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Preview: Minnesota United at Seattle Sounders - 2021 Matchday 1

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After a long offseason and delayed 2021 season the Loons begin in the same place their 2020 campaign ended.

Minnesota United FC v Seattle Sounders: Western Conference Finals - MLS Cup Playoffs Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

We were all, of course, hoping for a bit more next normal and a little less this normal. But here we are at the start of another season still feeling like soccer is a necessary distraction and a dangerous diversion, while Minnesota United return to Lumen Field, site of the extra-time loss that ended their 2020 playoff dream. And so we look forward with a bit of hope for a little something better this year.

Looking forward begins, of course, by trying to pick up the narrative threads of what has come before. Unfortunately, Minnesota United’s 2020 season is almost impossible to know: The season began with joy as Minnesota handily beat Portland and San Jose; a joy that was quickly and thoroughly ended by a global pandemic. Then, when play resumed, the Loons staggered through a surprisingly unconvincing run to the semi-finals of the MLS is Back tournament. That less than exciting run of play was followed by a horrific opening eight games of the re-start as the Loons went 2-5-1 and looked worse than that record might indicate. But then they finished with eight games unbeaten and a dominating romp through the first two-and-a-half games of the play-offs. Even that final run, though, contained within it two cancelled games and four ties, ending with that near total collapse. It was a run that never felt as convincing as it was.

There are, of course, a host of story lines to pick up from last season, trajectories of play that might be important to preview this opening game (Robin Lod’s comfort away from the left and possible fit as the long sought for #9, Chase Gasper’s tapering development and Hasanni Dotson’s continuing growth, Ozzie Alonso’s injuries, etc.). Four are worth mentioning here. First, Emmanuel Reynoso. Which is, at this point, about all that needs to be said. He was, almost immediately, one of the best creative players in the league. More importantly, he elevated the Loons attack and everyone around him. With his signing MNUFC was no longer a team of opportunistic scoring that relied on an aging but solid defensive core; they could, instead, dictate the game in attack, something rarely seen in previous seasons. And no one benefited more from Reynoso’s arrival than Kevin Molino, who found, at the end of the season, his long promised form. It was not just the ten goals, but more the absolute joy that appeared between Reynoso and Molino. They played with style, and brought a possible identity to the team. In losing Molino it is that joyful creativity that will be hard to replace. There are rumors, as there always are, of another signing, Argentinian Franco Fragapane seems to be the most promising, but for now it seems like that left-sided spark will need to come, if it comes at all, from newcomers Niko Hansen or Justin McMaster, or an out of position Robin Lod. Third, the injury and health concerns for Ika Opara. Although it is yet to be seen whether this will be mutual and fair, it seems that Opara and MNUFC have decided to part ways. As disappointing as that will be when finalized, one of the most surprising if understated developments of 2020 was that without Opara the team did not revert back to previous form: the defense, anchored by Michael Boxal and Jose Ajá/Bakaye Dibassy, held. Although anyone who witnessed the first two seasons after promotion would find it hard to believe, the defense is now the most stable part of this team. This is true even as it looks like Dibassy will not be ready for the opener - he has picked up a thigh injury - since Brent Kallman remains a solid if not outstanding fill-in, and a rather surprising last-one-remaining from the NASL days. Finally, there is Dayne St. Clair. Even though it took a few games for him to gain the coaching staff’s trust, and given Tyler Miller’s return from hip surgery, after the year St. Clair had he must be considered the presumptive starting keeper. MNUFC has yet to prove it can truly develop young talent, but St. Clair is the future in goal.

