Back at the end of Minnesota United FC’s 2023 season, when they’d fired manager Adrian Heath and committed themselves to change, most observers thought it was the dawning of the second MLS era of MNUFC. Things would be different, we thought. Major changes might be afoot. There’d be a new coach! A new chief soccer officer making the decisions! And, therefore, the team would look immensely different!

And now it’s Opening Day of the 2024 season, and - well, not much has changed.

The team’s biggest offseason departure was going to be Wil Trapp, the defensive midfielder who often captained the team, but Trapp re-signed as a free agent. The team’s biggest offseason addition, attacking midfielder Caden Clark, was signed by the previous regime. The rest of the new players - a young Swedish center back, an on-loan midfielder from a CONCACAF nation, some college draft picks, a few promising American players - are almost exactly the same as last year’s additions, and the season before that, and the season before that.

Here’s the starting lineup for the team’s final preseason game:

Fragapane - Pukki - Jeong
Dotson - Trapp - Lod
Rosales - Tapias - Boxall - Taylor
St. Clair

Seven of those eleven players started MNUFC’s final game of 2023; three others were on the bench that day, and Robin Lod was out with an injury.

Other than that the team lined up in a 4-3-3, instead of a 4-2-3-1… it’s going to look awfully familiar.

This really is going to be the bet that MNUFC is making for 2024, at least for the first part of the year, before they have the potential to make additions in the summer: despite missing the playoffs in 2023, they already have a team that can flip the script in 2024.

It’s not obvious that they’re wrong about this. They’re not short of pieces; the only place on the field that they don’t have an veteran starter is left back. They have an elite-level number 10 in Emanuel Reynoso. They have a striker, Teemu Pukki, that got 10 goals in 13 starts after arriving midseason in 2023. They have an international-level goalkeeper in Dayne St. Clair. They three-quarters of an experienced back four (Michael Boxall, Miguel Tapias, and DJ Taylor). They have a midfield with three players (Hassani Dotson, Lod, and Trapp) with more than 80 starts for the Loons. They have depth up front, if not along the back line.

Sure, it’s mostly the same team that contrived to miss the playoffs last year. But this same squad had the seventh-best expected goals numbers in the league, according to American Soccer Analysis, and only a strange and team-wide inability to finish scoring chances at home ended up dooming them to so drastically underperform.

The new era’s going to look a lot like the old era, then. So let’s take a look at the roster, with some notes about each player.

1. Clint Irwin, GK

2023 by the numbers: turned 34 years old. 4 MLS starts, 3 in the U.S. Open Cup.

Stock report: Flat. Irwin is the epitome of an MLS backup keeper; he hasn’t made 20 league starts in a season since 2015, but he’s made at least one start every season except for one. 137 MLS starts is a pretty good career!

2. Devin Padelford, FB

2023 by the numbers: 154 minutes in MLS, plus 90 more in the US Open Cup. Scored his first MLS goal, one more in 2023 than (among others) Wil Trapp and Robin Lod.

Stock report: Up. Padelford has mostly played for MNUFC2 in his first two pro seasons, and is the career minutes leader for the Doubloons, but he also made the first-team squad 17 times. There are reasons to hope he’ll be the first real graduate of the MNUFC development pipeline.

3. Zarek Valentin, FB

2023 by the numbers: 19 starts, playing both left and right back. Leader in the clubhouse for good quotes given to English-speaking media.

Stock report: Up. Valentin might have been a depth signing, but he’s the definition of a solid veteran. The Loons brought him back for another year, and for good reason; they know that they can plug him in wherever they need, and get a good, intelligent effort.

4. Miguel Tapias, CB

2023 by the numbers: led the Loons in minutes, with 3430 in all competitions.

Stock report: Up. Tapias made the transition from Liga MX to MLS pretty seamlessly, and was good enough at left center back that the Loons let their other LCBs, Brent Kallman and Bakaye Dibassy, walk after the year.

7. Franco Fragapane, W

2023 by the numbers: Just two goals in 18 starts in all competitions.

Stock report: Down. Fragapane went from being the everyday starter on the left, to being an occasional starter, to - as 2024 starts - being second-choice on the left, behind Bongokuhle Hlongwane.

