As with the journey of any good hero, Minnesota United’s season can be divided fairly neatly into three acts: the first, wherein our hero embarks, faces challenges, learns, adjusts; the second, wherein greater challenges force yet more growth; and the third, wherein the hero rises in the face of adversity and scores an emotional victory and ends the story with a greater understanding. We already shared Part One. Here, we present Part Two.
Roughly the first third of the season found MNUFC working to build chemistry and identity on the pitch, even as the club sought to bring in veteran MLS help where it could and also make the most of what they had. When last we left them, the team was riding high off a signature victory at home over Sporting Kansas City. A vision of a consistent starting XI was beginning to take shape, but soon enough, the twin challenges of international duty and injury would expose issues with depth the team would seek to address in the summer transfer window. The hero’s journey continues through fire and rough weather.
In a sport in which results can hinge on a single strike or a single missed tackle, it’s foolhardy to look only at the final score to determine how a team played. In the team’s 3-2 loss to Toronto FC — a side that accrued the most points in an MLS season since the league went to 34 matches — Minnesota showed grit and heart on the road, fighting back twice to level the match before conceding a goal in the 77th minute after an unfortunate bounce on a clearance.
“The last few weeks they are starting to believe in what we are trying to do,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “I think the most important thing, from our point of view, is that we are getting better. We have come to the best team I think. They are an incredibly well-organized, well-coached team so for us to put this type of performance in from where we were a couple of weeks ago it bodes well for us moving forward.”
Heath emphasized consistency and effort throughout the season, but the tricky thing about consistency is that it really is its own skill. After a strong win against SKC and a solid effort in the loss at Toronto, the Loons hit a rough patch against the visiting LA Galaxy. It was likely a match many fans had eyed as a relatively easy win, given LA’s struggles throughout the season. Heath made it clear prior to the match that he would brook no unearned self-confidence even as he sought to nurture the team’s belief in itself, but it was clear after an initially promising start that the Loons nascent cohesion was still fragile in the 1-0 loss.
“I thought we started the game really brightly in the first 15, 20 minutes,” said Heath. “I thought then we let them take the initiative away from us a little bit. Let it become too comfortable again for them. I thought we lost our shape. I thought our attacking midfield players underneath Christian suddenly started to get in poor positions and it wasn't affecting their group and our two central midfield players started to get the ball deeper and deeper. We allowed them to take the initiative, which is something that you don't want to do at home.”
To kick off Pride Month, MNUFC hosted Orlando City SC for a Pride match, replete with rainbow scarves and other Pride-themed apparel. It was a match that also held some weight for Heath, who had parted ways with Orlando after helping guide the team from the USL up to MLS. Despite Heath’s protestations leading up to the weekend that it was mostly just a match like any other, the Loons clearly benefited from the injection of emotion in terms of their focus, with Ramirez running up to Heath after scoring the match-winner in the 56th minute and saying, “That was for you. I know how much this means to you.”
The match also featured the first MLS start for Ismaila Jome, who filled in for the ill Kevin Molino on the wing. The then-22-year-old Jome — who was born in Gambia but grew up in Minnesota — was often praised by Heath as a hard worker in practice and he found himself taking up multiple roles on the left side of the pitch from left back to left winger as the club worked around injuries and call-ups.
There was also something undeniably different and amplified about the crowd at the match. They were getting larger, sure, but it also felt like the mass of fans had passed some tipping point of accumulated community and sense of the game. The crowds at the matches were building a sense of themselves, as surely as the players were, and it did not go unnoticed by the team.
“It’s been pretty unreal, how loud the stadium gets when the whole stadium starts chanting,” said Ramirez. “We make it a point, every game whenever we feel like there’s an opportunity to get momentum building, we start throwing our hands up to get the fans going, because we know how important they are to our team. And how miserable it is for an away side to start hearing and feel the stadium coming on to you. We make sure to get them involved as much as we can.”
“I think [the crowd] gets better by the week, I really do,” said Heath. “I think the relationship and the bond between the players and the crowd is getting greater every single week. We have to keep building that. We have to keep getting the crowd going, and getting them off the seat. Because that’s what they’re here for, they’ve come here to be entertained. The crowd energized the players last week, and I thought it kept them going again this week. They played their butts off.”
It was a different story the next week when MNUFC traveled down I-35 to play the Sporting KC team they had enjoyed such success against a month earlier. There were a number of external factors contributing to making this a tough one: missing captain Francisco Calvo and Johan Venegas to call-ups; missing Sam Cronin to a suspension; losing Ibarra partway through the match; facing an SKC side unbeaten in its last 15 home matches; maybe being a little drained from an emotional home win over Orlando. Whatever the combination of factors though, there was no mistaking the crash as the team struggled to generate much of anything in a first half where they fell behind 1-0. After SKC doubled its lead in the 55th minute, the wind went out of Minnesota’s sails completely and they allowed a third goal in the 87th minute.
