The wait for the 2023 MLS season is nearly over! Following their first-round playoff exit last year, Minnesota United have spent this offseason plugging holes and preparing to take the next step on their journey to MLS Cup. Though the season is long, arduous, and almost entirely unpredictable, here’s what I think you should expect from your Loons this year.
Loons to Watch
With another professional season under their belts, all of the returning players have gained valuable experience. Several key players have important season’s ahead of them, either to prove that they belong in the starting lineup, or to prove that they are among the league’s best in their position. The following players are all candidates for big seasons, so watch them closely this year.
We all know that Bongi is talented; the eye test is enough to tell you that. His crazy speed and explosive agility give him the tools to be one of the league’s most devastating attacking threats. Based on what he’s shown in preseason, this may very well be the year he realizes that potential. A 10-goal season would be fantastic from Minnesota’s favorite South African soccer player, though fans shouldn’t be surprised if he accomplishes a bit more than that.
Anyone who’s watched MNUFC since 2019 knows exactly how good Robin Lod is. The Finnish international is the consummate professional, acting as his team’s Swiss army knife whenever he’s called upon. With experience playing all over the pitch, Lod is, in many ways, the heartbeat of this team. I expect to see his quality and versatility at the center of any success the Loons find this year.
Now 25 years old, Kervin Arriaga is entering the prime of his career. He established himself as a more than capable starting midfielder last season, but he is going to need to build on that to meet expectations this time around. Coach Heath will be hoping to see the Honduran international develop into an even more well-rounded player this year. Though his tireless work rate is commendable and beyond helpful on defense, his contributions to the attack and moving the ball forward will be the main area of scrutiny this season. If he can add a few goals or assists to his bag of tricks, Arriaga could turn into quite the force to be reckoned with. I think he could become one of the league’s most reliable box-to-box midfielders.
On top of the three aforementioned, several more Loons will be champing at the bit to get this season underway. After missing most of last season due to injury, Hassani Dotson will be making his long-awaited return to action in 2023. The midfielder was one of the team’s most promising players before going down; his return will boost the team much like a new signing would.
One key returning player has yet to actually return. The timetable on club talisman Emanuel Reynoso’s return to Minnesota is still unclear, leaving his team with big shoes to fill. Though Rey was the leading scorer and assist-provider last season, that output will have to come from elsewhere early on. In his stead, the team may look to striker Luis Amarilla to make up the difference. If he and Mender Garcia can push each other to get off the mark early and often, they will have the opportunity to lighten the impact of Reynoso’s absence.
Since the end of last season, MNUFC has added seven first-team players. Three of those signings are center backs, namely Doneil Henry, Mikael Marques and Miguel Tapias. When paired with the existing core of Brent Kallman, Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy, the Loons have effectively solved their depth issues in the middle of the defense. Once Dibassy returns from the injury he sustained last season, Heath will have at least six quality options to choose from.
The additions of veteran Zarek Valentin and MLS SuperDraft pick Ryen Jiba provide even more cover on the flanks, leaving the Loons with plenty of depth at both fullback positions.
The remaining two newcomers are goalkeeper Clint Irwin and forward Cameron Dunbar. Irwin brings experience and proven skill to the MNUFC goalkeeping corps, filling the gap left by the departure of Tyler Miller. Dunbar, meanwhile, is an exciting attacking prospect that brings energy and natural talent to the forward line.
This intriguing mixture of talent, experience and strategic depth has undoubtedly improved the makeup of this roster. Last season went a bit off the rails when injuries hit the squad hard, exposing a lack of viable options off of the bench. On paper, that shouldn’t be an issue this season.
If I had to pick a few standouts from this year’s signings, I’d highlight Dunbar, Marques and Tapias. While all seven new additions add something valuable to the squad, these three in particular fill the most pressing needs. Until Rey returns, Dunbar is an exciting option to slot in at the attacking midfield position. He has the potential to make that spot his own, as well as the skill to grow into a real threat moving forward.
At the other end of the pitch, Marques and Tapias give the team more than just cover at center back. Both players are talented enough to make their case for a starting spot, though beating out the established starters won’t be an easy task. Regardless, having them both as options will improve the team significantly.
Let the Kids Play
Part of the club’s recent strategy has been to get younger without moving out our most effective veteran players. Between 2022 and 2023, the average age of the squad dropped from almost 27.5 to just over 26 years old. This shift is thanks in large part to the signings brought in, but the groundwork for a youthful squad was already there.
In fact, 14 of MNUFC’s 29 first-team players are 25 or younger, with seven of those youngsters playing consistent, important roles last season. This includes the likes of Arriaga, Bongi, Dayne St. Clair and a few more key players.
Moving forward, the likes of Cameron Dunbar (20), Devin Padelford (20), Joseph Rosales (22) and Mikael Marques (21) will be hoping to make their mark on the squad and earn a consistent role as well. This isn’t just a move to improve the team in the long-run; these players are more than capable of making an impact now. Once they start getting some experience under their belts, our 14 youngsters may form a reliable core that could lead MNUFC for years to come.
As is the case with every new season, the Loons are hoping to build upon the results of last year. Obviously, the goal is to win MLS Cup. The problem is, 28 other teams are saying the same thing.
Every year, MNUFC seeks to become not only better than they were before, but better than every other team in the league. Only time will tell how effective this offseason’s moves will be, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about them.
The first step will be extending the playoff streak. That’s a tall order in an improved Western Conference, but an achievement that is well within reach. Beyond that, anything is possible; playoff soccer is anything but predictable.
While Reynoso has been the main man over the last few seasons, he won’t be at the beginning of this one. Serious adjustments will need to be made, but the men waiting in the wings are capable and ready to step up. If the squad can pick up some good form without their talisman, they should be able to kick on even better when he arrives.
Months of preparations and additions have led to this moment. All that’s left to do now is lace up the cleats, take to the field and show the league what Minnesota United is all about.