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Season Preview: Playoffs become Minnesota United’s priority in Year Three

Several new starters and the opening of Allianz Field should boost the Loons’ hopes.

February 10, 2019 - Bloomington, Minnesota, United States - Players of  Minnesota United FC hold up scarves as they introduce the 2019 kit at the Mall Of America. 

(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)
February 10, 2019 - Bloomington, Minnesota, United States - Players of Minnesota United FC hold up scarves as they introduce the 2019 kit at the Mall Of America. (Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

Minnesota United begins their third season in MLS on Saturday away to the Vancouver Whitecaps. After two disappointing seasons, the Loons will open up Allianz Field with several new starters in play and a major new presence around the team: playoff hopes.

How did the Loons finish in 2018?

United finished 10th in the Western Conference on 36 points... the same total and one position lower than their inaugural season in 2017. The Loons shipped 71 goals, which would have broken the goals-conceded they set in 2017, if Orlando City hadn’t been even worse at defending.

What did we learn from last season?

In short, that bad defenses don’t magically improve over a winter. A lackluster offseason didn’t create much optimism, and the virtually unchanged back line performed just as it did a year previously.

On a brighter note, the Loons’ offense arrived on the scene. Even as talented wingers Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino missed almost the entire season due to ACL tears, players like Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra stepped up to give United several respectable wins, including demolitions of LAFC and Toronto FC.

Above all else, we learned that the Loons were a decent-enough team at home, but a terrible one on the road — to the tune of one win, two draws and fourteen losses.

What changed for 2019?

Thankfully, a lot. The team made aggressive cuts, setting the stage for some bigger arrivals, which actually came.

Ike Oparra during practice on 2/26/2019
Tim C McLaughlin

Who’s gone?

Minnesota cut two-thirds of their goalkeeping core, as well as veteran midfielder Ibson, fan-favorite fullback Jerome Thiesson and several other rotational players.

Who’s in?

United’s front office remains convinced that there is talent to be found in the SuperDraft. The Loons selected goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and defender Chase Gasper, both from the University of Maryland, in the first round. St. Clair has impressed in preseason, Gasper has earned plaudits as an MLS-ready defender, and second-round pick Hassani Dotson worked his way into a contract.

More relevantly to this season, Minnesota added five players who could very well all be starters. The first arrival was Designated Player Jan Gregus, a Slovakian international midfielder who arrived from Denmark’s FC Copenhagen. Then came the acquisition of Ozzie Alonso, the former Seattle Sounders captain who will fill a gaping hole in United’s defensive midfield. Fullback Romain Metanire, the first Malagasy (Madagascar) international in MLS, arrived on a TAM deal from France’s Ligue 1. Centerback Ike Opara, the MLS Defender of the Year in 2017, will anchor an improved defense, and goalkeeper Vito Mannone, who has Premier League experience, will battle Bobby Shuttleworth for the starting role.

Ozzie Alonso during practice with MNUFC on 1/23/19
Tim C McLaughlin

Who’s the player to watch this season?

Quintero will certainly capture most of your attention. He might not score anymore hat-tricks by chipping the goalkeeper three times, but his level of play puts him among the best in MLS.

Outside of him, keep on eye on the Loons’ wings. Some combination of Miguel Ibarra, Romario Ibarra, Kevin Molino, Rasmus Schuller, Ethan Finlay and Abu Danladi will be rolled out. Yes, the Loons have a lot of wingers.

Is the new jersey another plain white one?

You betcha.

How cool is Allianz Field?

So cool. From light shows to a steep supporters section, it’s going to be an amazing place to watch the beautiful game.

What will the starting lineup look like?

Some roles (goalkeeper, wings) are up for grabs still, but here’s a guess:

GK: Vito Mannone

D (L to R): Francisco Calvo (captain), Michael Boxall, Ike Opara, Romain Metanire

CM: Ján Greguš, Ozzie Alonso

AM (L to R): Romario Ibarra, Darwin Quintero, Miguel Ibarra

F: Angelo Rodriguez

Key Subs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth, CB Brent Kallman, M/AM Rasmus Schuller, AM/F Romario Ibarra

What are the expectations for 2019?

From the Loons’ first MLS season in 2019, the team’s leadership has preached a three-year plan. After no progress — you could even call it a regression — was made last year, 2019 is crunch time. It’s playoffs or clearout. The pieces are now all there, it’s just up to the players to put it together this year.

What’s the worst case scenario for 2019?

Injuries could be problematic, as there still isn’t a whole lot of depth to the squad. More threatening would be continued problems on the road. If United can’t improve away from home, the playoffs will be nothing but a dream.