If you frequent this website with any regularity over the past year or two, you’ve probably seen (and maybe had a chuckle at) Adrian Heath’s occasional broadsides at the “MLS.com” pundits who he believes have so often underrated and overlooked his Minnesota United side, cultivating a powerful chip on their collective shoulders, perhaps most prominently during the MLS is Back Tournament over the summer.
Sunday brought signs of a new narrative in 10,000 Lakes country: The Loons are underdogs no more.
How else to interpret their commanding 3-0 Round One dispatching of the Colorado Rapids, their first-ever Audi MLS Cup Playoffs victory? This was a highly assured performance from a seasoned, confident squad, soaking up periods of Rapids pressure, then hitting back via the counter and intricate buildups alike.
“I’m pleased for the group, I’m pleased for our supporters more than anything, and pleased for our ownership group, because I think they’re starting to see the investments on the field now starting to take shape,” said Heath afterward, noting that his team’s growth represents the maturation of a long-term plan that began with some real suffering in their first two years in MLS.
“It shows that we're progressing, which is always the name of the game,” he added. “We're not standing still, we're moving forward.”
Highlights: Minnesota United 3, Colorado Rapids 0
Rugged defending became the Loons’ main strength as they learned from those hard lessons, though the incisive front four of Robin Lod, Ethan Finlay, Kevin Molino and playmaker par excellence Bebelo Reynoso, a key midseason arrival, were the big story against Colorado. Reynoso banked assists on all three Loons goals, two finished by Molino and one by Lod, as the trio flashed their rapidly-growing understanding of one another.
“Yeah, this kid is quality,” Molino said of Reynoso in his postgame interview with ESPN. “His awareness on the field is fantastic and I just want to continue working with him for the rest of the season and see where it takes us.”
The quality and chemistry of that attacking group seems to have pushed Minnesota into a different stratosphere, in both footballing and psychological terms.
“After that [MLS is Back] tournament, we made some great additions to the team, and I think they've really been starting to click the last few weeks,” said center back Michael Boxall. “Tonight, I think us as a group expected to win that.
“For most of the season, there's not been many games where I've felt we shouldn't win or get something out of [a game], particularly when we're playing at our best. Obviously like every other team we’ve dealt with dips of form, through injuries, through a lot of outbreaks in the season. But here we are in the conference semis.”
There’s a distinct type of evolution involved with becoming a team comfortable punching down as well as up, and MNUFC’s burgeoning creativity and chemistry up front is pushing that process along.
“If I’m being perfectly honest, if Robin Lod, Reynoso and Molino are fit and healthy and all playing well, I don't think there's many better attacking midfield players behind a striker in the league than that, I really don't,” said Heath. “I thought some of our combination play and imagination to play with each other, to get people in on goal – I know they’ve had chances but conceivably, we could’ve had six or seven with the chances that we had. Kevin could’ve had four or five on his own.
“It's taken us a while to get them all together, but they’re starting to gel and we’re all starting to find out what we're good at. And that bodes well for the future – and I don't mean for the playoffs, I mean for the next few years.”
MNUFC will have to visit Kansas City for their next match, yet another meeting with their familiar regional rivals Sporting KC – where they’ve been “awful at times,” in Heath’s words – yet they sound ready to stand toe to toe with just about anyone in their current form.
“Reynoso’s massive for us,” said Boxall. “In previous years we've got a big percent of our goals from counterattacking and I think now he gives the ball when players need it … he’s able to carry our load into the final third, where we can get set and put sustained pressure on teams.
“There’s no reason why we’re not looking to win that one too.”