At long last.
After an offseason that feels like forever but was just as long as any normal time off, Minnesota United FC kicks off the 2021 MLS regular season exactly where last year’s campaign ended, in Seattle, where the Sounders and Loons square off Friday night in front of a national television audience.
There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about Minnesota’s chances to get back into MLS Cup contention this year: a strong backline, a full season of Emanuel Reynoso, Robin Lod (presumably) on the right, and another potentially great new signing from Argentina.
Still, there are some questions that, depending on the answers, could make or break Minnesota’s hopes for another playoff run:
1) Will last season’s playoff exit be a motivator or a dark cloud?
When the Loons walked off Lumen Field in Seattle just four short months ago, players, coaches, and supporters alike felt deflated. Holding a 2-0 lead in the 75th minute, Minnesota would allow three goals over the final 15-plus and fall 3-2 in the Western Conference Final to the Sounders.
“It’s a cruel game when you’re on the receiving end of it,” head coach Adrian Heath said after the defeat.
Even as we head into a new season, how the Loons bowed out is still a big talking point among fans. The question is, how much will it affect the players, and in what way?
This was the first bit of consistent playoff success Minnesota achieved during their short MLS tenure. In 2019 they hosted an MLS playoff game for the first time in history but fell to LA Galaxy. The following year the Loons would win a pair of playoff matches, 3-0 victories over the Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City, en route to that Western Conference Final appearance.
The ascension into a new tier in the West, in addition to how they were able to garner a lead on one of the most established clubs in MLS in a conference final, could be enough to propel Minnesota into next season. Plus, the chip on the Loon feathers could provide the motivation this club needs to make another deep playoff run.
However, the weight of such a difficult elimination could prove to be too much if Minnesota allows that disappointment to hang over their heads.
Starting the season back in the same stadium they walked off of in such pain in December will be a challenge, but also an opportunity to exorcise those demons and set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
2) Can Emanuel Reynoso pick up where he left off last season?
What a start for Rey.
In just 16 appearances, the midfielder tallied two goals and an astounding 14 assists, including an MLS record seven in the playoffs.
Reynoso’s impact has already been felt, but with the recipient of most of those assists, Kevin Molino, off to Columbus, there’s a lingering question as to whether the supporting cast can put away those chances and help him reach that same level next year.
If Rey does translate last season’s success to this year, he will be in the MVP conversation. It’s up to guys like Robin Lod and newly acquired Ramon Abila to take advantage of those opportunities the Argentine is sure to provide.
More importantly, Minnesota’s success this season very much hinges on the quality of play from Reynoso.
3) Can Ramon Abila influence Minnesota’s attack as much as Kevin Molino did?
The aforementioned Abila, another addition from Argentine club Boca Juniors, has some big shoes to fill at his presumed starting left-wing position.
Last season, the now-departed Kevin Molino took the service Reynoso provided and tucked away goal after goal on the way to a career-high 13 goals combined in the regular season and playoffs, 11 of those coming after Reynoso’s arrival. Let’s not put the pressure on Abila to equal or surpass that output, but if the Loons are going to finish near the top of the conference and make another run, they need goals, and they need goal-influencers.
Abila’s presence in Minnesota’s attacking midfield theoretically fills the crater left by Molino, with 34 goals and 13 assists in 81 matches with Boca. But the 31-year-old will have to take that theoretical impact and make it a reality in a Loons uniform next year.
4) Is Hassani Dotson better utilized in the starting XI or off the bench?
Dotson, a model of consistency and continuous improvement in Minnesota, has been Heath’s utility bench presence over the last few years.
The 23-year-old has proven a keen ability to play anywhere in the defensive midfield, right back, and even right wing. That flexibility and quality in multiple positions earned him a spot on the US Men’s National Team U23 Olympic Qualifying camp, where head coach Jason Kreis was impressed enough to keep Dotson on the final squad.
During the qualifying run, in which the Americans fell short of their goal, Dotson impressed yet again. The Oregon State alum played an influential role in both group stage victories, scoring two goals in a 4-0 rout of the Dominican Republic.
Dotson’s performance on such a big stage has left many Loons faithful wondering why he would be on the bench heading into the MLS season. I mean, how could you leave a proven National Team player out of the starting XI?
However, when you look at the talent already in the positions where Dotson would traditionally fit in, the answer to where he would start isn’t so clear.
In the defensive midfield, you have Slovakian national and proven impact player Jan Gregus and US Senior Men’s National Team alum Wil Trapp, not to mention the veteran presence of potentially the best defensive midfielder in MLS history, Ozzie Alonso.
On the right side of the backline, you have a Malagasy national and Minnesota’s lone MLS All-Star two years ago, Romain Metanire.
The Loons’ attacking midfield is also set with Abila, Reynoso, and Finnish national Robin Lod.
Do you sit one of these proven stars to get your Swiss army knife in a starting spot, or do you leave Dotson on the bench to utilize him as a consistent super sub?
It’s crazy to think, with the depth of quality talent Minnesota possesses, that the season could hinge on how one player is utilized. But when that player can impact the game like Dotson, it’s crucial.