Minnesota United has gradually improved in each of its opening three seasons as an MLS club and now the goal for 2021 will be to run the table and bring home the first trophy in club history.
After falling one game short of playing in their first MLS Cup Final, the Loons have aspirations of making another deep playoff run again this season. Adrian Heath’s side sees many returning starters including Emmanuel Reynoso, Ethan Finlay and Jan Gregus, a key core to a deep squad.
“It absolutely gives us confidence to get back and go even farther this time around,” Finlay told SBI. “I think if you look at the last two years, we’ve we’ve been in a U.S. Open Cup Final, we went to a Western Conference Final. We were 10 minutes away from from our first-ever MLS Cup.”
“We have a lot of guys back who have already stated high expectations for this team,” Finlay said. “We also will get the chance to play in front of our fans again and they will be rooting for us to get back to the playoffs. We have experiences under out belt and now it’s about getting over that hump.”
Finlay is one of several attacking players that Heath can call upon this season, joining playmaker Emanuel Reynoso and forward Robin Lod in the mix. Veterans Juan Agudelo and Niko Hansen will also be fighting for minutes after coming in from Inter Miami and the Houston Dynamo respectively. Ramon Abila has also arrived on loan from Boca Juniors, giving the Loons a sorely-needed goal-scoring striker to lead the line.
“Juan is a guy who is a proven scorer in this league and will be fighting for minutes whether that is in the starting lineup or off the bench,” Finlay said. “Niko has experience playing out wide or as a main forward and helps give us depth at both areas. I’ve played with Wil and he is a guy who puts in a lot of work for the team so it was a positive move by the team to bring him in.”
Veterans Ozzie Alonso and offseason acquisition Wil Trapp will look to alternate in the defensive midfield role while youngster Hassani Dotson continues to blossom into one of the league’s bright young talents. Heath will have plenty of tough lineup decisions to make with a good mix of youth and experience in his squad.
“Hassani is a player who made the most of his early chances in the league and since has continued to develop into a top talent. He’s a guy who puts his head down and doesn’t really listen to any outside noise, which is good for a young player. His versatility makes him a threat in a number of different positions and he will continue to push guys in the squad for opportunities.”
“It’s strange,” Heath said about Dotson. “Somebody said people were surprised at his versatility. There’s not many heard for two years then what I’ve been saying about the kid. I spoke about him being arguably one of the best finishers in the club… He’s highly thought of in our group. I know he is with their group there now. He has put himself in a really good spot.”
Defensively, Minnesota was one of the best in the league in 2020, conceding only 26 goals in 21 matches. Centerbacks Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy are the frontrunners to start in central defense, with Brent Kallman providing depth.
Ike Opara’s future with the Loons is in doubt. The former MLS Defender of the Year missed most of the 2020 season with an undisclosed health issue, and he hasn’t taken part in the team’s current preseason. If he were able to recover and return, Opara would be a leading candidate to start, but as things stand the Loons appear ready to move on without him.
At fullback, Jukka Raitala’s arrival from Montreal will see him battle incumbent starter Chase Gasper at left back while Romain Metanire remains a regular on the right side.
“I think Jukka has been fantastic so far in preseason and it’s another great addition by the club,” Finlay said. “His versatility can see him play outside or as a third center back if we want to play that way. He’s also a veteran of the league who has a lot of experience.
“It’s important for us to have a good mix of veterans and youth because I feel every MLS team needs that,” Finlay said. “You need some fearless guys, but you also need some guys who can help lead them into making good decisions on the field. We have a good mix of that here and I think it will only help us in our fight to get back to the postseason.”
Goalkeeper Tyler Miller is back and healthy after only playing in five matches before missing the rest of the season through injury. The 28-year-old was the No. 1 before going down, allowing Canadian international Dayne St. Clair the early opportunity to start.
