Sunday’s win against the Vancouver Whitecaps marked the fourth consecutive playoff berth from Minnesota United – the longest active streak in the Western Conference. Now, the Loons are perched to face F.C. Dallas in a Monday road match for the honor of appearing in the conference semifinals. The Boys in Black and Blue are gearing up both mentally and physically for the affair, and the competitive juices are flowing.
“I mean it’s win or go home,” said goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair. “Everything’s at stake, and to be able to send teams home…of course we got to do that [Sunday], and I look forward to keep doing it.”
If the regular season can, at times, be a steady traipse, the playoffs are a full sprint, and the simplicity and tenacity of the gameplay is what makes it so fun to watch. “I think sometimes the regular season can be a little bit up-and-down and back-and-forth in terms of travel and results,” said captain and midfielder Wil Trapp. “When the playoffs come, it really just distills it down to win and move on, and I think the competitiveness really just rises to the top when those situations occur.”
The Loons certainly have a knock-out mentality this week, and team morale is high, courtesy of the 2-0 win over Vancouver. The sixth-place finishers finally broke through their slump and found their footing when it was required of them, which adds a lot to the positivity of the squad.
“I think after Sunday there's a buoyancy to the group,” said Trapp. “We hadn’t won in six games, but the fact that we won when we needed to was huge, and we're going to a place where we've had success earlier in the season. So there's a lightness to the group that I think allows us to put what's in the past in the past and move forward.”
Centerback Michael Boxall likes what he sees in the team, citing optimism amongst the ranks.
“I think any time coming off of a win – and even during the down slump we kinda had – we were still positive and looking for answers and working hard to win the game,” said Boxall. “When you see all that work pay off, and you’re taking steps in the right direction, it’s good for where your headspace is at, and that plays a massive part in how you play as well.”
Fan support, and specifically fan turnout at Sunday’s match, helped greatly with the energy the team produced on the pitch. The steadfast level of support throughout the year proved crucial for MNUFC in weathering the season’s challenges. “They’ve been immense for us over the season,” said Wil Trapp. “[The fans have] been the lifeblood and the heartbeat for us when results are good, when results are bad. I think on Sunday you just saw that total energy behind the group, behind the team, behind the club, and you’d be remiss if you think that we don’t notice that type of stuff and we’ll need it moving forward.”
The last time Minnesota and Dallas met, a difficult 3-0 loss left MNUFC stunned – especially with only a few poor minutes to point at. On the flipside, earlier in the year, MNUFC beat F.C. Dallas 2-1, leaving the current season result split at one win each. Monday’s match will be the decider, and the Loons are prepared to do everything to make sure it goes their way.
“I think we know what we're capable of, and it's about putting up a performance that we expect of ourselves,” said Boxall. “For a few moments in that game we let ourselves down, so I think if we perform to our potential and stay locked in for 90 minutes like we did against Vancouver – and maybe lift it a bit – that will go a long way in making sure we have a game after [Monday].”
Simplicity is key when it comes to this team, which tends to find their spark of success once overcomplication is shoved out the door.
“I think it's a good reminder, in big games, to not complicate things,” said Trapp. “It's just about remembering what got us here, what kind of players we are individually, and what kind of team we are. I think you saw the culmination on the field on Sunday of a team that is energetic, that's positive, that works for each other – when we do that, we give ourselves opportunities to win, and we have enough quality to create chances and win games.”
Soccer is inherently a mental sport, but the stakes of the playoffs require an extra degree of mental fortitude. Relaxing into team play is part of the puzzle, but rising to the occasion, and truly fighting for your spot, is the other. “The challenge right now is what’s at stake,” said St. Clair. “It’s win or go home, and I think some people thrive in those moments and others don’t, so to be able to be one of the teams that thrive in those moments is definitely gonna be good. We need all of us to be firing on all cylinders to give ourselves the best opportunity to win.”
Minnesota United’s postseason journey begins with a difficult Monday road game, but the team is feeling confident. “I know what we're capable of, and if we’re able to keep ourselves on task and doing what we can do for the whole game, then winning is definitely achievable,” said Boxall. “Obviously going to Dallas is no easy feat, but we're just looking at it one week at a time and we’re preparing well this week, and I fully expect us to show up and advance on Monday.”
The Loons eyes are firmly on the prize, and from what’s been said, they are champing at the bit to compete for it. “I’m excited to be back in the playoffs,” said St. Clair. “Now, kind of a new season starts – I mean you just need to win four games. Of course we’ve had a long 34-game season, but now a trophy is only four games away.”
Four games. Four games are all that separate MNUFC from the sought-after title. Simply put by Dayne St. Clair, but illuminating nonetheless. In the midst of the postseason chaos, it’s easy to forget that the end-goal is so close and so attainable. After eight months of hard work, the ultimate prize is tantalizingly close for this resilient Loons squad. And yet, before MNUFC can even think about winning games two, three and four, they must first take care of business against a formidable opponent in F.C. Dallas on Monday night.