A feeling of joy, happiness and excitement, suddenly crushed by a sentiment of pain. It hurts. It travels throughout your body into places you would not expect it to. You feel physical, emotional and mental emotions that are captured by the persistent pitter-patter of your fingers typing away on Twitter, you feel them through the tears on your face and the screams that come out of your mouth.
It’s pain; a common sentiment for Minnesota sports fans.
The expectations were high, extremely high, then low, and then again high, for Minnesota United this season. 2020 is and has been a rollercoaster. The Loons had gone up-and-down, side-to-side and upside-down over the past five months since the MLS is Back tournament in July. Off the pitch, the world has been in a haze. The pandemic has shifted our world view. The Black Lives Matter movement has certified its roots in the ground of our community and we’ve truly become ‘Minnesota United.’ We have been through lockdown, quarantine, lockdown again and, well, quarantine again, too.
This hasn’t been a normal year, nor has it been a normal Major League Soccer season. We’ve experienced pain off the field; many of you have lost loved ones to COVID-19, many of you have struggled with the limitations that coronavirus poses. We’ve struggled together, though. We’ve grown, we’ve learned, and we’ve improved. This community, the supporters of this club… we are a family. There is no ‘lone soldier’ in this battalion of wild, outgoing, rambunctious and snarky groups of people; this is a community of tight-knit individuals who support and love each other. That’s what makes this club, its supporters and everyone else affiliated with Minnesota United FC so great.
Monday evening was a catastrophic collapse that sent blood pressures off the rails, saw different social media platforms go absolutely bonkers, and yet it ended up being an all-too-familiar feeling for Minnesota sports fans; a sentiment of pain.
Going into Lumen Field, Minnesota United FC was on a quest to make history. They were undefeated over their past 10 matches and had just knocked off the overall No.1 seed, Sporting Kansas City, in the Western Conference Semifinals. Their confidence was at an all-time high; there was a feeling in the air that this was going to be the Loons season.
Argentine playmaker and 2020 league sensation Emanuel Reynoso was leading the charge alongside MNUFC lore hero Kevin Molino, who was on the hunt for his third straight (!!!) brace in four matches. The quest, the expectation… the storyline, it didn’t go as planned. Pain hit, and it hit late. Hearts dropped, sank and were crushed by the head of Swedish international Gustav Svensson in the 94th minute of play — a third goal in less than 20 minutes to stun the Loons 3-2.
The Loons missed their mark on a corner and the “Goose” connected brilliantly with the ball, sending it across the 6-yard box into the bottom corner of the net. Loons goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair was left standing still, emotionless as his eyes saw the ball go across the box; the young Canadian was helpless in the moment as there was nothing he could do. The screams of FS1 commentators Stuart Holden and John Strong rang over the speakers of televisions around the country, and the city of Seattle was up on its feet popping bottles of champagne (in their homes, by themselves, of course).
Minnesota fans around the country felt a common sentiment, a sentiment of pain. They slumped, crouched and fell onto their couches with their hands in their faces asking themselves why and how the Loons managed to give away a 2-0 lead in the 75th minute of play.
A common sentiment: Pain.
No professional male Minnesota sports team has won a championship since the Minnesota Twins in 1991. This ongoing stretch of pain continues for Minnesota sports fans as they await the moment where their team can fight for an attempt to be crowned the best of the best in their respective league. For Minnesota United, though, the pain doesn’t end here. It lingers, it follows you into 2021 and even then it won’t go away. It’s a pain of knowing you threw away a 2-0 lead with 15 minutes (plus added time) to go. It’s knowing there isn’t an excuse, no matter how much you want to find one; you collapsed in heart-wrenching fashion. It’s a gut punch. It’s a sort of pain that you will remember for the rest of your career, player and manager alike.
Postgame Monday, Loons winger Ethan Finlay was asked what he would take away from the crapshoot of a 2020 season that included COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and a lengthy injury layoff. Finlay responded by saying: “Unfortunately, I’ll remember the last 10 minutes of this game most likely.” Finlay’s reference was to Seattle scoring twice in the final six minutes of the match off of two set-piece corner kicks; a particular set that the Loons have been strong at defending in 2020.
A common sentiment: Pain.
Finlay, who grew up in Duluth, was the only Minnesota United player who was made available post-game in a Zoom press conference with reporters. Media will never know if there was a one-player cap on interviews Monday evening or if nobody else was willing to step up to talk to the media, but it’s safe to say that Finlay is the gold standard for strong, charismatic and inspiring individuals. In a moment where pain is all you feel, Finlay spoke to the media for 20-plus minutes, taking every question until a limit was imposed. Emotions fluttered all over his face, the tone of his voice harbored a tone of sadness and guilt while the look in his eyes just showed pain.
