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There’s no getting around it: Minnesota United had a tough start to the season. After a 2020 that saw them make it all the way to the Western Conference Final against Seattle Sounders, expectations were high for the club heading into 2021, with some pundits tabbing them as a top three team in the Western Conference. But once the first whistle of the season blew against the Sounders in Seattle, the Loons went and dropped four games in a row, a dégringolade not even matched by the team in its record-settingly awful first season in 2017. That year, MNUFC shipped a then-MLS record 70 goals but managed a draw against the Colorado Rapids in their third game of the season.

With each loss in 2021, the outlook became more and more dire as the chance of making the playoffs seemingly receded. The Loons had lost season openers before, and as the season played out, it quickly became apparent that rumors of Seattle’s demise were exaggerated. But MNUFC had neither lost back-to-back games to start the season nor their home opener since 2017. And then when they lost to Austin 1-0 in the third game, we heard how only six teams since 1999 had started with three losses and made the playoffs. After losing 3-2 to the Rapids in Colorado — in a game Minnesota led 2-0 heading into the 56th minute — it was about as bad as it could get. At that point, only last year’s Inter Miami and CF Montréal had made the playoffs after beginning with four losses since 1999.

In 1999, that team was the Tampa Bay Mutiny — a team that Minnesota United Chief Soccer Officer Manny Lagos played for after being traded from the Chicago Fire in the middle of the season. Lagos was coming back from a serious knee injury with something to prove and found a perfect fit with a Tampa Bay team that was fighting their way back from that tough start. Much as it required with coming back from injury, Lagos believes both the Mutiny and this year’s Loons made their way back by focusing on the task at hand. You can, after all, only play the next game on the schedule.

Minnesota United battled back and earned their way to the fifth seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs for 2021 with a 3-3 draw on Decision Day against the LA Galaxy, who were eliminated for the fourth time in five years. With their ticket punched, they head to Providence Park in Portland to face an always dangerous Timbers squad they have nonetheless had success against in recent years. MNUFC became just the third team since 1999 to lose their first four games and make the playoffs. Now it’s time to see if they can’t win their next four.