Just like that, the 2023 season is officially over for MNUFC. With the passing of another year, we have another chance to step back and take a look at the state of the club and the season that was. Where did the team grow? Where do they still need to grow? What went right, and what went … less right? It’s time to be honest about what was, in many ways, quite a sobering season for Minnesota United.
Plenty of Challenges
Let’s rip off the bandage right away. In terms of silverware, points, and general consistency, 2023 was a disappointing season. The empty trophy cabinet says that by itself, but the numbers back it up.
Since joining the league in 2017, the Loons have averaged just under 44 points a year, excluding the shortened 2020 schedule. They’ve also qualified for the playoffs in four of their seven seasons in the league, from 2019 to 2022. This year, the club finished with 41 points, missing the playoffs by a mere three-point margin. One more win would have been enough to squeak in and hit their yearly average for points in a season. All in all, it was just below the kind of season we’ve come to expect.
The most frustrating part? It’s clear that this team has plenty of talent; they simply need to find the right way to put it all together. Fans saw enough this year to provide hope, but the Black and Blue never quite found the perfect formula.
Throughout 2023, we saw disjointed flashes of brilliance across the pitch. Though they rarely lined up perfectly, there were periods of the season when each facet of the team showed its potential. A stellar start to the year from the defense drove the club to an unbeaten start, conceding just three times in five games. The attacking masterclass shown by Emanuel Reynoso and Bongokuhle Hlongwane during Leagues Cup was incredibly fun to watch, and the addition of Teemu Pukki made the attacking core even stronger.
Between injuries, absences, late-season signings needing time to adjust to their new lives, and runs of form that never seemed to line up quite right, the Loons were always close to something special, but they never got their hands on it. A lack of consistency, for a multitude of reasons, ultimately left the club facing an early end to the season.
Time for a Fresh Start
It’s no secret that MNUFC is going to look quite different next season. Players come and go every year, modifying the makeup of the team and changing the style of play. But for the first time since joining MLS, the club will be hiring a new coach and a new technical director to shape the future of the club.
Mid-season signings Sang Bin Jeong and Teemu Pukki will benefit from a full offseason and preseason with the team, further integrating themselves into the squad and giving them a chance to catch their breath after a whirlwind season. Robin Lod, Kervin Arriaga, Joseph Rosales, and any other players nursing injuries will have a chance to start over with a clean bill of health, adding reliable skill and depth to the lineup. On top of that, the addition of Minnesota-native Caden Clark will give the team an exciting option in the middle of the park. There’s already plenty to look forward to, and that’s not even taking into account future roster updates.
While our focus will naturally turn towards the future very quickly, it would be wrong to move on from this season without remembering the moments that made us smile, laugh, or break out into wild celebrations. Let’s take a second to look back at all of the joy this season gave us and then move forward to 2024.
- After joining the team in June, Teemu Pukki made an instant impact for the Loons. While he wasn’t scoring as often as people had hoped early on, his expert movement and awareness created space for his team to work in, and the goals didn’t take too long to come once he got settled in. His 10 goal tally in just 14 games earned him a 0.87 goals per 90 ratio, the best in the entire league. His four-goal game against the LA Galaxy in the club’s final home game showed fans just how clinical he can be and gave the league a taste of what to expect in 2024.
- No one had a better year than Bongi. Even if you only watched him for a few minutes last season, it was clear that this guy had bags of potential. In 2023, he reached into those bags and pulled out one heck of a season. Between MLS, Leagues Cup, and U.S. Open Cup, Hlongwane had a hand in 24 goals, scoring 17 himself and dishing out seven assists to boot. That means he was responsible in some way for nearly 40% of his team’s goals this year. 40%! What a year from the South African international, who added not only a scoring touch, but also the kind of composure on the ball that suggests this is only the beginning.
- After missing much of the 2022 season due to injury, fans were missing the tireless shifts of Hassani Dotson. The midfielder’s return to action in 2023 was a welcome sight, and his willingness and ability to fill in across the field made him incredibly valuable to the team. Between his time in the middle of the park and his cameos out wide, Dotson gave Loons fans plenty to cheer about in his bounceback campaign.
- With some help needed across the backline, Minnesota United turned to Liga MX in the primary transfer window. After playing against him in a friendly a few years ago, the club decided that Pachuca’s Miguel Tapias was the perfect man for the job. Right from the start, Tapias was a perfect fit, adding talent and workrate to the lineup and raising the level of the defense whenever he had the chance. He played more minutes than any other Loon in league play this season, adding a goal and an impressive 84.9% pass completion rate.
- At least once a season, Franco Fragapane does something amazing. A last-minute goal in a crucial game, a banger to take the lead, or something along those lines. It’s practically inevitable, and you don’t want to miss it when it happens. This year, his moment came with some help from Dayne St. Clair, as the goalkeeper assisted Fraga’s last-second equalizer against the New England Revolution. The ensuing celebration was an instant classic, with Fraga leading the charge into the thick of the Wonderwall. Sure, it was a tie, but what a moment that was.
Spreading Their Wings
- It’s always nice to see a player get their first goal for your club. It gets them off the mark and makes the next one even easier. But there’s something extra special about watching local lads add their names to the scoresheet for the first time. For Emmanuel Iwe, that moment came in a 3-1 U.S. Open Cup win against Detroit City FC. For fellow Minnesotan Devin Padelford, it was a late goal from a corner against Austin FC. Scoring a goal is always a special thrill, but that first one is a moment that will live with those players for the rest of their lives.
Though this year left fans wanting more, it wasn’t without its redeeming qualities. It’s clear that this team hasn’t hit its ceiling yet, and the future is filled with possibility. Plenty of questions will need to be answered and roles will need to be filled this offseason; it’s going to be an exciting few months. Now, on to 2024, where more bright spots surely await.