Heading into the 2021 season expectations were high for Minnesota United. There was a general consensus, as mls.com wrote in their season preview, that “the Loons figure to be challenging around the top of the Western Conference again in 2021.” Internally the feeling was the same. The club has been, as Adrian Heath recently said, working for “incremental change,” getting a little better every year. “Can we get better? I think we have,” he argued, adding that “this is a better group of players than we had two years ago.”
That claim, measuring improvement by the quality of individual players, points to the club’s developmental philosophy, established in 2019 when Ozzie Alonso, Vito Mannone, and Ike Opara were brought in to stabilize an historically bad defense. Those acquisitions led to a 4th place finish in the regular season and Minnesota’s first MLS playoff appearance, as well as a run to the finals of the U.S. Open Cup. In 2020 the club made another addition, signing Emanuel Reynoso. Reynose quickly developed a very good relationship with Kevin Molino and together they led the Loons to their second consecutive 4th place finish and a euphoric playoff run to the Conference Finals. After losing Molino in the off-season, Minnesota added three more starters in 2021: Franco Fragapane, Adrien Hunou, and Wil Trapp, the ever elusive two or three more players the team would need to compete.
Yet when the 2021 season began Trapp was the only one of the three available, as the front office failed to finalize the roster by opening day, and the defense, missing Opara with a still not yet fully disclosed injury, had not found it’s form. Whatever expectations the club had or had been given were quickly lost to an 0-4 start. But just as quickly the team established some stability, ticking off a ten game run of results that got them back in the season. The results in that stretch often outpaced the team’s form and so Minnesota was never again considered among the best in the West, but they entered the summer in the middle of the pack. Unfortunately the team then struggled through a nine game stretch with only two wins. Struggling to find their offensive form and a stable line-up, they weren’t able to string together a run of results to end the season, backing into a fifth place finish off a rollercoaster Decision Day tie against LA Galaxy, securing their third playoff appearance in as many years. It was, to say the least, a season.
With so much roster instability it is hard to know what “incremental progress” might look like, but it seems, on results alone, that 2021 has been a bit of a regression for the Loons.
Yet as Alonso recently noted, with a smirk that was equal parts relief and excitement, “It’s playoff time.” Which means a second season begins tonight against the Portland Timbers, and so a second chance to measure progress.
“If we know anything,” Ethan Finlay reminded everyone this week, “we know you can achieve just about anything in MLS Cup.” Which is to also say that we know that these Heath-led Loons are built for a playoff run. With a stout defense and a counter-attacking offense that opens opportunities for individual moments of quality through one of the league’s best creative players, Minnesota can beat anyone on any night.
Historically Minnesota has done quite well against Portland: unbeaten in their last seven meetings, they are 6-2-1 all time, and 2-2-1 in Portland. Although the two teams have yet to meet in a playoff game, the Loons beat the Timbers twice this season.
But while Minnesota is stumbling into this game after a 3-3 tie against LA, Portland had one of the best half-seasons in recent memory, finishing comfortably in 4th place. After their own difficult start, struggling through a host of injuries and roster rotations and a general malaise and disconnect within the team, Portland ended the season in magnificent form, winning ten of their last fourteen, while outscoring their opponents 29-14. And that last stat should counter any easy reading of this team as dangerous on the counter-attack but porous in back after a season in which they scored 56 goals but also conceded 52.
In many ways, of course, this seems like a match between two quite resilient teams, with Minnesota recovering from an historically bad 0-4 start, just as Portland salvaged a season with an historically good second half. But some of the end of season statistics just published by MLS suggest that neither team is very resilient in game. When trailing at halftime Minnesota was a dismal 1-8-3 while Portland was a slightly worse 0-8-1. When conceding the first goal Minnesota went 3-9-6 while Portland only managed to go 1-11-3. And while Minnesota had a hard time closing out halves, conceding 13 goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half and 9 goals in the final 15 of the game, Portland conceded 13 in the final 15 minutes of the game.
Yet for all of that Portland remains a dangerous counter-attacking team: those 56 goals came off a bottom of the league 45% possession for the season. Their defensive pressure is opportunistic and well-balanced, challenging for the ball and clogging up passing lanes as much from the front as from the back. And since they have found their form, in large part due to the return of Sebastian Blanco from ACL surgery, they have been led up front by a rotating front five. As Heath said this week, “[Dairon] Asprilla (11 goals and 5 assists on the season) is probably playing as well as he’s done at any stage since he’s been at Portland. [Jaroslaw] Niezgoda (3g/1a) is coming off the back of an ACL and now looks like he’s back to his full fitness. Blanco (7g/7a in 14 games) has been outstanding the last few weeks and Yimmi Chara (6g/7a) is another quality player. That’s a really expensive front four that they’ve got. Or five if you throw [Felipe] Mora (11g/5a) in there for Niezgoda. Whichever four they go with, we know they’ve got quality and we will have to defend really well.” To say nothing of the still dangerous Diego Valeri coming off the bench.
This sounds, of course, very much like Minnesota who are also, in essence, a counter-attacking team, even if their attempts at a high defensive pressure are not as successful as Portland’s. Although the Loons have gotten much more comfortable building possession - Trapp, Chase Gasper, and Romain Métanire were the three top passers on the team this season - they have yet to find their way into consistently breaking down defenses in the final third, especially with their preferred front four, rather than the 3+2 that has Robin Lod playing up front and either Ethan Finlay or Niko Hansen on the right. With either Hunou up front or Lod on the right opposing teams have been quite successful simply setting a low block and allowing the Loons to possess the ball just outside the box. Minnesota’s success has come, most often, when they have been able to get the ball quickly to Reynoso who can draw two or three already stretched players to himself, opening the field for the rest of the attack. All of which means that tonight’s game has as good a chance of being a wildly open Blanco and Reynoso show as it has of being wildly tentative.
After a long international break, which MLS used this year to separate the opening and closing parts of the season, both Minnesota and Portland will come into the game well rested, a benefit for two of the oldest teams in the league. On top of which is an added week off for Alonso who served a yellow card accumulation suspension against LA to end the season. (Yellow card accumulation thresholds are reset at the start of the playoffs. Once the playoffs begin and up until MLS Cup (when yellow card accumulation will again reset) a player receiving a yellow card in round one and the conference semifinal will be suspended for the conference final.) Although Michael Boxall, Lod, Romain Métanire, and Jukka Raitala were busy with their national teams during the break, they all returned healthy.
So tonight the season begins again. Portland was able to find its form in season, and so comes into the game off an incredible second half. But it is hard to know if momentum will carry over the break into the playoffs. Minnesota, meanwhile, carries with it the weight of unfulfilled potential. Fully fit and out of excuses, they will have to find their form now if they are to make something of the season.
Jeff Attinella - out (right rectus femoris surgery)
Ismaila Jome - out (left achilles tendon surgery)
Andy Polo - out (right vastus lateralis & meniscus surgery)
Hunter Sulte - out (concussion)
Eryk Williamson - out (left ACL surgery)
Bill Tuiloma - questionable (right lower leg injury)
Justin McMaster - out (thigh)
Callum Montgomery - out (thigh)
DJ Taylor - out (thigh)
Patrick Weah - out (knee)
Ethan Finlay - questionable (concussion)
Portland Timbers vs. Minnesota United
Providence Park, Portland, OR
Sunday, November 21, 2021
4:30 pm CT kickoff
TV: ESPN Radio: SKOR North