Matchday 22 Preview: MNUFC v Portland Timbers

It has been an atypical week for the Loons so this will be an atypical preview. As a news-packed week comes to a close, new opportunities have opened up — Minnesota United FC needs only to seize them.

Pukki Party

Following weeks of the usual transfer rumors, the Loons finally landed the Finn on Tuesday. Teemu Pukki joins MNUFC as a Designated Player, taking the international spot vacated by Luis Amarilla, on a two year deal with a club option. The forward scored 88 goals and 29 assists in 210 appearances over five seasons for Norwich City (EPL) and Adrian Heath hopes he will fill the gap left by Christian Ramirez [more than five years ago]: “He’s a great professional, what you see is what you get, always as a smile on his face, gets his work done and is a great teammate. The fact is, he scores goals and I know that if we continue to create the opportunities we have this season he will no doubt be successful in this league. We are delighted to get him here and get him integrated with the group.”

With his P1 visa and international transfer certificate still pending, Pukki will not be available for tonight’s match against Portland but his pedigree will be vital in the latter half of the Loons’ season. Despite bringing up the average age of the Loons’ offense (he is 33), the striker should integrate easily and brings the eyes-up play Minnesota so desperately needs right now. Pukki’s 14-year international career includes appearances in the 2022 Men’s World Cup and the Euro Qualifiers this past month. Finland’s all-time leading scorer, he has notched 38 goals and 15 assists in 112 appearances, many of which he played alongside Robin Lod and former Loon Rasmus Schuller.

“It’s a real credit to the club and our growth in terms of how we go about our business, but also being a club that can attract these types of players,” said technical director Mark Watson. “Teemu Pukki was a free agent – he could have gone anywhere – and he had a lot of offers from big clubs in top leagues around the world, and he chose Minnesota.”

Freundlich Wonderwall

On Wednesday, Minnesota hosted FC Kaiserslautern in an international friendly, an opportunity for both the Loons and the offseason Bundesliga side to test their depth. Despite conceding inside of five minutes (rinse, repeat), MNUFC came back strong, scoring two unanswered goals to sing Wonderwall with fans who thankfully had not forgotten the words.

Ménder García put in the equalizer in the 21′, finishing a cross from DJ Taylor. They made it look like they’ve been doing that all season.

Minutes later, Sang Bin Jeong added the second [winning] goal, the finishing touch Loons fans have been waiting for.

MNUFC2 goalkeeper Fred Emmings came up big in his second half appearance to keep the visitors off the board for the remainder of the match. It was a strong showing by a side that has struggled at home, perhaps repairing some of the apathy that has plagued supporters of late.

(View our full gallery from MINvFCK here)

Iwe Moves Up

Following multiple short-term call-ups this season, MNUFC2 midfielder Emmanuel Iwe signed a Major League contract with the senior side on Friday. The 22-year old is the first MNUFC2 player to do so and shows [finally] that Minnesota’s development pipeline can work — even if his path was a little out of the ordinary.

“It’s a credit to [Emmanuel] for putting himself out there in the first place. Coming to an open tryout is never easy and then taking the opportunities that have come his way. The first team staff and Mark Watson [MNUFC Technical Director] saw him in that first tryout and have continued to be invested in his progress, too, which is a testament to the opportunity which they have here,” said MNUFC2 Head Coach Cameron Knowles. “The opportunity that’s here is really real and the first team staff have been really engaged in adding that value to it, that there is a real value to being with the second team. We’re really grateful that one, the opportunities are there for these players and two, proud of the guys that take them like Manny [Emmanuel Iwe]. It’s great for him that he’s been able to take this next step, and it’s the beginning of the next phase of his career, which is really exciting.” (MNUFC press release)

The St. Louis Park High School grad is also an alum of Joy of the People, St. Paul’s NPSL squad and played one season at St. Cloud State before joining MNUFC2 from an open tryout. Iwe’s third short-term agreement was for Minnesota’s US Open Cup match against Detroit City FC — he scored his first senior goal in the 63rd minute.

Both Iwe and Rory O’Driscoll, who previously played for Minneapolis City SC, appeared in MNUFC’s friendly against FC Kaiserslautern on Wednesday. It was O’Driscoll’s first-team debut, earned from a standout first season with MNUFC2. This is the youth development pipeline at work, both the Loons’ new internal system and local, independent clubs giving young players time on the pitch. After seven long years of fits and starts, it is finally working here for MNUFC.

Matchday 22
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Saturday Night

Back in MLS action tonight, MNUFC (12th, 5-7-6) will host the Portland Timbers (10th, 5-8-7) in a must-win match. Only one point separates the middling sides and, at this stage of the season, in such a tight table, every single point lost could haunt come October.

This is where Alan usually lists all the vitals, availability reports, and players to watch; where I tag Emanuel Reynoso and Adrian Heath. But Cameron Dunbar, quoted in Friday’s press release, nailed it in a few sentences:

“It’ll be about keeping ourselves in the game, not giving the opponent easy opportunities. It comes from us. We want to be focused, we want to be ready as soon as the first whistle blows to go out and fight for 90-plus minutes. And, whether it be in our own box making plays or in the opposition’s box making plays, we’ve got to make sure we don’t take our foot off the gas at all. We have to keep going, have to keep pushing, have to keep fighting for opportunities. I think that’s the biggest thing we need to go into the weekend.”

Games against Portland never fail to be either entertaining or chippy. The Loons need to shut down the Timbers (and their own demons) early, as they managed against Kaiserslautern. They need to score, on goal and with the supporters. Minnesota needs all three points.