The 2019 season hasn’t always been pretty for Minnesota United, but after a 2-1 comeback victory over Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday night, the Loons are heading to the playoffs for the first time in their brief history.
The Loons didn’t storm onto the MLS scene the way their expansion counterparts in Atlanta did. They didn’t have a billionaire owner pour tons of his own cash to build an instant contender. They had to play in an over-sized college football stadium for two years
Now, in 2019, Minnesota United have a brand new state of the art stadium, a passionate fan base that has been built from a foundation laid nearly a decade ago in the now defunct North American Soccer League, and a team headed to the MLS Playoffs for the first time.
But it still isn’t enough.
“They’ve worked really hard for what they’ve achieved,” said head coach Adrian Heath. “But we want to go even further than that. We don’t want to just get in the playoffs. I didn’t read one publication that tipped us to be in the playoffs this year in the Western Conference.”
This clinching game wasn’t one of Minnesota’s finest on the season. Botond Barath gave SKC the lead after only six minutes and the Loons were lucky not to have gone down 2-0 several times. Kansas City had eight shots on target in the first 70 minutes and one Gianluca Busio attempt off the woodwork.
Minnesota equalized in the 70th minute thanks to an Ozzie Alonso header off a corner, but SKC nearly restored their lead two minutes later when Ilie Sanchez hit one off the post from a corner of their own.
“It’s not been a pretty evening in terms of football, but in terms of a will to find a way to win a game, I couldn’t fault the players, certainly in the second half, I thought our will and our desire was magnificent,” Heath said.
“Football is not all about free-flowing and showing how good you are. Sometimes, it’s about rolling your sleeves up and having the desire to go get a result, by hook or by crook, however you get there. That’s what we’ve done today.”
It took one somewhat ugly finish for the desire Heath spoke of to bear fruit. Hassani Dotson made a nice run into the center of the penalty area in the 90th minute and took a shot that went straight into Barath in the SKC defense. Fortunately for Minnesota, the deflection it took flummoxed Tim Melia and bumbled into the goal, sending Allianz Field into a frenzy.
“I’m not sure that was his best finish since I’ve been here,” said Heath, “but they all count.”
Making the playoffs could be seen as the culmination of a building process that began with hiring Heath, who was unceremoniously let go from expansion side Orlando City, before their first season. Heath struggled at first. Minnesota’s first two seasons saw them far from the playoff picture, finishing ninth and tenth in the West. The 2019 season has been the turnaround year and they are going to play some playoff soccer, but there’s still a lot to build on, according to Heath.
“It means everything to me,” he said. “I’m proud of what I’ve done as a player and what I’ve done as a coach, but this is the most important thing because it’s the next thing. When I came in, after the first year, I still think getting 10 wins is probably as big an achievement as making the playoffs, for what we had to go through that year. I’m really, really proud of everybody connected with the club, especially the players, the ownership group, with our supporters, who have been nothing short of magnificent since we’ve been in this stadium. This is just the start.”
The Loons are now playing for the right to host a playoff game or two as they conclude the regular season. A win in either their home finale against Supporters Shield winners LAFC on Sunday, or a week later in Seattle will mean Minnesota United will get to host a first round playoff game at Allianz Field. If they win them both, or get some help from the teams below them, they would be in line to host a conference semi-final game as well.
The atmosphere at the Loons’ shiny new nest has been amongst the best in the league this season, and you can bet the Wonderwall will be in top form for a postseason game.