Clinching game vs. SKC celebration

Bigger on the Inside Than the Outside

“More than the sum of its parts.” It’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot for any team that somehow exceeds expectations. They’re described as scrappy, or full of heart, or gritty, or any number of other adjectives seeking to convey the feel of a connective tissue that binds a group of people more tightly and durably in their collective endeavor. However you want to convey it, it’s there for Minnesota United FC this season, at last, after two seasons that never fully clicked. And not just in terms of black-and-white results on the field. There’s an absolute feel to this team in a way there wasn’t before.

But how does it happen? Is there a moment when things come together in some quantifiable way? Is there a formula or recipe? Essential ingredients? It’s not simply time, because countless teams spin their wheels without ever getting it right, but it also absolutely requires time because it’s all but impossible to get right overnight. Much the same can be said about money. You can spend profligately and never quite get it right.

From the perspective of the players, from inside the team, it builds step by step throughout the season. Not strictly through successes, but from good beginnings and better responses to adversity.

“I had this feeling straight away – the new stadium, meeting the fans, the first five games on the road were really good results and already, we achieved something that hasn’t been achieved in the previous years,” said goalkeeper Vito Mannone. “That gave us the first boost.”

Five games in, Minnesota United was, unmistakably, a work in progress. In fact, the team remains a work in progress and will until the end of the season. And even then, this season was as much about laying a foundation for sustainable success as it was about succeeding in the here and now. In those first five games, the team won three games on the road — one short of their entire road win total in MLS the previous two seasons. But the good beginning was just that: a beginning.

“We started the season fairly well with the five games on the road and then hit a few snags and that’s when the honeymoon period was over,” said defender Michael Boxall, alluding to the up-and-down stretch marked by draws, one-goal wins and losses that persisted into early June. “It was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got good players but we still need to find our groove.’ We still needed to iron out a few kinks. I think through those weeks of April to May, we slowly figured it out.”

During the season, it can be easy to get caught up in the most recent result. We often end up evaluating a team as a collection of fixed talents at a fixed moment in time while missing out on how the collective evolves as a whole over time. To a person, the players rarely fail to highlight the way the Loons have reacted to adversity this season, and it stands in marked contrast to last season. In 2018, a streak of four wins at home — including a 5-1 shellacking of LAFC — was broken by a last-second defeat to Seattle Sounders FC in early August. By the end of that season, it was clear that the two stoppage time goals in front of the supporters effectively derailed the campaign for MNUFC.

“Even if we’ve dropped a game after some good performances, I think the response – whether it’s been in the game or to the following game in the following week – has been really good,” said midfielder Ethan Finlay. “Look, the teams that are successful in this league are the teams that are able to respond to adversity and I think that’s been no different for this year.”

“You just don’t dwell on it and you try to work hard and I always felt this team had a kind of reaction, all season around,” said Mannone. “We lost one, the next one we really go out and tried to come back. We lost the U.S. Open Cup Final and trust me, I’ve lost a final in other times and it fell really, really hard on my previous teammates and club. I was at Sunderland and we almost took a month and a half to recover from losing a final. This team has bounced right back against LAFC. That’s the secret of a positive team and a team who wants to achieve something.”

Adding veterans like Mannone as well as defender Ike Opara and midfielder Osvaldo Alonso to create that positive culture has been a story all season long, as has the emergence of promising young players like rookies Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper and second-year forward Mason Toye. But it’s important to note that these two things don’t work as independent elements on the team, but instead strengthen each other.

“In some teams when you have older, experienced players who just start week-in-and-week-out,” said Boxall, “you — I wouldn’t say ‘take things for granted,’ we’ve got great professionals in our team — but it does keep them on their toes in a sense. Hassani [Dotson] has been good enough to start in at least … 25 other teams in this league.”

“At the start of the season,” said Finlay, “I’d be lying to you if I said that they were going to be key contributors this season. That’s no disrespect to them. It was just where they were at in the depth chart at the start of the year. It’s a testament to those guys because you need players like that to step up. You need players to play over their experience and their age and those three have been tremendous in doing that for us this season. We honestly wouldn’t be in the situation that we are if it wasn’t for their performances over the course of this season.”

You could point to perhaps a half-dozen results from different points in the season that could represent the moment when it clicked, when it became clear that this Minnesota United team was more than the sum of its parts. After a lot of conversations and a lot of consideration, I’ve settled on the 3-2 win over Montreal away as the result that best fits the profile of that moment. As Finlay said, it was a moment for younger players — and a few who have mostly been on the bench like Rasmus Schuller and Collin Martin — to step up and play over their heads. The heavily rotated squad fell behind in the very first minute of the game and it looked for all the world like the Loons’ promising four-game win streak across all competitions would end. But a pair of beautiful assists from Kevin Molino and a pair of textbook finishes in a breakout performance from Mason Toye kept the streak alive, and it would eventually reach 11 unbeaten across all competitions. At a crucial moment, it kept Minnesota United rolling.

In the end, though, the games are not truly where things come together — they’re just the tip of the iceberg, the 90 minutes a week when all the hours of training and traveling bear fruit. They’re the outward manifestation of something that began much further back, something that has many beginnings, even. We might see evidence of it in the goals and celebrations and wins, but it starts somewhere much more personal and private and it grows between the players because of who they are and how they rely on each other and what they come to mean to each other.

“Now we are a few games away from a dream and why not keep dreaming?” asks Mannone, forever the romantic. “I came here with a few dreams myself and that’s what I try to do every day. I try to share it with my teammates. Next challenge is winning the playoffs. Why not? People keep writing us off but this is the beautiful game. You just come back, you react, as I said. You have great character and you show everyone that nothing is impossible.”