,000 minutes or more last season, Hlongwane had the 23rd-worst rate of losing the ball when taking on defenders off the dribble. That said, his underlying numbers were much better than his actual goalscoring numbers, and Minnesota is hoping that another year of maturity - and another year of being used to being so far from his South African home - will lead to better things for Bongi.
Four attacking youngsters to watch
Backing up the front three are a quartet of young attackers: Ménder García, Cameron Dunbar, Tani Oluwaseyi, and Patrick Weah. The team sees García, now 24, as a potential center forward, but last season he played mostly out wide after joining the team midseason. We’ll find out if he can break into the lineup this year, but if not, he’ll go down as another disappointing forward acquisition for the team.
Dunbar is an intriguing pickup, with nearly 400 MLS minutes and nearly 4,000 USL Championship minutes in the LA Galaxy system under his belt. He’s played all over the attack, and is still just 20 years old; he’s an outsiders’ pick to be a key offensive contributor.
Oluwaseyi was last season’s first-round draft pick, but lost much of the year to injuries; he might need to prove himself with MNUFC2.
Weah, a 19-year-old Homegrown player, missed all of last season with a knee injury, and will need to show that he’s back and ready to go.
New names, new depth in defense
By the end of last season, the Loons’ defensive depth had been stretched to the breaking point. They lost both starting fullbacks early in the year, they lost emergency backup fullback Hassani Dotson as well, and they had to scramble all season to fill in. By the time that stalwart center back Bakaye Dibassy ruptured his quadriceps tendon - a freak injury, to say the least - they were down to, basically, four healthy defenders, for the final two months of the year.
This is why almost all of Minnesota’s offseason acquisitions have been defenders. The biggest name is Miguel Tapias, a 26-year-old who’s made 44 starts for Pachuca in Liga MX over the last five seasons. Tapias will immediately slot in as the starting left center back, next to Michael Boxall, who should this year become the first Loon to reach 150 appearances for the team (he’s currently at 148).
Kemar Lawrence returns as the starting left back. The Jamaican made 26 starts last season after Toronto let him go for basically nothing. At right back, the Loons return DJ Taylor, who started last year as MNUFC2’s right back, and ended it with a spot on the team’s protected list for the expansion draft, such was his development.
Brent Kallman, the longest-serving Loon, returns as a backup center back. The Loons additionally brought in MLS veterans Zarek Valentin, a right back, and Doneil Henry, a center back, as potential cover.
They also drafted left back Ryen Jiba in the MLS SuperDraft, after Jiba impressed with third-division Union Omaha last season, and signed 22-year-old Mikael Marques from the Swedish second division as a further center back prospect. And the Loons also still have midseason arrival Alan Benítez available as a right back, although Benítez looked to be more of a right wingback or even a right-sided midfielder than a defender.
Homegrown teenager Devin Padelford not only has a full MNUFC2 season under his belt at left back (and some center back), but got a fair number of preseason minutes this year.
So there you go: the Loons have five center backs, six when Dibassy returns later this year, three left backs, and three right backs. Nothing could go wrong, right?
As of last week, Taylor, Henry, Jiba, Kallman, Marques, and Benitez were all dealing with injury or illness problems. I don’t know what has cursed the Loons’ defense to be perennially injured, but it’s happening again this season.
Midfield continuity and potential
Dotson was last season’s candidate to be a breakout player in the midfield. After several years of being a utility player, demonstrating that he could play in midfield or at fullback (if perhaps not that well as a winger), Dotson was set to get an extended run in central midfield for the Loons.
Instead, he tore up his knee, after starting the first seven games of the season.
Now, he’s back - perhaps not for opening day, but for the Loons’ home opener on March 11 - and he’s earned the “like a new signing” designation from the coaching staff. The question is whether he can pick up where he left off, still with the potential of becoming an automatic first choice - because now he’s got competition.