St. Clair recorded eight shutouts through 16 combined league appearances and will be pushing to keep the starting job this season. Either way, Heath will have a top goalkeeper in what should be an exciting season for the Loons
Here is a closer look at 2021 Minnesota United:
2021 Minnesota United Season Preview
2020 Finish: 4th place in West (9-5-7, 34 points, lost in Western Conference Final.)
Key Acquisitions: Ramon Abila, Jukka Raitala, Niko Hansen, Juan Agudelo, Wil Trapp, Callum Montgomery, Adrian Zendejas, Patrick Weah.
Key Losses: Kevin Molino, Luis Amarilla, Mason Toye, Kei Kamara, Wyatt Omsberg.
Newcomer to Watch: Ramon Abila
The Loons went into the offseason in dire need of a striker after parting ways with Luis Amarilla and Kei Kamara, and landed an ideal option in Abila. The 31-year-old was productive for Argentinian powerhouse Boca Juniors, and is reuniting with former teammate and Minnesota United star Emmanuel Reynoso. Two two were teammates at Boca Juniors, and that familiarity could help the Loons field an even more dangerous attack in 2021.
Pressure is On: Juan Agudelo
An experienced MLS forward, Agudelo comes to Minnesota after struggling for consistency in Miami last season. Agudelo will likely sit and watch as Robin Lod starts as the main strikers, but could get his chances off the bench or in busy two-match weeks. If he can find his form of old, Agudelo could make the Loons a serious title contender.
After delivering its best MLS season yet, the bar is set high for the Loons in 2021.
Heath will have veterans like Opara, Alonso, Boxall, and Finlay to lean on but he will need consistent impact from his playmakers and forwards to keep the pressure on others in the conference. Agudelo’s arrival gives Heath a veteran goalscorer and helps fill part of the void left by Luis Amarilla’s departure. Abila should also give the Loons attacking front additional flare after arriving from Boca Juniors.
Reynoso and Gregus are both top playmaking options and will be given the keys to run the show in St. Paul. Finlay is a proven veteran in the league and will be eager to get back to contributing on a regular basis, whether that is scoring goals or setting up his teammates.
“I want to get back to registering double-digit seasons, whether that is scoring or adding assists,” Finlay said. “I want to make things difficult for opposing left backs and center backs and I feel the more dangerous positions I put my opponent in, it will help the team.”
Opara and Alonso are two additional veteran options in the squad and are still part of the league’s best at their respective positions. The addition of Trapp can help take some of the pressure off Alonso in the No. 6 position while also give Dotson another experienced teammate to learn from.
Opara and Boxall are both physical defenders and will be the likely starting duo on opening weekend. Dibassy’s experience from 2020 will also help in case the Senegalese defender is needed while Raitala can also slide into that position if needed.
Raitala and Metanire could form one of the top full back partnerships in MLS if they stay healthy. Both are solid defenders and can offer something in the sense of crosses and dangerous passes into the box.
Due to COVID-19, the Loons will have a heavy slate of Western Conference matches this season with 32 of their 34 scheduled regular season fixtures coming against teams they will be fighting with for a playoff spot. The Loons will have three matches each against Sporting KC, Seattle Sounders, L.A. Galaxy, and expansion side Austin FC.
With every game proving even more crucial against in-conference competitions, the Loons will need to start strong and make the most of every match whether at home or on the road.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag again,” Heath said. “We’ve got only two Eastern Conference teams. When you generally consider how strong the Western Conference is, you would have liked that evened up a bit more.”
Goalkeeper: Fred Emmings, Tyler Miller, Dayne St. Clair, Adrian Zendejas.
Defenders: Noah Billingsley, Michael Boxall, Bakaye Dibassy, Chase Gasper, Sam Gleadle, Brent Kallman, Romain Metanire, Ike Opara, Jukka Raitala.
Midfielders: Osvaldo Alonso, Thomas Chacon, Hassani Dotson, Raheem Edwards, Ethan Finlay, Jan Gregus, Jacori Hayes, Robin Lod, Wil Trapp, Emanuel Reynoso.
Forwards: Juan Agudelo, Niko Hansen, Foster Langsdorf.