Thu. Sep 21st, 2023
MNUFC players celebrate the win vs Toluca in front of the Wonderwall

Image courtesy of Minnesota United

Minnesota United have officially entered new territory, as each of the teams in the inaugural edition of the Leagues Cup quarterfinals has done. It’s time to see how things sit, and how close the Loons are to a different piece of history.

For Minnesota, this is the third time in club history that they have been within three games of a trophy; the previous two, of course, ended in failure. In 2019, Minnesota got all the way to the finals of the U.S. Open Cup, with Darwin Quintero as the tournament’s leading goalscorer, but lost in the final to Atlanta United. The next year, the Loons were one of the stories of the MLS Cup Playoffs, as Emanuel Reynoso and Kevin Molino lit up the scoreboard on the way to a heartbreaking Western Conference Final loss to Seattle. Molino was that tournament’s leading scorer.

Fast forward to 2023, and Bongokuhle Hlongwane is tied for the lead in Leagues Cup scoring with seven goals (tied with some guy named Messi, never heard of him), with Reynoso once again pulling the strings behind him to the tune of six assists (the same number he had in the 2020 playoffs), as the Loons make their way to a quarterfinal matchup with Nashville SC. The vibes are similar, but the end result still has a chance to be different.

To examine another angle of past demons to be vanquished, we turn to Dayne St. Clair, who at this point may have more experience in shootouts in the last year than any goalkeeper in the world (I have not fact checked this). Lest we forget, Minnesota departed last season’s MLS Cup Playoffs in penalties against FC Dallas. While on international duty with Canada, St. Clair lost in penalties to the United States in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, which was less than a month before Minnesota’s Leagues Cup run began.

St. Clair has now contributed to two consecutive shootout wins for Minnesota, which have led them to this point despite their recent inability to win in normal time. After a more difficult start to the season than he may have hoped, one hoped that the opportunity with Canada would galvanize him to a better run of form in black and blue. After a difficult match for him personally in Minnesota’s loss to Chicago in the group stage, he has redeemed himself admirably.

Minnesota’s next opponent, Nashville, has had dominant home form in the league this season (8-2-2), but has never actually beaten the Loons. Minnesota is 1-2-0 against Nashville since they joined the league in 2020, with a 2-1 win in Nashville last season the most recent result in the series. Nashville’s defense, the best in MLS, was torn asunder by Minnesota’s most recent opponents, Toluca, in a 4-3 group stage loss.

Should the Loons advance, they would face either the second place team in Liga MX (Monterrey) or the second place team in MLS’s Western Conference (LAFC). Past that, there are three teams that don’t have Lionel Messi on their payroll and one that does have Lionel Messi on its payroll, and more can be said about that at a later date, should it matter. The challenge level only goes up past tonight.

If one were to address some traditional Minnesotan vibes: the Loons, while giving up a 2-0 first-half lead against Toluca, did not fade in the clutch situation of the penalty shootout. Against Columbus in the previous round, they overcame a goal from one former Loon, Christian Ramirez himself, and opportunities in both normal time and the shootout for one Kevin Molino, mentioned above, to end this run. This did not come to pass, as the Loons survived yet another Minnesota sports tradition.

Minnesota’s attack is firing on all cylinders, despite Teemu Pukki failing to find the back of the net since the Loons road win in Houston on July 12th. They’ve survived two shootouts, two former players, and found a 90th minute equalizer when the situation required it. Opportunity awaits them in their next match, and possibly two more after that. What could possibly go wrong? (If your answer is that they’ll lose in the semifinals, read the previous paragraph over again a couple times for good vibes.)

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