They were built for the playoffs! Everything is perfectly lined up for another deep run.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

The Loons made an almighty push to the Western Conference Final a year ago, brought back mostly the same group with a couple of reinforcements, and were expected to do something close to the same dance in 2021.

It didn’t work out that way. Emanuel Reynoso was MVP-level excellent and Ozzie Alonso turned back the clock during the second half of the season, but almost no one else lived up to preseason expectations. Add in a lack of squad rotation (only Peter Vermes made fewer subs than Adrian Heath’s 112) and the Loons were out of gas by the time the playoffs came around.

So there was no run this year, just an almost embarrassingly listless 3-1 Round One exit.

Formation and tactics

4-2-3-1 alllllll the time.

I actually don’t mind this much – it’s clearly the best formation for the personnel, and more talented teams have been ruined by coaches who overcomplicate things than by coaches who have a good, basic shape they stick with.

Tactically it was all about Reynoso. He was second in the league in key passes, but even more important than that was his gravity – he would intentionally take his time on the ball, draw defenders to him, then split them with third-line passes to his extraordinarily busy off-ball attacking teammates. And so, as per Second Spectrum, MNUFC were top three in the league in Successfully Handled Pressures per 90, Attacking Runs in Transition per 90, Progressive Passes Between the Lines per 90 and Final Third Entries in Transition per 90.

This is how you should do it when you’ve got a genius No. 10 and a bunch of guys willing to work off of that.

Highlights

From May 12 to Aug. 28 they went 8-2-7. That’s not world-beating or anything, but being that hard to beat over the course of half a season, and pairing it with some very satisfying wins over the likes of Seattle and Portland (twice!), as well as some quality road draws… that’s how a team digs itself out of a pointless, 0-4-0 hole, which is exactly what they found themselves in to start the season. April was not kind to this team.

Still, I’m going with the final two weeks of the season as the highlight of the year. They faded hard in September and October and were on the verge of missing the playoffs if they didn’t take care of things at home against KC and then pick up a result on the road at the Galaxy.

And so that’s what they did, beating Sporting 2-1 and then surviving a late, furious rally from LA to grab a 3-3 draw in Carson.

Five goals in two huge games? It sure seemed like Loons were ready to put their stamp on the playoffs once again.

Lowlight

For 15 minutes – during which time they scored one of the best team goals of the playoffs – they sure were. But then they just collapsed, and this is how I think most folks will remember Minnesota’s 2021 playoff performance:

This was pretty grim, especially from a team whose window for title contention is rapidly closing. Three-quarters of the backline is over 30, Ozzie’s 36, and other key contributors are at or over 30. Reynoso’s in his prime at 26, but he’s actually the second-youngest starter. This team is old.

So it’s hard to look at this group and expect much internal improvement next year given they’ve mostly been together for a couple years now, and they’re all either into or now slipping out of their respective primes.

Veteran teams aren’t supposed to put in playoff performances like that one.

Revelation

No one. Heath didn’t play any of the (very few) kids on the roster much, and none of the holdovers made any kind of noteworthy progress. And unlike in years past, the SuperDraft didn’t turn up some hidden gems.

Disappointment

It’s pretty disappointing none of the kids qualified as a revelation, but more disappointing is that DP forward Adrien Hunou didn’t more consistently finish off so many of the attacking sequences that Reynoso started.

Hunou, who was supposed to be the missing attacking piece, managed just 7g/1a in a touch over 1700 minutes and rarely went the full 90 (just twice in his 26 appearances). Heath seemed not to trust him, which is perhaps understandable given the types of chances Hunou contrived to miss. But also, Heath has his hand on the lever with regard to acquisitions, so why’d they bring him in and give him such a fat contract if they weren’t going to let him play through the adjustment period? It’s not like any of the other center forward options were making any sort of case for playing time.

Hunou’s underlying numbers are very good and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had a breakout 2022. But it was a weird signing and weirdly handled.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Reynoso (AM): Maybe my favorite player in the league, a true throwback, ‘90s-style South American No. 10.
  • Franco Fragapane (W): Clearly a good soccer player.
  • Robin Lod (W/F): Good on the ball and borderline brilliant off of it, Lod’s got a natural chemistry with Reynoso and is an asset no matter where he’s played in attack.
  • Hunou (F/W): Trust the underlying numbers. This guy knows where to be and when to get there, and should come good next year.
  • Chase Gasper (LB): Did not have a great year, but he’s a top 10 player at a tough spot to fill and is just entering his prime.

Offseason Priority:

“Just entering his prime” is not something that can be said about many players on this roster.

Youth? Depth? Flexibility? Minnesota are a bottom-tier team in all three of those, and all three of those need addressing this offseason – especially, I think, in central defense, where both Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy began showing their age by the time autumn rolled around

Ozzie, meanwhile, is a free agent, as is top wing back-up Ethan Finlay. Maybe Hassani Dotson just walks into Ozzie’s spot in the XI, but then again, maybe not.

And, of course, there’s now an open DP slot with the departure of Jan Gregus. If they’re truly determined to make a run at MLS Cup in 2022, it seems like that’s something they’d want to put to use.

EDIT: This recap was written before the recent reports out of Argentina about Reynoso. Obviously, that's now the big story of the offseason, and how that is resolved will go a long way toward determining what Minnesota's future looks like.