Chiefly, that comes in the form of Kervin Arriaga, who made 22 starts last season for the Loons. The 25-year-old Honduran was, by American Soccer Analysis’s Goals Added metric, the third-best player in the Minnesota squad last season. Only Reynoso made more progressive passes than Arriaga last season, as the youngster became an under-the-radar solid number 8. Arriaga dealt with some injuries in the second half of last season, but if he’s healthy now, it may be hard for Dotson to displace him in the starting eleven.
Team captain Wil Trapp is back as well, to slot back into his role in defensive midfield. Trapp’s main concern last season was a strange run of games in which he would get a needless early yellow card, then run into a situation where he couldn’t risk a foul (because he couldn’t risk a second yellow), would have to back off from a challenge, and the ball would end up in the back of Minnesota’s net. He seemed to correct this - he earned only one yellow in eight starts following a midseason injury that kept him out for a month - and, as the only recognized d-mid the Loons have, they’ll need him to be at his best in his age-30 season.
Joseph Rosales, once a loanee, is still just 22, and will have plenty of chances as a late-game sub or injury replacement, perhaps at all three midfield spots.
At keeper, Dayne’s now the man
This is Dayne St. Clair’s fourth season in MLS, but it’s his first as a no-doubt #1 keeper.
It’s been a weird career so far for St. Clair. As a rookie in 2020, he was thrown into the lineup when Miller was injured midway through the season, and was one of the key factors in driving the Loons all the way to the Western Conference final. Newly anointed as the keeper of the future, he started the first four games in 2021; Minnesota lost them all, Miller took over in net, and didn’t give up the starting role the rest of the season (except for the playoffs, when Miller was ill and St. Clair started - and gave up three goals).
Miller began 2022 as the starter, but got sick again for the fourth game of the season - and St. Clair turned in one of the season’s best performances, shutting out New York despite the Red Bulls piling up eight shots and nearly 4 expected goals. It was impossible for the coaching staff to take him out the next week, and St. Clair obliged with a red-hot first half of the season that ended with him named to the MLS All-Star team.
That said, in the second half, St. Clair was ordinary again, and so his goal in 2023 has to be consistency above all.
As a backup, the Loons brought in veteran Clint Irwin, who’s made 133 MLS starts across 11 seasons for Colorado and Toronto. Eric Dick returns as the third keeper to bring the vibes and probably handle U.S. Open Cup duties, and Homegrown Fred Emmings - now done with high school - will likely get more seasoning with MNUFC2.
GK: St. Clair, Irwin, Dick, Emmings
LB: Lawrence, Jiba, Padelford
LCB: Tapias, Kallman
RCB: Boxall, Henry, Marques
RB: Taylor, Valentin, Benitez
CM: Arriaga, Dotson
CM: Lod, Rosales
LW: Fragapane, Dunbar
ST: Amarilla, Garcia, Oluwaseyi, Weah
(Note: all players listed only once, though many can play multiple roles)
We’re about to find out just how necessary the team’s Rey-centricity has been over the past few seasons.
There’s no doubt that Reynoso has been an amazing player for Minnesota; he’s certainly been the best player on their squad. But at times, Minnesota has done nothing but just rely on Reynoso to try to make everything happen, and they’ve looked the other way to ignore his flaws: Walking around the field rather than pressing. Getting into weird running feuds with referees (he’s the only player in MLS history to put up ten goals, ten assists, and ten yellow cards in a season).
It’s tipped the Loons away from being a team, and turned them into being Team Reynoso.
Perhaps he’ll return soon, and get fit, and by April 1 Minnesota will be back into that same comfortable system that they’ve used for the past two and a half years. But right now, it seems equally possible that we won’t see him at all this season.
And so we’ll find out: without Reynoso, is the team’s depth and quality enough to return to the playoffs for a fifth straight year? Or, all along, was this really a case of Reynoso dragging Minnesota to relevance?
Once again, this is a team that nobody wants. But as Minnesota learned, a decade ago, the team that nobody wants can sometimes become the team that everybody loves.