There have been times, watching Minnesota United FC, that by halftime I was mumbling to myself, “What the heck was that?”

Saturday, against Austin FC, was one of those times - but for once, it was because the Loons were actually dominating the game.

It was, in all seriousness, one of the best halves in Loons history. Minnesota led 1-0, thanks to a Robin Lod goal, and could have easily led 3-0; Lod hit the post, and Austin keeper Brad Stuver made a couple of other outstanding saves from headers.

The Loons had 13 shots, to Austin’s two, with seven on target (Los Verdes had one). MNUFC had forced eleven - ELEVEN - corners, in 45 minutes. In general, had three of Austin’s starting 11 fallen into a well at the opening whistle, I’m not sure the first half would have looked much different.

There was one memorable moment, about 25 minutes in, where a desperate Austin clearance fell to Michael Boxall, the only player standing in the MNUFC half… and Boxall had so little pressure on him that he just stopped, stood still for about five seconds, and waited for a few teammates to retreat so that he could re-start the Loons offense.

I joked in my season preview about how the new MNUFC looked an awful lot like the old MNUFC, and in terms of the lineup, that was absolutely true. There were zero new additions in the Loons’ starting lineup.

But about three minutes in, we saw Wil Trapp - good old reliable, stay-at-home d-mid, one-shot-on-target-per-season Wil Trapp - come pelting out of the Loons line to counter-press the opposition center back, because he recognized that there was an opportunity to turn Austin over in its own half. And that was the moment that I thought, “Well, maybe Cameron Knowles wasn’t joking about this high press thing.”

Knowles, the interim Loons head coach (and as far as I know, still the MNUFC2 head coach), had talked a pretty good game in preseason about wanting to play a high-pressing, front-foot kind of game.

The thing is, that’s what every new coach says. Nobody says, “I just want the fans to know that we don’t have the horses to play much soccer this year, so we’re gonna pack players behind the ball on defense, foul as much as we can in non-threatening areas, and hope that we can win 1-0 from a goal off a set piece, or maybe a wayward back-pass.”

But the Loons came out and actually did it, and in the first half, it forced Austin FC into full-time panic mode. I’ve basically never seen that kind of thing from MNUFC; they have always made some effort to press, but generally that came down to “Emanuel Reynoso getting in wars all over the field, and everyone else being alert enough to run towards the goal if he wins the ball.” In this one, they were harrying Austin all over the field, and Hassani Dotson and Lod and Trapp were running around like free safeties picking up second balls, and every time you looked up, the Loons had a corner kick.

And in the second half… when would you ever, ever have previously seen something that looked like the following, from MNUFC?

68’: Alejandro Bran in for Lod
69’: Tani Oluwaseyi in for Teemu Pukki
77’: Loïc Mesanvi in for Sang Bin Jeong
78’: Caden Clark in for Franco Fragapane
87’: Zarek Valentin in for DJ Taylor

Five subs, including four young players, including three players making their Loons debuts. Fresh legs, to get out there and run, trusted enough to close out what was still then a one-goal game.

I’m not sure it could have paid off more than it did, with the Loons scoring a second goal, in stoppage time, courtesy of a pass from Clark to Oluwaseyi, who laid it off for Bran to score. After Minnesota conceded a stoppage-time of its own (a sign that, even if everything’s different, these are still the Loons), Bran’s goal was the game-winner.

Now, Austin FC may be truly awful this season. Still, you have to give credit to Knowles, who found out ten days before preseason started that he’d be the interim head coach, not the interim assistant coach.

Knowles, working with a technical staff that included MNUFC2 assistant Jeremy Hall, U19 academy head coach Fanendo Adi, and academy goalkeeping coach Cristiano Costa, had to oversee the on-field transition to the new season. He had to deal with plenty of off-season scuttlebut, including a late arrival from Reynoso, and as serving as the face of the franchise while new GM Khaled El-Ahmad worked to get his work visa and be allowed come to the United States.

It’s not his first go-round in MLS; he was a Portland Timbers assistant for six years, so he’s not new to any of this. He also possesses the calmest demeanor you’ll find; the New Zealand native looks like a sinkhole could open up underneath the goal mid-game, and he wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. (“The sinkhole was a challenge for the group that we have,” he’d say postgame, “and we want to make sure that we’re challenging this group and building that trust.”)

In the space of one preseason, as an interim coach, Knowles seemingly has transformed how MNUFC approaches the game. He won his first match in MLS, and without the benefit of having his two best attacking players in the lineup.

In 45 minutes, we stopped wondering why the Loons hadn’t hired a head coach, and started wondering why they hadn’t hired this head coach.

Things aren’t going to be easy for the Loons. Their next three games are 1) home against the MLS Cup champs, Columbus; 2) away against the second-best team in MLS last season, Orlando; and 3) home against MLS Cup (and CONCACAF Champions League, and Campeones Cup) runners-up LAFC.

For one night, though, the Loons can let their optimism go through the roof. The people haven’t changed, for MNUFC, but right now it sure seems like everything’s different.