Playoff Game Halftime

At this same time the past two years, it’s not unfair to say that Minnesota United and its fans were not all that interested in looking back at the previous seasons. While the team’s inaugural and sophomore seasons in MLS each began with different shades of hope and ideas about what could be possible, in both 2017 and 2018 the Loons mixed moments of excitement and flashes of potential with grievous stumbles that eventually grounded them well before the postseason.

Whether building the roster from whole cloth in 2017, or working to integrate midseason acquisitions fully in 2018, or adding serious veteran mettle down the spine in 2019, MNUFC began its first three seasons with more or less fresh starts, cursed or blessed — depending on your perspective — to be largely unbeholden to the past. That all changes with 2020 following a successful 2019 campaign that saw the Loons reach the U.S. Open Cup Final and host their first-ever playoff game at Allianz Field.

So how did we get here? It began in the offseason before 2019 with the additions of goalkeeper Vito Mannone, centerback Ike Opara, defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and central midfielder Jan Gregus. With a wealth of domestic and international experience and several championships among them, these players emphasized the need for the team to play for each other and take up every challenge in front of them in the run-up to the 2019 season.

“It comes down to one thing: play as a team,” said Gregus at the time. “Defensively, offensively. I think when we stick together, we will have a good season. I can feel from the start that there is good quality in the squad. Be together, stick together. Do the right things tactically and then the success will come.”

“You really have to put in the work and come in day in and day out and strive for winning everything,” said Opara. “In training, win your battle, win your small-sided game, win whatever competition or drill is being done by the coaching staff. That's where it starts: getting that mentality of not wanting to be in second place.”

True to those words, the team began the season with a win on the road against Vancouver and from that point never dipped below the playoff line for the duration of the season. As a whole, the season in hindsight can be broken down into four chunks: the opening five-game road trip, the breaking-in of Allianz Field through early June, a run of strong play up to a win in the Open Cup Semifinals at the end of August, and then the dogfight down the stretch for playoff position.

While it only represented 14 percent of the schedule, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of those first five games away. This was a team that had racked up a grand total of four road wins in its first two years, so coming home to open Allianz Field with three in hand was massive. As the season drew to a close months later, players would rarely fail to mention that initial success when talking about how the team got into the playoffs.

“We started the season fairly well with the five games on the road and then hit a few snags and that’s when the honeymoon period was over,” said defender Michael Boxall, referring to the second chunk — an up-and-down stretch marked by draws, one-goal wins and losses that persisted into early June. “It was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got good players but we still need to find our groove.’ We still needed to iron out a few kinks. I think through those weeks of April to May, we slowly figured it out.”

This, too, was the stretch where MNUFC and its fans really broke in Allianz Field. There was a lot of buzz and excitement around the team’s first game there against NYCFC on Saturday, April 13, but that also led to a surplus of chaotic energy. The fans were feeling out the building, as were the players, and the team’s exemplary new home didn’t really ship with a genuine homefield advantage through the early part of the season, with the Loons going 3-1-3 there through early June.

But with a resounding 4-1 win over visiting Sporting Kansas City in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup, Minnesota United found its groove. Over the next two months, the Loons would not lose in competitive play, including a 7-1 rout of FC Cincinnati and hard-fought results against teams in and around them in the Western Conference, like FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes. They capped off the run with back-to-back wins at Allianz Field against the Portland Timbers in league play and a U.S. Open Cup Semifinal in a single week.

Every spectacular run of form, though, has to eventually end. The congested late-summer schedule — MNUFC played eight games between July 27 and August 27 — took its toll and the Loons put together a mixed record of 2-3-2 over those eight games, including the two wins over Portland and a heartbreaking Open Cup Final loss to Atlanta United.

But MNUFC bounced back and began the final full month of the season on a high note, becoming the only team in MLS to beat LAFC at Banc of California Stadium in the 2019 regular season with a stunning and masterful 2-0 victory. As teams jockeyed for position in the Western Conference table, Minnesota United clinched a berth in the playoffs for the first time in its MLS history with a thrilling 2-1 win over Sporting KC at home, with breakout rookie Hassani Dotson scoring the gamewinner in the 90th minute. A loss on Decision Day against Seattle Sounders FC sent the Loons into a home matchup against the LA Galaxy. Despite an incredible atmosphere in Allianz Field, Minnesota United ultimately came away on the wrong end of a 2-1 loss that ended its season.

Once the smoke had cleared, however, the disappointment at the end of the season was leavened by the recognition that the team had at last put together a season they could build upon. While there are some question marks that remain here in mid-January, Minnesota United will largely return the defense that spearheaded the team’s turnaround with Chase Gasper, Boxall, Opara and Romain Metanire forming the backline and Alonso still holding down the middle of the park. Young players including Gasper, Dotson, Mason Toye and Thomas Chacon — signed late last season as the club’s first Young Designated Player — are poised to build on what they’ve done or make a bigger impact this season.

All that said, the future — as ever — is uncertain. But with preseason nearly here, the echoes of what Gregus said before last season come back as the Loons prepare to build on 2019: “Be together, stick together.”