When Minnesota United Designated Player Adrien Hunou was brought in from Ligue 1 side Rennes in the Spring of 2021, there were high expectations with little to no ceiling.
However, the floor was at chest level.
The Loons had a massive hole at the Centre-Forward position and have struggled to fill it consistently over their five-year tenure in Major League Soccer. Hunou was thought of as an immediate solution, but all solutions need time to integrate and take time to develop. For Hunou, it may have taken the entirety of his first season with the Loons.
The Frenchman’s form last season warranted criticism at times, but when looking a little deeper into the underlying numbers and stats that he brought onto the pitch, the pieces all seem to be there beyond finding the back of the net consistently.
Hunou’s XG per 90 minutes was .52, with him scoring seven goals in 26 appearances (22 starts). His XG over those 26 appearances was 10.2, and although he fell just short, he wasn’t necessarily underperforming to what he brought onto the pitch. 2021 was the highest XG he has ever had in his career, with a mere 7.5 being his previous high during the 2019/20 season with Rennes in Ligue 1 where he scored 8 goals; his career high.
He now has an opportunity to reinvent himself as a footballer and present himself in a different way on the pitch after a pandemic-filled year of adaptation and personal growth. Following a short offseason, including a stint where he battled Covid-19 just after the Holiday season, Hunou feels renewed and more able-bodied than he has felt since his arrival to Minnesota.
“I feel more comfortable with the language… and with the expectations of the coach and the expectations of my teammates, too.”
The transition period from Ligue 1 to MLS had proven to be the most difficult obstacle for him to overcome, but he’s embraced the challenge and has no intention to give up anytime soon.
“In MLS, there is much more energy – you always have to go up and down and it’s very physical. In Europe, it’s more tactics where we learn how to keep the ball and it’s very difficult to switch. (The level of play) is very good between MLS and Ligue 1 but it’s good for me to have a new league.”
Hunou’s struggles have not been MNUFC’s only case of an International player finding difficulties in his first season in Major League Soccer.
The Frenchman’s case draws many parallels to that of right-winger Robin Lod, who has now turned out to be one of the Loons most crucial assets on both ends of the pitch.
The Finnish international joined Minnesota United in 2019 to an unwelcoming committee of supporters who bashed and trashed his play on the pitch over the course of his debut season.
That’s not to say the criticism wasn’t warranted, however.
Lod had managed an incredibly underwhelming 0.0 G+A over 10 appearances (six starts) in league play. Despite his difficulties on the pitch, it felt as though there was a lack of consideration on how difficult it is for an international player to leave everything he has ever known, jump to a new league and begin a new life in a new country surrounded by strangers.
For Lod, it was all about adaptation and being patient. In his second year with Minnesota, the Fin’ laced up his boots and outperformed nearly every single player on the pitch match after match. Fast forward to 2022 and it’s hard to think that the Loons could perform at a high level without him. During years two and three with the Loons, Lod has managed 16 goals and seven assists, while also being their leading scorer in 2021.
The key here is that patience is a virtue and that in the world of soccer, sometimes being patient with an individual is the best practice. For Hunou, it’s possible that time to adapt is all that he has needed.
“It’s a big transition of course, because now I play alone (as a single striker), and even if Rey is close to me, I am not used to this role because I usually play with two strikers. So it’s a new job for me, but I don’t find any excuses, you know? I want to keep going, to move forward and to help my teammates to reach our goals.”
He has shown that he has the quality to perform to the standards that MLS has for Centre-Forwards, but it’s now up to him to out-perform those standards.
Competition for the starting striker position has arrived in the form of South African international Bongokuhle Hlongwane, former first overall MLS Superdraft pick Abu Danladi and newly acquired Designated Player Luis Amarilla. However, a combination of the Frenchman and another forward could prove to be the key to unlocking the best version of Hunou, who had previously played in two-striker systems during his five first-team years with Rennes.
“Of course I’m very comfortable with two strikers because I can go to the ball, organize what I want and of course I can move forward and go in the box… so it’s good for me because I’m not really a man who scores a lot of goals but I am always in the box in the right space.”
Hunou added that in certain moments, the team plays in a way that allows him to flourish, but in other instances, they play to his weaknesses. Despite those weaknesses, he has no excuse and is embracing every opportunity he gets.
“I like when we play how we can stay together and stay close and find the right space, but for me, this is also a new season and there’s a new objective.”
That new objective entails a journey towards MLS Cup, which Hunou has his eyes set on. Personal goals aren’t something to focus on, rather, the team’s success is the bigger picture.
“I don’t have any goals, I’m not focused on the results, I’m focused about what I have to do in the training and to help my teammates in the game because that is the most important.”
Hunou added that he’s constantly asked how many goals he should score, but to him, it’s not just the goals. He wants to contribute through assists and creation opportunities too – the number of his strikes that find the back of the net are of no worry to him.
It’s difficult to not want to see Hunou succeed. He’s an incredibly humble, yet shy individual who expresses desire to see his side succeed rather than thinking of himself. He knows many supporters have already counted him out, but he’s striving to perform on the pitch and change their minds.
He’ll have his first chance to do so Saturday afternoon.