Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

Image: Minnesota United

Two seemingly opposite things can be equally true, at the halfway point of the 2023 Major League Soccer season.

First, no matter what the standings say, the underlying numbers tell us that Minnesota United have been expected to be one of the best teams in the league so far this year, and they just need to unlock their potential.

Second, this team needs a healthy, in-shape, switched-on Emanuel Reynoso in the worst way, and can’t get where they want to go without him – maybe not even to the playoffs.

I’m using “expected” numbers from American Soccer Analysis here, and those venerable stat heads tell us that if you look at expected points in the standings, the Loons are the third-best team in MLS this season, behind only Cincinnati and Seattle. According to those expected numbers, MNUFC is on pace for 55 points this season.

That they only have 20 points in the standings, and are outside the playoff line, is due to some historically terrible underperformance of their expected numbers. ASA has seasons going back to 2013 in their database, and on a per-game basis, only the LA Galaxy (this season, and barely) has ever underperformed their expected goal difference numbers more.

The numbers say that the Loons’ goal difference is 0.84 goals worse, per game, than the underlying numbers would suggest.

Effectively, they’re starting every game 1-0 down, to themselves.

There appear to be many reasons for this. Dayne St. Clair’s shot-stopping hasn’t been good, so even though the defense has done a pretty good job, more goals than expected have gone in. It’s not that St. Clair is making horrible errors, exactly; it’s just that he’s had very few moments in which he’s made a really good save.

Sometimes it seems like the Loons will only allow two or three half-chances in a game, but all of them will end up in the back of the net. They need their goalkeeper to keep out a few of those.

It’s the other end that’s the problem, though, and right now, nobody is MLS is underperforming their xG numbers more than Bongokuhle Hlongwane.

Bongi’s actually been one of the best players in the entire league this season, in terms of getting into good positions to score; he’s third in non-penalty expected goals, according to He’s also third in Goals Added, from ASA.

This is the profile of perhaps the best wide forward in MLS… except that he’s only scored four goals, and doesn’t have a single assist.

He’s not the only one at fault for a lack of scoring, of course. Franco Fragapane, Robin Lod, and the now-departed Luis Amarilla have combined to score zero non-penalty goals this season, and Sang Bin Jeong not only missed a penalty, but has only managed one goal since his arrival in early April.

Even if the Loons get better goalkeeping and better finishing, though, they need something more, no matter what the underlying numbers say.

The team’s entire structure is built around funneling the ball to a central attacking midfielder, a chance creator in the middle of the field. They have scraped together guys who can do an imitation of that player – Lod, Fragapane, and even Jeong have all taken a turn to try to be that guy.

But none of them look like Emanuel Reynoso.

Reynoso has played only 71 minutes since his return from his suspension in Argentina. He’s not really in shape yet. He didn’t have a preseason of any kind, or some kind of baseball-style rehab assignment; those minutes are his only competitive minutes anywhere.  

Let me give you an ultimate small-sample-size stat, but one that’s illustrative of what Reynoso can do. In MLS this season, the leader in shot-creating actions (as tracked at FB Ref) is New England’s Carles Gil, who’s averaging 6.79 actions – passes, dribbles, drawing fouls, and so on – that lead directly to shots, per 90 minutes.

Reynoso, in 71 minutes, has 16.

This is exactly what the Loons have needed! Their entire season has been defined by the missing piece in the center.

Frankly, the rest of the season is on Reynoso’s shoulders – not only because he’s important to the way the Loons play, but because he’s at least partially responsible for where they are in the standings.

We can leave an enormous amount of room for the potential things that were keeping Reynoso in Argentina, without speculating on what they might have been, while also noting that while he wasn’t in Minnesota, MNUFC and MLS clearly thought that he should be.

The team has always been supportive of players before when they’ve needed that support, so their public pressing for him to return says, to me, that this wasn’t one of those cases.

We should all be sensitive to players’ personal travails, but on some level, Reynoso has to take responsibility too. He was supposed to be in Minnesota, and wasn’t, and now the season’s half over and the Loons are outside the playoff line.

You break it, you buy it.

Fans could see, from his cameo appearances so far this season, just how much he adds to the team. Put him together with the Loons’ underlying numbers, potentially add in Teemu Pukki, and there’s no reason that he can’t flip the switch for Minnesota, just like he did back in 2020.

Minnesota is in 10th place in the Western Conference, at the season’s halfway point. But, oddly, if the numbers and their situation point to anything, the Loons might have the pieces in place to make a run.

By Jon Marthaler

Jon has written about every Minnesota sport under the sun, including about Minnesota United FC, going back to four names and five owners ago.

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