Up until the 75th minute of Monday night’s Western Conference Final, a second straight upset by Minnesota United FC in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs seemed imminent.
Emanuel Reynoso was engineering another top-end performance, curling home a beautiful free kick in the 29th minute and supplying another free-kick that Bakaye Dibassy headed into the net in the 67th minute. The Loons held a 2-0 lead over the Seattle Sounders at Lumen Field, Reynoso reached 1g/7a in three postseason games and their first MLS Cup trip was within grasp.
Then tired legs from Minnesota's hectic playoff schedule surfaced, head coach Adrian Heath said. Seattle rattled off three unanswered goals for a 3-2 win, giving the defending MLS Cup champions their fourth Western Conference title in the last five years. The dynasty rolled on, and the fourth-year club fell short.
Heath focused on the fatigue factor in his postgame interview, though making clear that he’s not looking to make an excuse.
“I said to you guys before, I was a bit concerned about the lack of rest that we've had,” Heath said. “I thought that was pretty apparent this evening. I can't fault the guys for their effort. What they've done this year has been remarkable, because I know what we've been through internally.
“But late on we were sort of running on empty a little bit and obviously when you do that, you concede space and suddenly they've got extra bodies in the box, you leave yourself vulnerable. Unfortunately, that's what happened.”
Highlights: Seattle Sounders 3, Minnesota United FC 2
HIGHLIGHTS: Seattle Sounders FC vs. Minnesota United FC | December 07, 2020
Heath pointed to Minnesota’s Western Conference Semifinal win, a 3-0 result last Thursday at Sporting Kansas City. He said they returned home Friday morning, then traveled on Sunday before going into the lion’s den, looking to knock off a Seattle side that have become MLS's playoff masters.
Dissecting the match, winger Ethan Finlay felt like things were teetering on the edge before then.
“It felt like we couldn't get a hold of the game in the second half,” Finlay said. “Even when we did score the second goal, I don't know what the numbers came out, but it didn't feel like we could get control of the game. I always felt like even at a 2-0, you're always in a situation where you're a little bit nervy if you don't have control of the game and I felt like that's where we were at.”
Heath offered a similar perspective, noting that “football’s a cruel game” at times. Seattle have developed a reputation for late-game comebacks at home, and Minnesota were the latest to fall victim to that trend.
“Because we were so tired, we didn't have enough controlled possessions so we never really gave ourselves a little bit of respite,” Heath said. “We continually would clear it and then they'd bring it forward again.
“I just thought it was a lack of energy from us at the end, and that was to be understandable. I sensed it in training the last couple of days that we've had a lot of physical and mental, emotional games the last few weeks. Maybe it's caught up with us, but as I say, I can't fault the players. Their energy this year, their desire for us to do well has been fantastic.”
Despite the setback, Heath remains confident about the direction Minnesota are heading in. They reached the U.S. Open Cup final in 2019, and this season were 15 minutes away from upsetting the defending MLS Cup champions.
While he didn’t get into specifics, the Loons appear to be gearing up for a consequential offseason. They're approaching year No. 5 in MLS, and they’ve gone from a bottom-of-the-barrel Western Conference side to a legitimate contender.
“We've got a lot of big decisions to make in the next 24 to 36 hours on where we go and what we do to move forward, but that's what we'll do,” Heath said. “That's the nature of the game and sometimes you've got big decisions to make and they're not incredibly popular at times, but you have to believe that they're the right decisions. I think we've done that over the last couple of years, made some really good decisions with the players and the quality that we've brought in. Now, we have to go and do it again, try to keep moving forward. And that's what we'll do.”