Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

Image: Minnesota United

It’s been a long time coming.

After missing the first 15 games of Minnesota United’s 2023 campaign, the club’s undoubted MVP made his eagerly anticipated debut Saturday night, playing 30 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC at Allianz Field.

And he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.

“Well he gave us a lift didn’t he with his quality,” said manager Adrian Heath. “You know we can’t afford to be without our better players. We can’t. That’s the harsh reality of it all. And Rey is one of our best players and he showed that tonight.”

There has been a lot of conversation around what the response from fans would be when the Argentine finally took the pitch for the Loons, considering it was more-or-less his choice to stay in his home country, remain suspended for the opening third of the season, and wait nearly four months after preseason training began to join the team.

But, when #10 showed up in green on the fourth official’s board, and the jersey with “Reynoso” on the back was seen standing on the sideline, the crowd of 19,000+ at Allianz Field let out arguably their largest ovation of the season so far.

“He gave everybody a lift. He gave the crowd a lift,” said Heath.

In his half-hour debut, Reynoso (to my untrained eye) didn’t seem to have any rust on him. His on-ball skill was head-and-shoulders above anyone else on the pitch (including two players who have featured in the UEFA Champions League within the last four years), he awed the capacity crowd with his next-level ability to navigate through tight spaces and leave multiple defenders in his wake, and his presence alone provided a confidence that Minnesota could not only erase the 1-0 deficit late on, but come out with all three points.

A prime example of Reynoso’s quality showed in the 73rd minute, as the All-Star weaved his way through traffic expertly, lost the ball get somehow got it back, and worked into a prime shooting position from just inside the box. The shot toward the near post was low and brisk, but missed the mark by inches, leaving the crowd both disappointed at the miss and inspired by the individual brilliance.

With the clock winding down and the Loons still in desperate need of a goal, the Argentine sent an on-point cross to an awaiting Bongokuhle Hlongwane at the back post. Bongi’s shot was denied, but Minnesota were able to regain possession and recycle the ball. Kervin Arriaga received a pass in a dangerous area and sent a scorcher on goal that deflected off a defender’s hip and into the back of the net.

“[Arriaga] should score more goals,” said Heath. “He has an unbelievable strike on both feet, he’s six foot four, and at times he doesn’t get in the box enough and that’s something we’ve been talking to him about.”

Following a manic month of May, where Minnesota played eight games in a 28-day span, Reynoso now has an opportunity to get a plethora of training sessions under his belt with the group as the team looks ahead to just two more league matches in June.

If you were to build out a checklist of items Rey needed to accomplish upon his return to the team, it looks as if that list is complete.

Apologize to the team? Check. Apologize to the fans? Check. Get fit? Check. Return to team training? Check. Return to the field? Check.

“After the first week [after Reynoso’s return] I thought that we might have a chance [to have him ready by June],” said Heath. “You know we got a good opportunity this week to put more work into him and I would expect maybe a similar sort of scenario next week. Then we have two weeks to get really some proper work into him, when we haven’t got anything to look forward to at the end of the week. I’m hoping that by the time we’ve had that two weeks he’ll be ready to go.”

All things considered, Minnesota have to be content with where they currently sit, considering the long absence of their most impactful player. Through 16 matches, the Loons sit seventh in the Western Conference standings, above the important “best-of-three” playoff line.

While Reynoso’s return doesn’t guarantee results and an ascension up the table, it brings a ton of optimism that Minnesota can find a new level of form, and a breakout attacker like Hlongwane can become even more dangerous alongside one of the best player’s in the league.

The Loons now look ahead to a road matchup next Saturday, June 10, against CF Montreal. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. CT on Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass.

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