“This will be the last time this group of guys are together, and for it to end the way it did tonight, in that fashion, after 75 really good minutes I thought…we knew it was going to be a tough one tonight, and we kind of…we bent, but we didn’t break for a majority of the game,” Finlay said. “I’m just sick to my stomach, obviously, everyone in that locker room is sick to their stomach. I think we fell short obviously this evening and there will be a lot of soul-searching, I think, from individuals and as collectives, but you know, it was a great year, but absolutely disappointing tonight.”
Finlay’s strength as an individual showed there, in that moment, through a glistening look into the camera that showcased a moment of beautiful vulnerability. It was a reminder that these people are athletes, and that athletes are still just people. They feel the same emotions as us, they feel the same, common sentiment, of pain.
Loons head coach Adrian Heath ran out of words at times, looking as though he was standing at a register short of money and fumbling through his pockets for loose change. Instead, he stuttered, glassy-eyed, into the camera and struggled to find the words on how he felt after the final whistle. Heath didn’t know what he felt, though. He discussed how 2020 has been a “tough and trying season for everybody,” but elaborated more on how gutted he felt for his squad.
“It’s obviously a very distraught dressing room,” Heath said. “A lot of upset players. Sometimes it’s best just to say nothing. We’ll have a chat with the group and thank them for their efforts this year. It’s been remarkable, what they’ve given us. It’s been a really testing and trying season for everybody. But none moreso than us, I don’t think.”
The Loons overcame monumental challenges in 2020 to reach the Western Conference Final.
At the end of 2019, they lost their season-leading goalscorer in Darwin Quintero and went into 2020 without a proven goalscoring No. 9. Fast forward to the spring and starting center back and reigning MLS defender of the year, Ike Opara, was forced to sit out nearly the entire season for an undisclosed reason that remains a mystery.
Following the conclusion of the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando during July, starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller had season-ending hip surgery. Along with Miller, starting striker Luis Amarilla was ruled out for a lengthy period of time and eventually had season-ending surgery. Three crucial pieces were axed before the official league-issued restart in August.
To add to that list, captain Ozzie Alonso and veteran winger Ethan Finlay both sat out for lengthy periods of time with their own injury issues. The compressed schedule that forced teams to play nearly three times a week made players find levels of fitness they may have never had before. By doing so, the league damaged their own product. However, teams were forced to move forward, MNUFC included.
“The most important thing is that we’re moving forward. We’re getting better,” said Heath. “Each and every transfer window. And, that will be the same again. We’ve got a lot of big decisions to make in the next 24, 36 hours of where we go and what we do to move forward. But that’s what we’ll do. That’s the nature of the game.
“Sometimes you’ve got big decisions to make, and they’re not incredibly popular at times, but you have to believe that they’re the right decisions. And, I think we’ve done that over the last couple of years. We’ve made some really good decisions with the players and the quality that we’ve brought in. Now we have to go and do it again. Try and keep moving forward. And that’s what we’ll do.”
The struggles overcome by the Loons, however, had all led to Monday evening. They shot for the stars, made it past the clouds, but crashed on the moon. The Loons went into the match hoping to change history, rather than continue it. Unfortunately, the latter proceeded to take place. A late collapse, a stab wound to the chest; it felt as if the squad deserved more, it felt that this team had so much left to offer.
2020 has been a year that has taken so much from every single one of us, and our privilege makes us overlook a lot of the issues that the coronavirus pandemic has had on this league. Many times team personnel have had to forfeit a lot of their regular life choices to maintain player safety. They’ve taken hundreds of COVID-19 tests so that they can be around the players, they’ve sacrificed so much and yet we overlook this selfless act that ensures our satisfaction as viewers. The success of this team and this league would not have been made plausible without the selfless acts from so, so many people.
We cannot contextualize the pain, sacrifice and sentiment of the 2020 season. It’s become abundantly clear that so many have suffered, and that losing a sports match should be the least of our concerns, however, this guts and glory run that Minnesota United went on in 2020… it was a distraction from that pain. They gave us a few hours every week to distract us from the catastrophic world outside of our homes, and fans should be grateful for that. The continuation of Major League Soccer around the league over the course of 2020 was an escape, a much-needed escape.
To Minnesota sports fans: I feel your pain. I share your struggle and embody the pain we all feel. It’s a common sentiment, though, and at this point, it’s becoming embraced.