Arguably the most in-form team over the summer across Major League Soccer outside of both LAFC and Austin FC, Minnesota United are cruising through the Western Conference.
A week 26 victory over Austin at Allianz Field – a 2-1 win – has the Loons flying higher than any point throughout their 2022 campaign. In their last 11 matches, MNUFC have tallied an impressive record of 8-1-2 dating back to June 29.
“I’m delighted for the guys,” said Adrian Heath following the win. “We’re on a really good run.”
The stretch has exposed both the highs and lows of the squad, but the theme of perseverance accompanied by determination has countered any negatives they’ve run into. Wins over the Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Nashville SC and now Austin FC are the highlights to take away, but now, a larger picture looms accompanied by an even larger question.
Are Minnesota turning into an MLS Cup candidate?
You might say, “Hold up, it’s too early for a column like this.”
It’s not. Due to the condensed schedule and early start time due to the FIFA World Cup taking place in November, the season is already coming to an end. Just eight matches remain for the Loons, meaning 24 points is all that is left on the board.
In simple terms, we are 48 days away from Decision Day; the final day of the regular season.
Sitting 4th place in the West, with a four-point gap between 5th place Real Salt Lake and just one point behind 3rd place FC Dallas (and ahead on points-per-game with two games in hand), the Loons are in pole-position to make a play in the postseason. If their form continues, they look to be a lock for both a home playoff game and to be in contention for regular season awards. All three of Emanuel Reynoso, Dayne St. Clair and Adrian Heath should be in contention for the forthcoming accolades of the Landon Donovan MVP award, Allstate Goalkeeper of the year award and the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year award.
In other words, the Loons are more than flying, they’re soaring. Over the course of the summer months they’ve established themselves to currently be among the elite across the league. The Loons are primed and ready to keep their playoff spot, and furthermore, contend for an MLS Cup. A true dark horse contender, Minnesota have snuck up on the league’s best this season.
“I think [beating Austin] gives us a good barometer for where we are at this moment in time,” said Heath. “We’ve played arguably the most in form team [along] with [LAFC] in the league and we’ve more than held our own.”
There are a handful of reasons why the Loons are in position for postseason success, and it starts with their opposition.
Strength of Schedule (or lackthereof)
The Loons remaining calendar is favorable as well, with four home matches and a friendly strength of schedule. Of the eight remaining matches (all of which are Western Conference sides), only two are against teams ahead of them in the table and those two matches are both at Allianz Field. The Loons will host FC Dallas on September 3 and LAFC on September 13, and Minnesota has already claimed three points on the road against the former this season.
MNUFC will find themselves hitting the road to take on Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers, Sporting KC and the San Jose Earthquakes while their home schedule will include Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, LAFC and then the Vancouver Whitecaps on Decision Day.
Emanuel Reynoso: Untouchable
Reason No. 2 lies between the boots of the Loons talisman and playmaker, Emanuel Reynoso. The Argentine is in the MVP conversation and for good reason. Heading into week 27, the 26-year-old has 10 goals and 8 assists across 24 appearances for the Loons this campaign.
Bebelo brings out the best in those around him, too. Franco Fragapane is actively playing his best footy in a Loons kit at the moment, and the connection between him and Reynoso is actively visible. The two Argentine playmakers have single handedly kept the Loons afloat in recent weeks.
“We know what type of player Bebelo [Reynoso] is,” said Fragapene. “He’s a very good player. We know that if you give him the ball, he’ll return it well. His quality is out of this world.”
On top of Fragapane, striker Luis Amarilla has found both his shooting boots and confidence. Having a reliable striker is something the Loons lacked throughout the first half of the season. Now, Amarilla is proving to be both confident and reliable in a Loons kit of late.
Robin Lod: Flexible
In addition to Reynoso, the Loons Finnish midfielder Robin Lod has proved to be the most vital component of the team. Without Lod, it feels as if the Loons summer success would not have happened.
Their leading goalscorer throughout the first three months of the season, Lod was forced to move down from the Right Wing spot into the double-pivot of the midfield following an injury to Kervin Arriaga, followed by an eventual Wil Trapp injury and frequent spells on the sideline to Joseph Rosales.
“We know [Lod’s} quality, and you see it day in and day out,” said Trapp. “He’s just a smart, technical, sound soccer player…[his success] is no surprise to us.”
It’s important to note that Lod plays centrally for the Finnish National team, but this has been a first in a Loons kit. His vital performances as both a leader and a footballer centrally have given the club the hope and determination they need to succeed. With Lod and Reynoso on the pitch, it feels as though the Loons are all one unit. The duo are, in Minnesota terms, the tater tots to our hotdish. Without the former, can the latter really be the best version of itself? Likely not.
Adrian Heath: Consistent
When the Loons bowed out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to USL League One side Union Omaha in May, three straight losses in MLS play followed. During the four-match skid, across social media, fans and supporters alike voiced their disapproval of Heath and Front Office staff amid the struggles.
“When you look at where we were after that match in the Miami game, I’m not sure too many people would have thought that we’d have won seven, draw two and lost one with the amount of quality of opposition we played in that time,” said Heath.
Opinions aside, his track record in Minnesota has consistently improved, seeing that he was rewarded with a two-year contract extension prior to the 2022 campaign, despite the delayed announcement of it until midway through the calendar year.
The Loons gaffer deserves his plaudits for performances throughout this summer. He’s made both tactical adjustments along with moving around on-field personnel to benefit said tactics. In addition to that, three key summer signings were brought in to help bolster the playoff push. The form the Loons are in at the moment doesn’t happen without a coach believing in his group and adjusting to get the best out of his squad.
If Minnesota can continue this form throughout the remaining eight matches of the season, Heath’s name should comfortably be thrown into the hat for Coach of the Year, and if Minnesota perform well enough down the stretch (ie catch Austin in the standings), he and the club both may be strong candidates to take home hardware.
“I knew [Austin] was going to be tough,” said Heath. “But this team is capable of beating anybody. And I mean anybody.”