National Writer: Charles Boehm

Pukki Party loading? Teemu takes stock of Minnesota United's 2024


Most MLS preseason camps have been underway for only a few days. There’s nevertheless an invisible clock ticking inside the heads of coaches and players across the league, with barely more than a month until first kick, and even less time to go for some participants in Concacaf Champions Cup.

Perhaps nowhere is that clock ticking louder than at Minnesota United FC. Not only are the Loons the last team in MLS left without a permanent head coach. They’re also on their second interim boss since parting ways with Adrian Heath near the end of their 2023 season, with Cameron Knowles currently leading the team following the departure of his interim predecessor Sean McAuley for USL Championship side Indy Eleven.

New chief soccer officer Khaled El-Ahmad, the person in charge of picking the next manager and setting the course for MNUFC’s future, has yet to physically join the club as he awaits his US work visa. To pile on further, linchpin playmaker Emanuel ‘Bebelo’ Reynoso again didn’t report to preseason on time, an unexcused absence for a second consecutive year.

Amid such awkward uncertainty, it falls to veterans like Teemu Pukki to provide a steady hand at the till in Minnesota.

“Obviously not the best situation,” the Finnish striker told reporters at MLS media day last week. “We have a good core of a team, I would say, and probably need to sign some players. And yeah, we need to start to work. Hopefully we'll be ready when the season starts.”

Euro return?

Beyond Pukki and his teammates’ 2024 ambitions at club level, this state of affairs could have repercussions for his international fortunes as well.

Finland visit Wales in a Euro 2024 qualifying playoff match on March 21, with the winner advancing to meet either Poland or Estonia for a place at the tournament in Germany this summer. The Huuhkajat’s successful qualification four years ago was their first-ever trip to the European Championships, and at age 33, Pukki – who is the men’s program’s all-time leading scorer with 39 goals in 118 appearances – badly wants another taste of that event.

That elevates the importance of a strong season’s start with Minnesota.

“I've been around quite long,” he said. “Playoffs to be in Euros, we did it the first time a couple of years back with Finland and that was probably the best I've done in my career. That was always my biggest dream, to go to a big tournament with Finland and we did it. It was a nice experience.

“That's the target, to get back there and even improve from what we did last time. I know there's not many years in football for me and the next Euros [is] in four years. So who knows? Maybe I'm not playing any more in four years. It could be the last chance to qualify for Euro. So a couple of big games in the end of March and hopefully we can make it.”

Cult-hero status

Pukki has navigated more than his share of choppy waters like these in a career that’s carried him from his homeland to Spain, Germany, Scotland, Denmark and England before landing in the Twin Cities last summer. A sense of open-mindedness and equanimity has helped him on that journey while also endearing him to supporters, particularly at Norwich City.

He bagged 88 goals in 210 overall appearances for the Canaries, pacing two promotions from the Championship to the English Premier League and prompting fans to spark a “Pukki Party” just about every time he hit the net. His recipe for cult hero status: Work hard, be nice, score a lot.

“I really enjoyed my time over there, football-wise, but also life-wise,” Pukki told in a sitdown at media day. “Probably the best time of my life. I didn’t fully believe I could have a chance to play in the Premier League before going there, and then to be able to do it.

“I had a good connection with the fans. I think the goals helped, obviously. I just tried to be myself and I think they liked the way I am as a person as well. I'm quite easygoing, family-oriented guy, don’t do any stupid stuff. I tried to work as well for the team and help the team any way. … I hope I can find the same level with the fans and with the club that I did there.”

His first half-season in the Upper Midwest offered reasons for optimism. He went eight matches without a goal after opening his Loons account in his second appearance, a start during a 3-0 win at Houston on July 12, then rattled off nine goals in their final nine games, highlighted by the four he racked up in a 5-2 rout of the LA Galaxy on Oct. 7.

The denizens of the Wonderwall, Allianz Field’s supporters’ section, have responded warmly.

"I think it just means goals and good feeling in games,” Pukki said of the tagline that’s followed him to 'Finnesota,' to borrow the phrase coined by MNUFC on his signing. “Hopefully I can help create some Pukki Party here as well.”

He's not one to set a benchmark down though, such as the Golden Boot presented by Audi.

"I never set any targets, like how many goals I want to score in the season," Pukki said before Minnesota's 2024 opener on Feb. 24 at Austin FC (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

"But I know as a striker that’s how the way you help the team most is scoring goals. … If I win the Golden Boot, obviously I take it, more than happy."

New challenge

While he readily admits he’s dependent on the box service provided by his teammates, the Finn’s holdup play and intelligent movement look like just what Minnesota’s attack had been crying out for.

“I had five great years in England. But during the last two years, I felt like I still wanted to experience something else. I've been in Europe, in many, many countries,” Pukki explained. “I followed MLS because there's some Finnish players here. And that was something I wanted to experience, to play in the US and experience life in the US as well.”

So far the adventure has presented other unexpected twists that may help put MNUFC’s present state of transition into perspective.

“I was surprised, kind of,” he said of his early impressions of the North American game, “especially [that] games are so big. Like, there's many fans. I didn't know that most of the games are almost full sellouts. And the atmosphere was better than I expected.

“You can see that it is growing and it's getting bigger,” Pukki added, “especially when you saw the Messi move, I felt like the energy changed. There were much more people, also in Europe, who were interested in the league.”

Lod + Pukki

Another: His countryman and good friend Robin Lod was a key factor in his decision to join the Loons, but they’re yet to share an MLS field together because of the season-ending meniscus injury Lod sustained a few weeks before Pukki’s arrival. And even in light of Minnesota’s inability to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, eventually finishing 11th in the Western Conference standings, Heath’s dismissal turned some heads given that he’d been the club’s only head coach since their arrival in MLS in 2017.

Pukki and the Loons can only try to flock into an orderly holding pattern while Heath’s successor is identified.

“Is the situation unexpected? Sure it is. We can't control that, but we can control every day that we come in here to train,” Knowles told reporters as MNUFC trained at the National Sports Center in Blaine this week. “The expectations for myself and the staff don't change, and it's a tremendous opportunity for all of us. Now we can work with the players. And for the players, it's an opportunity to have fresh eyes on them as well. We're preparing every day for the start of the season.”

All that makes 2024 the dawn of a new era in 'Finnesota.' It’s just a question of who’ll be shaping it along with El-Ahmad – and when.

“I don't know too much yet about who will be the manager and how will it look,” said Pukki. “But obviously we need to improve from last year, especially the end of last year didn't go how we wanted and we need to do better to reach our potential. It's going to be an important preseason now and we want to be up there fighting for the better spots than we did last year.

“For me personally, to have Robin Lod back fit, it will help the team and help me for sure. I can't wait to see how the season goes.”