Minnesota United finished fifth in the MLS Western Conference last year. It was the Loons’ third consecutive playoff appearance, a streak that only a handful of the teams in the league can match. They lost convincingly in the playoffs, but in a road game, against a team that was so hot that they ended up hosting MLS Cup.
MNUFC lost only one player from its generally accepted starting eleven in the second half of last year, 36-year-old Ozzie Alonso. It added new signings in the places where the team struggled in 2021, including Designated Player-level talent at striker.
With all that in mind, now that the preseason predictions have started to roll in, it seems like most of the media is picking the Loons to… miss the playoffs.
Complaining about preseason predictions or power rankings is entirely tedious. It’s an impossible job to offer picks in a league where not only is there very little preseason competition available to watch, but there are 28 teams to try to get a handle on, most of which have spent the offseason bringing in players from the farthest reaches of the globe.
Keeping up with a single team is hard enough, never mind more than two dozen.
So this is not a criticism of anyone’s preseason picks. It’s simply a look at the reasons that many have offered for why they think the Loons will struggle, and why those of us who watch them closely might – or might not – disagree.
Reason #1: They lost Ján Greguš and Ozzie Alonso in central midfield, one of the most important position groups in Adrian Heath’s favored 4-2-3-1.
Why this might be right: Well, those are awfully good players.
Greguš was a Designated Player for the Loons and their only recognized No. 8, and Alonso is a shoo-in Hall of Famer as a defensive midfielder – and they didn’t replace the pair with other veterans.
Why it might not: Alonso made only 15 starts last year; Greguš only made nine, and none after mid-August.
Last year’s midfield was really Wil Trapp (31 starts) plus some combination of Greguš, Alonso, and Hassani Dotson. The Loons chose Dotson to retain from that trio, given that Greguš was both injured and ineffective last year, Alonso is by any reckoning a player on the back nine of his career, and Dotson is a U.S. youth international who desperately needs a consistent position. And as cover, they brought in Kervin Arriaga, a young Honduran international with upside.
Reason #2: This team simply did not click in 2021.
Why this might be right: It’s true, MNUFC was entirely maddening for most of the season.
It’s hard to tell which performance was the most frustrating – was it the two games where they had a man advantage for 70 minutes, but managed just one goal, total? Was it the game against Colorado where they had a man advantage, at home, and somehow turned a 1-0 lead into a 3-1 loss?
Why it might not: Two key players – Adrien Hunou and Franco Fragapane – didn’t arrive until mid-May and mid-June, respectively. Neither had a preseason with his new team, neither had ever played in the United States before.
And then, you have to consider that the team had so many injuries at once that not only did they sign Fanendo Adi, but started him in an actual counts-in-the-standings league game.
Is it any wonder that the team struggled for consistency? From far away, this looked like a team that couldn’t find itself, that couldn’t build anything. Up close, you saw a team that was desperate enough for players to start Hassani Dotson at left wing, a position that he himself would admit is not one that plays to his strengths.
Now, this season, the Loons have a squad that knows each other. Even the biggest signing of the offseason, Luis Amarilla, has played here before.
Reason #3: The Loons practically backed into the playoffs, and were closer to ninth place than they were to fourth.
Why this might be right: The standings don’t lie. The Loons were one single Galaxy goal on the final day from finishing eighth, not fifth; if they’d given up one more goal and then run it back with the same squad that missed the playoffs, there would be a lot more questions about what they were doing.
Why it might not: When you consider that this squad lost its first four games of 2021, any manner of making the playoffs becomes an accomplishment. Earning 49 points in the final 30 games is a 1.63 ppg pace, which would have been the fifth-best mark in the league last season.
It’s also worth considering the manner that this team squeezed into the playoffs. They followed the aforementioned Colorado disaster with a pair of wins, the second a come-from-behind 3-2 victory against Philadelphia, who finished second in the East. And with their backs against the wall at the end of the season, they beat Sporting Kansas City (chasing a top seed) at home, then held on for a road draw against a star-studded Galaxy team that was playing for its playoff life.
That’s two tough wins, when it really counted.
Reason #4: This team can’t score any goals.
Why this might be right: Exactly one team made last year’s playoffs with a negative goal differential, and you can guess which one. They brought in Hunou as a DP striker last year, but he managed just seven goals – yet he’s back again for another round.
Why it might not: The underlying numbers (thanks American Soccer Analysis) had the Loons as the sixth-best offensive team in the league last year, but they somehow contrived to underperform that mark by nearly nine goals – the worst finishing in the league.
Even if you believe that Hunou doesn’t know where the back of the net is – which seems unlikely, given that he’s generally performed up to his underlying numbers in his career – the Loons brought in between two and four potential replacements for him, depending on how much you believe in their youngsters. Amarilla is a Designated Player, Abu Danladi is now an MLS veteran, and both Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Tani Oluwaseyi are young and exciting, if nothing else.
Strictly speaking, the doubters are not wrong about the Loons. They are missing important players from the past, they were up and down last season, and they couldn’t finish chances.
But others might instead see a team that had understandable struggles last year, but which made plenty of offseason moves to address the areas where it was weakest.
Which group is right, of course, will not be decided by anyone’s preseason predictions.