Soccer is rightly called the beautiful game. It produces magic in every match, displays greatness on grass, and inspires hope within the hopeless. At its best, the beautiful game is a catalyst for joy and optimism. However, every victory comes at another team’s expense. For every elated fan, there is another left to cope with heartbreaking loss.
Even after playing a solid game, you may fall short of the mark. For Minnesota United, that was the case against a resilient FC Dallas on Monday night. Both teams showed a hunger to win that was levels above the regular season, creating an exhilarating game for all watching.
Stout defense from both sides kept this game from being a high-scoring affair. A goal apiece saw the game end knotted at 1-1, leaving both squads with hope that they’d live to play another match. Head Coach Adrian Heath was proud of his team’s refusal to break, though understandably frustrated with the loss.
“I thought the players put in a massive shift tonight,” Heath said. “I couldn't fault them with an aspect of what we asked of them. They were unbelievable. The shape, the discipline … football’s a cruel game at times. Sometimes you don't get what you deserve. Considering the work that the players have put in, I look across the group, I couldn't ask much more from any of them this evening. Disappointed for them, disappointed for our supporters who were here. Incredible that they made the journey. It's always a cruel way of going out. We’ve all been on the good side, we’ve all been on the bad side. It's still never easy to take.”
After 120 minutes of near-misses and close-calls, this first-round matchup was decided in the worst way possible: penalty kicks. Few things in sport are as demoralizing as a loss on penalties; likewise, the exhilaration that comes from a shootout victory is difficult to match.
“Once it comes down to penalties, there's going to be a winner, there's going to be a loser, there's going to be a hero, there's going to be somebody who thinks it's the worst they've ever had,” Heath said following the loss. “It's never easy trust me, these moments.”
In a season that saw some high highs and low lows, the Loons stayed true to themselves in their final go-around. A Reynoso goal was a welcome and familiar sight for fans, as was the fantastic performance of St. Clair between the posts. The return of Bongokuhle Hlongwane’s endless energy gave the team a needed boost, as did the tireless workrate of Robin Lod and Trapp at the core of the midfield. From endline to endline, this was a spirited MNUFC squad.
Following the match, MNUFC’s captain shed light on how the team was feeling.
“It’s disappointing,” Trapp said. “Any time you lose in penalties, it’s just tough to swallow because we had a lot of good moments in the game. I thought we played well, we worked so hard in the game and the guys deserved more. But, that’s what it boils down to; that’s just the way the penalty shootouts can go. Unfortunately, I was the one that didn’t convert. The guys have been amazing. The team spirit today was incredible. The way in which guys encouraged one another, picked each other up and kept going for 120 minutes was just something great to see. If we’re thinking about where we were a year ago, and how we rolled over, this is the complete opposite. Maybe the result is the same and you do get judged on the result, but there’s certainly something to look at and take from this as we’re a group of players that didn’t bend and break and we came together as a group for sure.”
While Trapp missed his penalty and St. Clair failed to save any of the five he faced, neither player should be disappointed in their efforts or performance. Without their leadership and incredible play over the course of 120 minutes, that game wouldn’t have made it to penalties. All season long, they have been two of the team’s strongest pieces; they continued that trend in the playoffs.
Though the boys performed admirably on Monday night, players and fans alike were left wanting more from this season. Halfway through the year, MNUFC looked like they would secure a comfortable third or fourth seed in the West, a possibility that failed to become reality. Similarly, there was an eleven-minute period in this game where it appeared as though the Loons would win without the need for extra time. Alas, neither was meant to be.
Every season comes to an end. Each year, every team in the league, sans one, is sent home wanting more. There is only one MLS Cup, only one champion. Obviously, every team and fanbase hope to see their colors raining down in confetti at the end of it all. More often than not, that isn’t the case. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be meaningful.
This year, the confetti won’t be black and blue. For at least one more season, the only star on Minnesota United’s crest will continue to be the North Star.
But the performance of any team is not pass-fail. This season brought plenty of moments to celebrate, days on which we could commiserate, and nervy games that were well worth the wait. Perhaps they didn’t pass with flying colors; MNUFC likely could’ve gone further, ended stronger, or simply accomplished more. But they didn’t.
One thing is for sure: the Loons did not fail by any stretch of the imagination. Failure would mean not showing up when things got tough. It would mean lying down and accepting your fate after six straight games without a win. Instead, they did what they needed to do to get into the playoffs on Decision Day, and were just a penalty kick away from a Western Conference Semifinal. Multiple season-ending injuries certainly changed things, but the Loons dealt with it. A bad run of form nearly kept them out of the postseason, but the Loons dealt with it.
No matter what was thrown at them this season, your Loons dealt with it.
While the final result didn’t go their way, MNUFC can go into the offseason with heads held high. Progress was made and business was left unfinished. Come 2023, the Loons will be eager to come back even stronger.