Match Reactions: The Pursuit of Points and Potential

March was a month of firsts for Minnesota United FC.

  • The club’s first ever win over the Rapids in Colorado. 
  • The first (and hopefully last) international break in which more than half of Adrian Heath’s [current] starter rotation missed a match for international duty. Dayne St. Clair (CAN), Michael Boxall (NZL), Kemar Lawrence (JAM), Kervin Arriaga (HON), Joseph Rosales (HON), Robin Lod (FIN), and Bongokuhle Hlongwane (RSA), all featured heavily in the first three matches of the season.
  • The first regular season match with four Minnesota players in the 18. Filling in for international absences vs. Vancouver were Brent Kallman (starter), Emmanuel Iwe (subbed on for Mender García in the 66′), and Patrick Weah and Devin Padelford (unused subs).
  • The first recurrence of a four-match unbeaten streak. MNUFC went unbeaten in the first four matches of 2022 – before falling to Seattle, 2-1, in Week 5.

Okay, that last one is a stretch. But seriously. The Loons have earned eight points from their first four matches in 2023, just as they did in 2022, a somewhat surprising stat considering the vastly different circumstances under which 2023 began.

Match 2022 2023
1-1 draw at PHI

Goal: Lod (Fragapane)

1-0 win at FCD

Goal: García

2 1-1 draw vs NSC

Goal: Dotson

1-1 draw vs RBNY

Goal: Hlongwane

3 1-0 win at RBNY

Goal: Amarilla (Dotson)

2-1 win at COL

Goals: Amarilla, Tapias (Fragapane)

4 1-0 win vs SJE

Goal: Amarilla

1-1 draw vs VAN

Goal: García (Valentin, Trapp)

The most obvious of course is the absence of Emanuel Reynoso but plenty of words have been devoted to that story and the Loons for the most part shed the shadow of that narrative by opening the season with four points in two games, including the massive win in Frisco. The fact that the strong start continued despite the odds is another story.

Luis Amarilla playing in front of Reynoso was the difference maker in 2022, finally regaining his shooting boots and scoring the winning (and only) goals in the third and fourth games of the season. In 2023, he has yet to find that form but has contributed one goal in the form of a penalty kick. With the arrival of Mender Garcia, Amarilla is fighting for minutes and will have to fight for any additional mentions in this piece.

Garcia has two thrilling goals, including the stunner on Matchday 1, and has been a joy to watch. His box-to-box style has secured him a one-hour starting role in Heath’s XI. His style is much the same whether he’s at the top of the 4-2-3-1 or alongside Amarilla in the 4-4-2 as he was against Vancouver. Bongokuhle Hlongwane, who scored the early goal against New York Red Bulls, joined García in the end to end sprints and creative dribbling against Colorado, following balls that Loons forwards have had a tendency to quit on in previous years. It was more than enough to make his call-up for South Africa’s AFCON qualifiers a low blow to fans who wanted to see more in Matchday 5.

As in 2022, the Loons continue to balance low-scoring tendencies with gutsy defense. What the backline lacks in chemistry this season, it makes up for in depth – a fairly new reality for this club. Michael Boxall has familiarity with returning leftback Kemar Lawrence and veteran experience to lean on in newcomers Zarek Valentin and Miguel Tapias. This combination secured that first-ever road win at Colorado Rapids.

The experience of Valentin and Tapias, together with Brent Kallman, DJ Taylor, and backup goalkeeper Clint Irwin, held off a heavy-shooting Vancouver for more than 96 minutes, blocking or deflecting 22 shots. Having four players in midfield to cut down on the forced sprints by the forwards certainly helped.

Unfortunately, Vancouver took 23 shots and that final one, in the 90+7′, resulting from a cheap midfield turnover, is the one that everyone will remember.

This squad is finally emulating the club’s mascot, the Common Loon – A pursuit predator.

Between the absent personnel narrative — a favorite of AppleTV + MLS Season Pass commentators everywhere — and the international break that wasn’t for a league touting its international footing, emotions have run high through the month of March. But on the pitch and on paper, the Loons have defied the odds. Now they will need to regroup and continue that trend of gritty, vocal, counter-attacking play.

From the stands, the fans can find hope in the depth of this squad and in the opportunities the young players will have to prove themselves and develop through meaningful minutes. With 24 more MLS regular season matches ahead, plus US Open Cup and Leagues Cup play, there will be opportunities aplenty for MNUFC to develop an identity between the squad veterans, the international talents, and the up-and-comers. It has taken far longer than expected, but the Loons could finally be in pursuit of the bigger picture.