The biggest long-term impact, though, was likely the loss of Marc Burch, who came up lame in the 63rd minute. The injury would turn out to be a double sports hernia requiring surgery that would sideline him until September and force changes to a starting lineup that was already coping with international call-ups. If the run up to the first SKC match showed that the major pieces of the team were capable of hanging in there against any team when present and healthy, the next run of matches would test the team’s depth and find it wanting.
“We were second-best from the very first minute until the 90th minute,” said Heath. “Outfought, outplayed, outrun, no desire, no enthusiasm. It's just as bad as we've been since the second or third week of the season. Forget the scoreline, I was more disappointed with the amount of determination that the guys showed. Poor. Feel sorry for the two or three hundred people who've made the journey down from Minnesota. I apologize to them. They deserved an awful lot more than they got today.”
In a tough but not unpredictable 4-0 loss to SKC in Open Cup play, Heath found minutes for bench players like Bashkim Kadrii, Collin Martin (who would figure heavily in the team’s stretch run) and Joe Greenspan (who would suffer a head injury for the first — but not last — time in this match). But following that, it was back to the MLS schedule with a match against the team MNUFC beat for its first MLS win, Real Salt Lake.
This time, though, the match was at Rio Tinto and things did not go as well. Coming just three days after its Open Cup loss, MNUFC began strong, but the energy flattened out as both teams exchanged blows without a goal to show for it until the waning minutes. Sub Yuri Movsisyan put RSL on top 1-0 in the 84th minute. With a matchup against the Portland Timbers in just four days, the Loons had to lick their wounds and move on.
“I don’t think there’s a guy in [this] dressing room that would tell you that that was a good enough performance from any of us,” said goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth following the match. “It’s a terrible goal to give away for me. We weren’t good enough in possession. Not dangerous enough going to goal. I don’t think you’re going to find one guy who will tell you that’s good enough.”
Following on the heels of disappointing losses to vulnerable teams LA and RSL, plus the back-to-back losses to SKC, the brief magic of the win over Orlando City was beginning to feel like a mirage. But Heath worked to keep the team focused on what lay in front of them, both when it came to the next match and the long-term view of the entire season. And somehow, some way, they hung a 3-2 loss on visiting Portland.
“It showed a lot of character,” said Heath. “And I don’t know why — I said to the staff — I fancied us tonight. I thought the lads in the dressing room, the mood in the dressing room before the game, you can sense it when you’ve been in it a long time. I thought the lads were up for the battle tonight. And as I say, it’s against a really good team.”
After a tight, nervy start that saw the teams head to the locker room level at 1-1, the match opened up in the second half, including an impressive karate kick strike by Ramirez to put MNUFC up 2-1 before Portland equalized. Danladi finished off the match when a poor clearance landed at his feet and he drilled it into the back of the net. The team’s play was marked by a level of consistency and connectedness the team had seemed to lack, recently. They even had a little bit of an edge, a quality that Heath felt played in their favor.
If the first third of the season was a gradual climb from a difficult start to an understanding that the team could compete in MLS, the middle third was shaping up to be a confusing mix of surprising wins and losses as the team dealt with various absences both brief and long-term. For any team as new as this one, inconsistency was always going to be an issue. The thing about any team, though, is that no one player or even coach has full understanding or full control of the countless variables that shift daily or even hourly. A measure of success doesn’t mean you’ve figured it out because circumstances are constantly changing.
Against the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps, a comeback from two goals down to tie felt like a loss — perhaps an indicator of how far the team had already come from the early season, when a 2-2 draw against the Rapids felt like a win. But true to his competitive spirit, Heath wasn’t satisfied with the come-from-behind draw because he believed his players looked like the better side all evening — they ended the first half with 76.7% of the possession but down two goals.
“[Heath] was disappointed like everybody,” said Thiesson. “I don’t know how much but I felt like we had the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time. We also were a little dangerous. The other team never really had the ball or the opportunity but they were 2-0 up. He was angry and disappointed like everybody. He found the right words because we came back.”
It was Thiesson who would draw the Loons level in the 63rd minute, capping off his first MLS goal with a charmingly goofy impression of a loon flapping its wings to celebrate. Fans who were following the team closely were likely already fans of the Swiss defender, whose genial attitude and wholehearted embrace of the Twin Cities easily won them over. But the goal and the celebration certainly went a long way to establishing Thiesson as a fan favorite.
Although it’s hardly unusual for an MLS team to thrive at home and struggle on the road, as the season wore on, it was fair to wonder if the question of when MNUFC would notch its first road win was a question of “if” and not “when.” Given soccer’s strong supporter culture, playing on the road is an order of magnitude more challenging than in many other sports. Then add in different surfaces, different pitch sizes, different climates and the physical rigors of travel and you have a recipe for disjointed performances away from home.
The Loons jumped out to an early lead at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC with Christian Ramirez’s tenth goal of the season, but three unanswered goals in the second half sunk them yet again on the road. The upcoming homestand would provide an opportunity for the team to get settled again, but Heath knew it wouldn’t be enough to stay good if they continued to struggle on the road.
