How the Loons resurrected season after 0-4 start to make MLS Cup Playoffs
United is the first team in a standard MLS season to make the playoffs after losing their first 4 games
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota United finally found hope in the first half of their match against the Colorado Rapids on May 8.
After an 0-3 start, Emanuel Reynoso’s stunning 30-yard free kick curled around the Rapids’ wall and diving goalkeeper Will Yarborough to give the Loons their first lead of the 2021 season. “This could be the spark that Minnesota United needed,” TV color commentator Kyndra de St. Aubin said.
Hassani Dotson’s tap-in goal doubled the lead before the half-hour mark in Commerce City, Colo. “This is the Minnesota United you expected to see,” play-by-play broadcaster Callum Williams exclaimed.
Then it came crashing down. Hopes dashed.
Minnesota gave up three second-half goals and fell 3-2. After the Loons advanced to the Western Conference final in 2020, they expressed preseason aspirations to go further this season, but at that point found themselves at the bottom of the standings at 0-4, with a minus-7 goal differential.
The visiting locker room at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park resembled a wake. Players and coaches were dejected, frustrated and even exasperated. Longtime Loons players and coaches were having flashbacks to the dregs of the club’s first two years in MLS. How they gave up a league-record amount of goals in the 2017 expansion season, and how next to nothing improved in 2018.
New Loons midfielder Wil Trapp had fled a bad situation at Inter Miami for a shot at playoff success in Minnesota. But after the collapse at Colorado, he felt despair.
“It really weighs heavily on the players, especially when you haven’t won a game at that point of the season,” Trapp said. “You are up, you feel great and things were going really well in that first half. Then when it ends the way it did, especially off a set piece (for Danny Wilson’s game-winner), it just felt like, “Are we ever going to find a way to win?’ ”
The Loons adjusted their philosophy, changed training habits and were able to turn their season around. After those first four defeats, MNUFC went on a seven-game unbeaten streak (4-0-3). They lost one game, then went on another roll, 3-0-2.
A first for league
While it wasn’t smooth sailing the rest of the way, Minnesota became the first MLS team in a standard season to make the MLS Cup Playoffs after starting 0-4. The fifth-seeded Loons will play fourth-seed Portland Timbers in a first-round match at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Providence Park in Portland, Ore.
Back in May, it was a season on the brink.
“It could have tanked there — no question about it,” assistant coach Ian Fuller said. “Guys were low. The momentum was not going with us, clearly.”
Pressure started to mount on manager Adrian Heath. “The confidence levels begin to go and then everything else starts to get affected,” Heath said this week. “The negativity around the club starts to build and it starts to get bigger. It’s a real narrative for (the media) to start piling on, which normally happens. Not just here but in general. That affects everything.”
Inside the club, there was an internal belief that the team had too much focus on going forward in attack and not — first and foremost — being strong defensively. That original recipe got the Loons to the MLS Cup Playoffs the first time in 2019, to the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament in summer of 2020 and was again vital in the run in the MLS Cup Playoffs last fall.
“That was a collective in which we are going to be horrible (expletive) to play against,” Fuller said. “I think that resonated with this group.”
Goalkeeper Tyler Miller stepped in for Dayne St. Clair, and the Loons had 11 shutouts in their final 30 regular season games to tie the club record set in 2019.
Another internal realization was the club hadn’t been diligent enough in its preseason training regimen. Heath put a bigger focus on harder work leading up to game days. Players were also suffering a series of muscle injuries, leading to the dismissal in September of Damian Roden, the club’s senior director of sports science.
Given the depths of the opening four games, Minnesota needed a home win four days later against Vancouver. But they were willing to settle for a draw — any sign of positivity. With a been-there, done-that group of players and coaches, the Loons didn’t panic, knowing nearly 90% of the season remained.
Against the Whitecaps, new striker Ramon Abila produced a glancing header in the 72nd minute of a 1-0 win. While Abila produced only two goals and was waived midseason, the Argentine’s opening goal was one of the most-important finishes of the season.
“It’s huge,” Heath said. “These are all little moments that though a season can make it go one way or the other. But the resilience of the guys has been good. Everything that I feel as though we’ve really been in a corner. We have managed to get a result and that speaks volumes for the character of the guys and the determination of them.”
The Loons also needed a goal from Niko Hansen’s hip to eke another 1-0 win a couple weeks later, but belief was building.
The run would wane later in the season, especially when the Loons had a man advantage for a cumulative 170 minutes over three games and only got two of nine points from it. When they fell out of playoff positions in October, Heath talked about the “doom and gloom” both internally at the club and externally.
Similar to Colorado in May, the Loons blew a two-goal lead in the regular season finale against the L.A. Galaxy, but held on for a 3-3 draw to punch their ticket to the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
“We’ve been battle tested,” Trapp said.