Four For Four: Loons fly into playoffs yet again

Minnesota United is in the playoffs again, so let’s start there. They got there unconventionally, with an impressive winning run, followed by a total collapse, followed on Sunday evening with a calm, assured, must-have 2-0 win against Vancouver at Allianz Field.

But in the end, the Loons are into the MLS Cup playoffs, for the fourth time in four years.

Minnesota is one of four teams in MLS to make the playoffs in each of the past four seasons; New York, NYCFC, and Philadelphia are the others.

Even for pessimistic Minnesotans, that’s got to earn the highest praise we tend to give out: Not so bad. Pretty decent.

Not that the Loons were going to celebrate, much. There were two tubs filled with ice in the locker room after the game, one with champagne, one with beer – but no signs of anybody spraying them.

Apparently, the team put plastic sheets up to protect the lockers, and the players just took the sheets down.

“We expected to make the playoffs,” said Wil Trapp, the Loons’ captain this season. “It’s not ideal that it took us until the last day to do so.”

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Coming into what MLS billed as “Decision Day,” Minnesota needed a draw or better to assure themselves of another playoff berth. What they got was one of their most comprehensive performances of the season, neutralizing the Whitecaps’ attack and – finally – converting two of their own scoring chances.

The opening of the game was, understandably, cagey. Neither team was ready to commit to an all-out press, both were sitting off the other team’s center backs and denying space in the middle of the field.

The Whitecaps put the first shot on goal after five minutes, a 40-yard skipper that Dayne St. Clair had to parry away. The rebound fell to Julian Gressel from a sharp angle, but St. Clair stood up to push away the rebound as well.

For the first quarter-hour, Emanuel Reynoso could barely get on the ball; eventually, he found he simply needed to go through Andres Cubas to get there. Reynoso caught Cubas in possession, poked the ball to Franco Fragapane, and the winger did the rest, dribbling to the top of the penalty area and placing a low shot – right-footed, amazingly – into the bottom-left corner.

Courtesy MNUFC

The goal did open up the game, though both teams had to be content with long-range efforts. Robin Lod and DJ Taylor each had a pair of open attempts from the edge of the area, but all four shots flew high and wide.

After halftime, Vancouver – needing two goals to keep the season alive – began slowly inching forward, increasingly moving their press higher and pushing one of their two defensive midfielders into the attack. The Loons responded by shifting to a 4-3-3, adding Jonathan González into the midfield and removing Ménder García, who hadn’t had much to do except run at the left back for most of the night.

With a half-hour to go, the Whitecaps started throwing caution to the wind, inserting Lucas Cavallini and switching to three defenders at the back. It resulted in one immediate chance – Vancouver hit the crossbar, though they were offside – but it mostly seemed to open up the space for Minnesota to counter-attack. Lod blazed over the crossbar from inside the penalty area, and Luis Amarilla hit a low, dipping shot that squirmed through Hasal’s gloves but rolled wide of the post.

Just as nerves were beginning to jangle, Jonathan González doubled Minnesota’s lead, latching onto a deflected cross and slotting under Hasal with fifteen minutes to go.

It was González’s first goal for the Loons, and he’ll perhaps need some celebration practice. “Honestly I just didn’t really know how to celebrate, I didn’t know what to do,” said the midfielder. “I was just in shock.”

And from there – nerves in the stands, and one tremendous Dayne St. Clair save from a free kick, aside – Minnesota closed out a comfortable win, with maximum confidence.

Manager Adrian Heath said that, of the four playoff seaons, this was the most difficult. “I think this one’s been a lot more challenging, I really do, with the injuries that we’ve had and the people that we’ve missed,” he said.

Heath is just one of two MLS coaches with a current four-year playoff streak; Jim Curtin in Philly is the other one.

The manager was clear to say that this one meant much to him, personally. “People think making the playoffs is easy; it’s not,” said Heath. “Look at the teams that have not made the playoffs this year. Toronto. Seattle. Portland. Atlanta. These are storied franchises that have spent fortunes in money. It’s not easy and we shouldn’t take it for granted.

“The players can have a lot of pride in what they’ve done. And supporters deserve to make the playoffs, because they turn up every single week regardless of how we’re doing, and get behind the group.”

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In the six years of Minnesota’s MLS history, they’re one of nine teams to make the playoffs four or more times.

You don’t hear much talk about how the Loons are a franchise to emulate, though. “I think the word ‘afterthought’ is certainly in our lexicon,” said Trapp. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, if you can win games and move on, it’s four games to win MLS Cup. I think we have the quality and the group of players that can do that.”

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