For all that it was not for everyone else, 2020 was a fairly typical season for the Sounders: after a slow start saw them eliminated relatively early from the MLS is Back tournament, Seattle went on to appear in their fourth MLS Cup final in the last five seasons, losing 3-0 to Columbus. Which is what we should all expect; the Sounders have shown that over the course of a season they will figure themselves out and figure out how to win, a testament both to Head Coach Brian Schmetzer’s tactical flexibility, and quite possibly coaching genius, and the players’ willingness to experiment, grow, and develop within a season. But after losing Joevin Jones and Kelvin Leerdam to Inter Miami CF, Gustav Svensson to Guangzhou City, and Jordan Morris on loan (and injury) to Swansea City, there will be much more for the Sounders to figure out this year than normal. And although as others have noted any team that still has Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz, João Paulo, Cristian Roldan, and Stefan Frei will be competitive, it now seems that Lodeiro will be out with a thigh injury to start the season. From the pandemic truncated pre-season it seems that Schmetzer will be trying to figure all this out with two changes: first, Seattle has switched to a fairly consistent 3-5-2, although a 4-4-2 formation remains a possibility, as either will allow for two forwards as an attempt to take advantage of the team that this is, rather than the team it might want to be. Second, the kids will play. Schmetzer has been, in his time as head coach, quite hesitant to trust the kids or the flash, often opting for stability over all else. The opening of this season might force a change, though, and we should expect to see Josh Atencio and Nouhou Tolo fully break into the starting XI.

Matchday 1

4/16/2021, 8:30pm

Lumen Field, Seattle, WA

FS1, 1500-AM

PLAYER AVAILABILITY REPORT:Minnesota United

OUT: I. Opara – undisclosed

B. Dibassy – L thigh

N. Hansen – L thigh

MNUFC projected XI

Dayne St. Clair; Chase Gasper, Brent Kallman, Michael Boxall, Romain Métanire; Ján Greguš, Ozzie Alonso; Robin Lod, Emanuel Reynoso, Ethan Finlay; Ramón Ábila

MNUFC 2020 Recap

MLS Cup: Conference finals (Seattle Sounders FC 3 - 2 MNUFC)

Supporters Shield: 9th

Western Conference: 4th

US Open Cup: na

Concacaf CL: na

MLS is Back: Semi-finals (Orlando City SC 3 - 1 MNUFC)

Players to watch:

Emanuel Reynoso (FW)

Ján Greguš (MF)

Michael Boxall (DF)

Romain Métanire (DF)

2020 Stats leaders:

Goals:

Kevin Molino 9(4)

Robin Lod 7(1)

Ethan Finlay 4(0)

Assists:

Emanuel Reynoso 7(7)

Ján Greguš 6(1)

Robin Lod 5(0)

Tackles:

Romain Métanire 26(2)

Chase Gasper 20(6)

Hassani Dotson 20(4)

José Aja 20(0)

Interceptions:

Michael Boxall 38(8)

Ján Greguš 34(4)

Romain Métanire 31(4)

Seattle Sounders projected XI

Stefan Frei; Nouhou Tolo, Yeimar Gómez Andrade, Xavier Arreaga; Brad Smith, Cristian Roldan, Josh Atencio, João Paulo, Alex Roldan; Fredy Montero, Raúl Ruidíaz

Seattle Sounders 2020 Recap

MLS Cup: 2nd

Supporters Shield: 6th

Western Conference: 2nd

US Open Cup: na

Concacaf CL: Round of 16 (Olimpia 4 - 4 Sounders, pen 2-4)

MLS is Back: Round of 16 (Seattle 1 - 4 LAFC)

Players to watch:

João Paulo (MF)

Cristian Roldan (FW/MF)

Raúl Ruidíaz (FW)

2020 Stat leaders:

Goals:

Raúl Ruidíaz 12(2)

Jordan Morris 10(1)

Nicolás Lodeiro 7(1)

Assists:

Nicolás Lodeiro 10(3)

Jordan Morris 8(1)

João Paulo 5(0)

Cristian Roldan 5(0)

Tackles:

João Paulo 36(6)

Nouhou Tolo 26(6)

Cristian Roldan 20(10)

Interceptions:

Yeimar Gómez Andrade 52(12)

João Paulo 30(7)

Nouhou Tolo 30(7)