8. Joseph Rosales, MF (or maybe FB?)

2023 by the numbers: More MLS minutes for the Loons than any other 22-and-under player, besides Hlongwane.

Stock report: Up. The Loons brought him back for 2024, and they seem prepared to make him the starting left back to begin the year.

10. Emanuel Reynoso, AM

2023 by the numbers: Missed first 18 games of season due to suspension. 0.74 non-penalty xG + xA per game in MLS - 3rd in the league among players with at least 1,000 minutes.

Stock report: Flat, but in the sense that Reynoso is once again the most important player on the Loons roster. This year, he made it to preseason while it was still preseason - but he’s dealing with an MCL strain.

11. Sang Bin Jeong, AM

2023 by the numbers: one goal in 29 appearances.

Stock report: Down. Jeong is still more than a month short of his 22nd birthday, but his first year in MLS was pretty underwhelming; he seemed like the quintessential hard-working player that isn’t a difference-maker. There’s nothing wrong with this; plenty of players have had long MLS careers, simply by working hard and playing intelligently. Former Loon Ethan Finlay, for example, has played more than 18,000 MLS minutes, simply by continuously running inside the opposition left back and then getting back on defense, for 90 minutes at a time. It’s fine! But maybe not what we expected from SBJ.

12. Derek Dodson, D

2023 by the numbers: 3,042 minutes for Charleston in the USL Championship.

Stock report: New guy! Dodson is 25 and has played more than 6,000 minutes in the American second division. The former top-10 draft pick is looking for a chance with the Loons.

14. Tani Oluwaseyi, ST

2023 by the numbers: On loan with San Antonio, led the second division with 1.02 G+A per game.

Stock report: Way up. Oluwaseyi had the very definition of a successful loan season, scoring 16 goals in 23 starts for San Antonio after going on loan there at the end of April. He’s now second on the striker depth chart for the Loons.

15. Michael Boxall, CB

2023 by the numbers: 38 starts for the Loons, giving him 204 for his Loons career - about twice as many as any other Loons player.

Stock report: Flat. You know what you’re getting with Boxall, who will be 36 later this year - four years older than incoming head coach Eric Ramsay. He’s been the first name on the Loons’ team sheet for six years.

17. Robin Lod, MF

2023 by the numbers: Missed final 27 games of the season due to injury.

Stock report: Flat. Lod is still one of the most important players in the Loons lineup, but it’s not entirely obvious where he’ll play this year - or whether he can be effective in central midfield, rather than on the wing.

20. Wil Trapp, MF

2023 by the numbers: 6 yellow cards, one season after earning 11 in a year.

Stock report: Down. As beloved as Trapp is by the Loons front office, and as model of a professional as he is, it was something of a surprise to see the Loons re-sign him.

21. Bongokuhle Hlongwane, W

2023 by the numbers: Led team with 17 goals - 8 in MLS, 2 in the U.S. Open Cup, and 7 in Leagues Cup.

Stock report: Way up. In 2022, I was openly hoping that a wayward shot would hit Bongi and rebound into the net, just so that he’d get a goal and get past what seemed to be a mental block. In 2023, he broke out in a big way - and could have had more. No player in MLS had a bigger negative difference between his expected and actual goals.

22. Teemu Pukki, ST

2023 by the numbers: one goal in his first nine starts in MLS and Leagues Cup; nine in his final eight starts, including four in one game

Stock report: Up. Pukki is the biggest-name signing in Loons history, but the annals of “veteran European import joining MLS in midseason” are filled with guys whose main goals in the States seemed to be “never running once, for any reason, in a match.” Pukki found his feet quicker than most, and ended up averaging almost a goal per game.

25. Alejandro Bran, MF

2023 by the numbers: 1400 minutes for Costa Rican giants Herediano.

Stock report: New guy! Bran has played six times for the Costa Rican national team, so he’s not a no-name loanee.

27. DJ Taylor, FB

2023 by the numbers: 36 starts at fullback, giving him more than 60 for his career.

Stock report: Flat, but I’m still enamored with Taylor’s career. At the start of 2022, he was starting for MNUFC2, without a lot of hope for the future. By the end of the year, the Loons were protecting him in the expansion draft.

29. Patrick Weah, ST

2023 by the numbers: 124 minutes, on loan with Tulsa in the second division.

