In T-minus two days, MLS is back, and Minnesota United FC kicks off its 2021 campaign for glory. The goal? MLS Cup. The expectation? MLS Cup. The reality check? MLS Cup, and no, that isn’t a joke.
The Loons are coming off its best-ever season that ultimately ended in a single, heart-shattering moment at Lumen Field on Dec. 7, 2020. Sounders striker Will Bruin found the back of the net with less than 60 seconds to go in the game, knocking the Loons out of the semifinal match in stunning fashion. However, it was a comeback for the ages, with the Sounders overcoming a 2-0 deficit to eventually win 3-2.
Redemption and revenge are on the minds of the Loons roster heading into the new season, and of course, their first test comes in the place where they last tasted the tears of defeat: Lumen Field.
The Loons won’t be fielding the same XI, however. They have had a long offseason that has resulted in rebuilding and restructuring their midfield core and their attacking prowess further up the pitch. It’s going to be a completely different match for the Loons, who now have a proper goal-scoring No.9 with Ramon “Wanchope” Abila, as well as a new No. 6 in USMNT player Wil Trapp.
Although the Loons added two important first-team players to their roster, they also lost one in last year’s club MVP Kevin Molino. His contract expired, and he chose to reject the Loons’ proposal, opting for a three-year contract with the Columbus Crew. The Loons quickly sought a replacement for Molino, tabling up an offer of $50k GAM in 2021 and $75k GAM in 2022 to the Houston Dynamo in exchange for Danish winger Niko Hansen, who had previously played with Trapp and Ethan Finlay in Columbus.
The Loons will notably be without 2019 MLS Defensive player of the year, Ike Opara, who sat out nearly the entirety of last season with what was eventually reported to be concussion-like symptoms. However, he won’t be the only defender the Loons might be without heading into Seattle.
The Pioneer Press reported on April 9th that Loons LCB Bakaye Dibassy, who had suffered a thigh injury before preseason camp in Orlando, was going to be questionable for the Loons opening fixture Friday evening. Woodbury’s Brent Kallman is the Frenchman’s backup in that position.
Taking into consideration Dibassy’s injury and the continued absence of Opara, this is my expected starting XI for the Loons Friday evening:
MNUFC gaffer Adrian Heath is expected to maintain the same shape the team used last year, with the Loons running a 4-2-3-1.
The Loons will give Abila his first run-out on the pitch as a Major League Soccer player. He will look to break through a very solid Sounders defense, but he’ll have the help of his former teammate, Emanuel Reynoso, to do so. Niko Hansen, who has had a very strong preseason for the Loons, will start at LW, while Finnish international Robin Lod will get the nod at RW. Lod had a breakout season for the Loons last year, proving his versatility at both wings, the 10 position, and as the Loons No. 9 in their playoff run.
Will Trapp will run the midfield with Slovakia International Jan Gregus, with Gregus playing slightly farther forward than Trapp. The defense stays mostly intact from last year, with the only change being Brent Kallman starting in place of Dibassy.
Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair is expected to keep his starting spot next year after claiming the spot following season-ending hip surgery to Tyler Miller in late July. Miller, the Loons starter going into last season, is now fully healthy but is expected to be St. Clair’s backup.
The Loons will look to capitalize on a very positive preseason that saw them win three out of four possible matches into Friday evening. Rookies Justin McMaster and Patrick Weah had shone brightly, too, displaying a scoring ability in the preseason.
23-year-old midfielder Hassani Dotson helped lead the lines of the U.S. U-23 National team during Olympic qualifying in March, starting three out of four matches for his country while scoring two goals in the process. Dotson’s consistent improvement on the pitch has warranted a starting spot in the Loons XI, but with an already condensed midfield, the former ROTY nominee will more than likely play an important role off the bench to start the year.
As the Loons venture into their fifth season as a Major League Soccer club, there is a legitimate belief that they will be a top Western Conference team. It’s a waiting game for now, but after a season where you were minutes away from an appearance in MLS Cup, there will be high expectations.
Minnesota United will venture into a familiar setting Friday evening, but it’s a new season, a new XI, and a new opportunity. It’s up to the 18 men selected on gameday and their head coach Adrian Heath to make the most of it.