After a meandering early existence, Minnesota United is close to the pinnacle of MLS. In their second playoff appearance, they will appear in the Western Conference finals against the bona fide dynasty of the Seattle Sounders. They’ve won both of their playoff games 3-0 so far, including a road win over one-seed Sporting KC.
Minnesota has been one of the few MLS teams to play consistently well throughout this bizarre rollercoaster of a season. As underdogs, they beat the Columbus Crew and the San Jose Earthquakes en route to a semifinal showing at the MLS is Back tournament. Despite various injuries, including the season-long absence of star defender Ike Opara, they finished fourth in the Western Conference regular season.
Now, they’re headed to the conference finals, with a chance to make an appearance in MLS Cup. Along with Orlando City SC, an expansion team that arrived two years before the Loons, they’re realizing their potential with a quality roster and a mix of young and veteran talent.
How Minnesota has done it
Most directly responsible for Minnesota’s growth is improved scouting at the most important positions. They famously signed some bad players for big money early in their history. There is no dead weight or mediocrity anymore. There’s no need to stick with an expensive player who isn’t getting the job done, in hopes of him eventually getting it right.
Though not having the Defender of the Year Opara hurts, they’ve been just fine in defense with Michael Boxall and newly-signed Bakaye Dibassy, a Mali international who arrived in August. Romain Metanire, a starter internationally for Madagascar, is one of the league’s best right backs. They’ve gotten great production out of SuperDraft picks Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson, both of whom are now on the USMNT radar.
Using a designated player spot on center midfielder Jan Gregus was a great move, one that has paid off handsomely as Gregus has partnered with legendary defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso. While they have both missed time, they lock things down in front of the backline (and Dotson is a worthy replacement if one of them can’t go).
They’ve struck gold on a couple of MLS veterans in attack, with Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay producing well. Molino, in particular, has been outstanding — of the six goals the Loons have scored in the postseason, Molino has four of them. Robin Lod plays up top as a false 9 when everyone’s healthy, and when someone’s out, longtime MLS goalscorer Kei Kamara can fill in as a true striker.
The missing piece was Emanuel Reynoso, a DP creator who has been close to an elite MLS playmaker in his time this season. In 13 regular season games (nine starts), he put up a goal and seven assists. Through two playoff games, he has assisted on all six goals that Minnesota has scored.
Adrian Heath has put it all together. They play well together as a team. While these playoffs have been sort of random, with one-off games in which anything can happen, Minnesota has two 3-0 victories. Only Seattle, who has been mostly dominant, has such a clean playoff record.
The Loons face a tough task against the Sounders in the conference finals. Seattle is the clear odds-on favorite to come away with the championship. Minnesota may technically be the underdog against the Sounders, but no one should be doubting their abilities by this point. Heath will forever rage against the doubters and the haters. Minnesota is slowly weakening whatever haters are left.
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