Minnesota United FC flourished in Orlando, with the Loons spreading their wings and learning to fly while competing in the MLS is Back tournament in July. But a return to normalcy in league play across the country saw the Loons fall victim to injuries, a lack of fitness and the struggling reality of playing away from home once again.
Upon the completion of Phase 1 of the return to Major League Soccer, the Loons are 5-4-2 and sit in 3rd place in the Western Conference. They will enter Phase 2 against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, Sept. 29. Their positioning in the Western Conference might come as a shock to some, considering the Loons began the restart 0-3 while conceding eight goals over the course of three matches, however, their back-to-back wins at Allianz Field could prove crucial in the long run.
The gaffer’s brilliance glistened off the metallic shell of Allianz Field for all to see, with the Englishman strutting out of his comfort zone and changing the shape and tactics of the Loons against both Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas at home. Adrian Heath’s Loons provided a 4-0 thrashing over the visitors from Utah, and three days later, the 10-man Loons scraped by with a gritty 3-2 victory over FCD. That win put the Loons in pole position atop the West heading into their final Phase 1 match against Peter Vermes’s Sporting Kansas City.
Although the injury-depleted Loons fell at Children’s Mercy Park to SKC, they now still find themselves comfortably in third, just one point behind 2nd place Seattle while lying four points above 9th place FC Dallas, who sit just below the playoff qualification line.
The Loons sit where they are in the standings due to managerial choices by Heath. The Loons’ Gaffer finally moved winger Robin Lod in a position he’s comfortable at (right-wing), he promoted goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair to No.1 while he relentlessly provided faith in his back line of Gasper, Aja, Boxall and Metanire. Lod has two goals on the RW for the Loons over 239 minutes in 2020 compared to three goals as a LW over 706 minutes, and the Finnish international looks like a new player on the right side of the pitch. Even though the results weren’t the prettiest to begin the restart of Phase 1, it was easy to see that Heath took a risk — and it paid off. It’s also fair to say that the addition of Boca Juniors playmaker Emmanuel Reynoso has opened up the team offensively, giving them another option in the final third.
The Loons defense allowed eight goals through their first three matches of the restart, but they closed Phase 1 by conceding three goals through their final three matches; an improvement that Heath was counting on for his side to succeed. Centerback Michael Boxall has now played every minute of every match for the Loons in 2020 with 1,260 minutes on his boots, while left-back Chase Gasper, who has also featured in every match this season, is just behind him with 1,214 minutes. The duo have provided crucial consistency for the Loons, both defensively and offensively. Gasper found the back of the net, opening the scoring for the Loons, in their 4-0 rout over Real Salt Lake while Boxall has continued to provide the veteran leadership the squad needs during the injury-related absence of team captain Osvaldo Alonso.
It’s rather astonishing to see the Loons succeeding in the way they are currently, considering they’re down five regular-team starters currently. Gameday XI players Ozzie Alonso, Tyler Miller, Luis Amarilla and Ethan Finlay are all out for the formidable future, with Miller’s injury being season-ending due to a hip surgery. The other three won’t be match-fit until mid-October, according to Heath. The Loons are also without reigning DPOTY, Ike Opara, who has been unavailable due to unknown personal reasons since the return of play in early July. The only first-team player who is close to a return to the pitch is Aaron Schoenfeld, who will provide some much-needed depth up top for the Loons. Heath mentioned Schoenfeld is somebody who could be available for the match against the Dynamo, but that they’ll know more closer to matchday regarding his health.
The Loons cannot complain any further, though, as it’s slowly becoming evident around the league that many players are falling to small knocks in training and matches that are keeping them out for 2-3 days. The lack of fitness is understandable, as many states and countries around the world were forced into lockdown this past spring during the COVID-19 pandemic. After the completion of six regular-season matches for all teams, though, fitness can no longer be an excuse. Phase 2 will see teams make their final push for the 2020 MLS Playoffs and for those in contention, the 2020 MLS Supporter’s Shield. For Minnesota United, it’s a battle for both, as they’re still in contention for the Supporter’s Shield while remaining in position for a playoff berth.