There’s no doubt that Minnesota United’s 2018 was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the team signed its first Designated Player, put together a four-game home winning streak, saw that DP get the club’s first hat trick, set a new attendance record for a Minnesota soccer team and hit other highs. On the other hand, the Loons had to deal with major injuries, struggled mightily on the road, dropped a handful of winnable games and ended the season on a four-game losing streak. It was, in short, a season, with all the good and bad that comes with it.JOIN THE PRESERVE
The early going was defined by coping with the loss of two of the team’s most important players — midfielders Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay — to season-ending knee injuries. Molino — who at times struggled to put his mark on the game in his first campaign with MNUFC last year — looked aggressive and confident early, notching two goals in the opening loss to San Jose Earthquakes and an assist in his return to Orlando before leaving the field in the 50th minute with the injury that would end his season.
Finlay arrived from Columbus last year and made an immediate impact on the team. It looked like 2018 was going be another good one for him on the right wing with two goals and an assist before his injury in the game against Seattle Sounders FC on April 22.
The silver lining to those injuries is that they opened up an opportunity for midfielder Miguel Ibarra following a disappointing first year in MLS. Back to full fitness for the first time since returning from a stint with Club Leon in Liga MX, Ibarra excelled all over the field in 2018 whatever his role. At first he played on the left wing, then moved to the right wing and even played wingback for a stretch, putting his tireless running to good use defensively even as he served up pinpoint crosses. In all, he ended the year with seven goals and eight assists, including two game-winning goals and three game-winning assists.
Just prior to Finlay’s injury, Minnesota United signed its first Designated Player, and what an addition it turned out to be. Darwin Quintero arrived from Club America in Mexico at the end of April and quickly became one of the most dangerous players in MLS with the ball. Despite not joining the squad until after their fifth game, he ended the year with 11 goals and 15 assists, leading the team in both categories. There’s little doubt that the diminutive Colombian’s high water mark was his hat trick — the team’s first in MLS — against Toronto FC at TCF Bank Stadium on July 4, a feat that also earned him Player of the Week honors.
That win over last year’s MLS champions at home sparked the Loons’ strongest run of the season, kicking off a four-game home winning streak that included victories over the aforementioned Toronto, Real Salt Lake, New England Revolution and LAFC in a 5-1 drubbing.
That success at home was spurred and sustained by the team’s unwavering support at TCF Bank Stadium. With an average attendance of 23,905, MNUFC racked up 10 wins at home, tying them in the Western Conference with the likes of Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders FC and FC Dallas in terms of home record. On the road, it was no secret that the team struggled, managing just one win all year and that one in its second game of the season at Orlando.
The win streak at home also coincided with a forced change in tactics that nevertheless paid dividends. Following a 3-2 loss to the Rapids in Colorado and faced with a red-card suspension for Miguel Ibarra, the absence of defender Francisco Calvo for the World Cup and a host of injuries, Head Coach Adrian Heath was forced to shift from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-5-2. Although MNUFC went on to drop its next game 1-0 to FC Dallas, the use of the 3-5-2 coincided with the team’s best stretch of the season.
Arguably, some of the team’s greatest moments in 2018 came away from the pitch, including midfielder Collin Martin coming out as the only gay athlete in the five major men’s professional sports in the country on the day of the team’s Pride Match, the breaking of a 42-year-old attendance record for a Minnesota soccer team when 52,242 fans packed TCF Bank Stadium for the final home game of the year, and the continuing and impressive progress on Allianz Field as the team prepares to play their first home match there in 2019.
In all, 2018 is likely to be remembered as a transitional year for the club, with lessons to be learned from it and much preparation to be done as Minnesota United shifts its focus toward the start of 2019 and the opening of its new home, Allianz Field.