Stock report: Down. Weah’s just 20, but he’s yet to make his mark at any pro level. As a homegrown, Minnesota fans are rooting hard for him to make it, but so far he’s yet to come through.

31. Hassani Dotson, MF

2023 by the numbers: Only Loon to play in all 34 MLS matches, one year after a devastating season-ending knee injury.

Stock report: Flat, but we’ll see. Is this the year that Dotson finally gets a consistent position and role in the Loons squad, beyond “if there’s an open spot on the field, just throw Hassani in there”?

33. Kervin Arriaga, MF

2023 by the numbers: Arriaga played 20 or more minutes in a game 20 times, and got at least one yellow card in eight of them, including getting sent off in the first half once.

Stock report: Down. Arriaga is young, but he needs to find a role on the team, besides “chaos agent.”

37. Caden Clark, AM

2023 by the numbers: 53 minutes for Vendsyssel in the Danish league.

Stock report: New guy! Clark was the One That Got Away for years, having departed Minnesota’s academy to join the New York Red Bulls, then moving to RB Leipzig; now he’s back to resurrect himself a bit, after his move to Europe didn’t work out. He’s still just 20 years old, and already is in the top 10 all-time for MLS minutes among Minnesota natives.

40. Victor Eriksson, CB

2023 by the numbers: 29 starts for Värnamo in the Swedish league.

Stock report: New guy! MNUFC does not have a great record with Scandinavian defenders, but maybe Eriksson is the one to break the trend.

44. Moses Nyeman, MF

2023 by the numbers: 16 starts in MLS NEXT Pro for Real Salt Lake’s reserve squad.

Stock report: New guy! Nyeman got nearly 1300 minutes over two seasons for DC United in 2020 and 2021, got a lot fewer in 2022, tried to move to Belgium (?), came back for RSL, and - a little like Weah or Clark - is now trying to rebuild things, even though he just turned 20.

67. Carlos Harvey, MF

2023 by the numbers: 31 starts for Phoenix Rising in the USL Championship.

Stock report: New guy! Harvey scored five goals, had four assists, and earned nine yellow cards for the second-division champs. Clearly, he is a man who makes things happen.

97. Dayne St. Clair, GK

2023 by the numbers: 35 starts in all competitions. In MLS, conceded 42 goals on 36.65 xG. Per game, this was 32nd of 43 keepers who played at least 500 minutes in MLS last year.

Stock report: Down. St. Clair is such a strangely streaky keeper. After the Gold Cup last year, or prior to the All-Star Break in 2022, he was in the top 10 keepers in the league. In between - the second half of 2022, and the first half of 2023 - there was a statistical argument to be made that he was MLS’s worst regular goalkeeper. Minnesota’s locked in on him as the starter this year, but they need Good DSC in order to thrive.

99. Jordan Adebayo-Smith, F

2023 by the numbers: 12 goals in 28 appearances for the New England Revolution’s MLS NEXT Pro team.

Stock report: New guy! He’s got some goal-scoring talent, obviously, and also his full name is “Adebowale Aderinto Jordan Adebayo-Smith,” which puts him in the top percentile of MLS names.

Three things for you, the informed fan, to watch for as MNUFC starts the year without a permanent coach

Thing 1: What kind of shape will the Loons play, defensively? For all of the talk about a 4-2-3-1, Minnesota almost always set up in a 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2, really) defensively. Reynoso and the striker would try to close off passes through the middle, the wings would attack the opposing fullbacks if they got in trouble or drop back to cover down the flanks if they didn’t, and the back four and central midfielders would just try to keep the attack in front of them.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Loons want to press higher this year - what will that mean? Three men in front to press the defense? More pressure on the opposing fullbacks?

Thing 2: How will Joseph Rosales, starting at left back, play when the Loons have the ball? He’s a midfielder and sometime winger - will he be tasked as playing as more of a wingback, rather than a traditional up-and-down the touchline fullback?

Thing 3: What kind of keeper will Dayne St. Clair be, in this new MNUFC era? St. Clair has been a stay-at-home shot-stopper for most of his career, far more likely to send the ball long than start an attack. With a new coaching staff, will St. Clair be playing the ball more, or serving as a sweeper more - or will he stay pinned to his goal?


That this blog will be finished before kickoff of the opening game!