"They were better than us on the night in most departments,” said Heath. “We got ourselves an early goal, we got ourselves in front and never really then took the game to them. Because I thought we had about a 10-minute spell after where we were one pass away from maybe going 2-0 up. But there wasn't enough desire to go and get that second goal – to really take people out of their comfort zone – and we don't really do enough of it on the road I'm afraid."
Minnesota arrived home to begin a string of matches at TCF Bank Stadium a bit worse for wear: With Brent Kallman nursing a nagging injury and both Jermaine Taylor and Francisco Calvo on international duty, Heath shifted his formation against Crew SC. Thiesson, Joe Greenspan and Justin Davis would start as the three center backs with Jome and Kevin Venegas as wing backs. It wasn’t an entirely novel formation — Heath had gone with five at the back against SKC in Open Cup play — but it was an indicator of the kind of juggling the team was having to do to put healthy players out on the pitch. Columbus also changed its shape, though, leading to a slow, chunky match where players on both sides struggled to cleanly move the ball. In the end, it was Columbus’ day as a Kekuta Manneh strike in the 58th minute gave them a 1-0 win.
“The little break now I think has come at a really good time for us because we’re sort of running on fumes at the moment, so it’ll give one or two players an opportunity to get themselves fully fit again,” said Heath. “One or two to recharge the batteries a little bit. Because I think the one thing that it showed tonight, that our strength in depth has been certainly tested to the maximum with the players out and the injuries that we’ve got. So, transfer window is around the corner, let’s see if we can go and get some players to help us with both working on the team, and with the squad in depth. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Following an international friendly against Atlas FC that saw Heath giving run to some underused players in a 1-1 draw, MNUFC faced Houston Dynamo in a 0-0 match that found players like Bashkim Kadrii, Davis and Greenspan starting thanks to a mix of injuries and absences. But despite those adjustments and copious chances in the first half for Houston, the Loons held fast for a 0-0 draw that in the long run looks like something of a reset for team heading into the final third of the season.
“From that point of view, they’ll be disappointed,” said Heath of Houston. “They had two great chances first half. Very much a game of two halves. I thought second half we were the better team. Bobby [Shuttleworth] hadn’t anything to do. Second half, we had a couple of — one off the line — a couple of good chances. So first half was poor, second half was better. Probably a fair result in the end, but they’ll probably be disappointed with their chances that they created that they didn’t at least score.”
Despite the 3-0 scoreline, the Loons match against the visiting New York Red Bulls was in many ways a continuation of the refocusing that began with the Houston match. Layered on top of that, though, was the introduction of two new faces to the side: Michael Boxall from New Zealand and Sam Nicholson from Scotland, both of whom saw their first match action with MNUFC less than a week after joining the team. In all, it was a snapshot of a team still missing important players but also working to integrate new players. Most importantly for Heath, the effort and focus was there, no matter the result.
“Miguel [Ibarra] had a great chance, and then he got himself in a great position, great ball to Kevin [Molino],” said Heath. “We were just then getting some real momentum in the game. Corners, opportunities, balls across the face of the box. You need to take those opportunities when they rise, but I can’t fault the guys today. We played against a really good team, and not a lot has gone our way, but we’ve been competitive today, and I’m more proud of the players today than I was when we took something from the game on Wednesday night.”
MNUFC wrapped up the middle third of the season with a return to the kind of health and form they showed to end the first third against Sporting KC. This time, it was a 4-0 dismantling of visiting D.C. United.
“It just feels nice to have everybody back,” said Ramirez. “We’re growing each game whenever we have full bodies and I think that’s one of the biggest things that Adrian said today in the locker room, he said: ‘It’s nice to see all these faces back here.’ Because we know we can play some good soccer.”
There are, of course, the obvious injuries that keep players out of the starting lineup, but every player throughout the season is going through ups and downs in terms of health and this match saw Kevin Molino in the best shape he’d been in so far. He notched two assists and the scoring for the Loons was well distributed with goals from Ramirez, Danladi and Ibarra along with an own goal off a cross from Ibarra. The defense also stepped up in keeping the clean sheet with Shuttleworth making a clutch save in the closing minutes to preserve it. This was also the second match in a row where the crowd topped 20,000 at TCF Bank Stadium on the way to a sellout streak that would start with the next match against Seattle Sounders.
“I’m pleased for the supporters,” said Heath. “You know, they’ve been fantastic. They were again tonight. 20,000 people. And, you know, we haven’t been winning every week. Come in and watch winning football. They come in to get behind the team and they can see the work that we’re doing.”
But even as the results looked like they might begin to line up with the work the team had been putting in as players returned from international duty and injury, more challenges lay ahead. Ramirez pulled up lame partway through the match with a leg injury that would sideline him through mid-September, but this would also open the door for a late-season bloom by Danladi. Boxall and Nicholson were still mostly unknown quantities and there was one more significant addition to the team on the horizon.
Up next: Part 3