And then, before Bebelo even got back, the injuries started to pile up. Just about everyone of relevance missed a significant chunk of time, but the biggest miss was stalwart midfielder/winger Robin Lod, who had spent the past couple of years adding value wherever he was deployed on the pitch.
All of this is to say it was a trying, bad and ultimately job-destroying year in St. Paul this season. The last part – that Adrian Heath, who was both manager (the only one the club had ever known in their MLS years) and de facto sporting director (for the past five years), was actually on a hot seat – came as something of a shock. It had been long understood around MLS that Heath was tight with ownership and had maybe the longest leash in MLS outside of Peter Vermes at Sporting KC.
But alas, the leash was not infinite. With two games left and at the end of a seven-game winless streak (0W-4L-3D), Heath was let go and a good chunk of the front office was cleared out.
It was, by every conceivable metric, I think, a bad year, one in which the Loons were perpetually stuck in the mud.
Formation & Tactics
For as long as Heath was there it was a 4-2-3-1. Even without Reynoso, they tried to play with some sort of No. 10 – South Korean U22 signing Sang Bin Jeong got the most reps there – though obviously there’s no like-for-like with Bebelo. So a team that was already very invested in playing a deep line and hitting on the counter just became more so.
And it worked pretty well at first, with the Loons going 3W-0L-2D in their first five. There wasn’t much nice soccer being played, but points are points.
When Bebelo finally got back, Minnesota started to look exactly like the team they’d been for the past few years. It all ran through him, and why not? He played at an MVP level.
The stuff that happened down in Miami ended up overshadowing the Bebelo & Bongi show, but my god, for a few games there it felt like the 2020 stretch run and playoffs again. Reynoso hit a level I think only one other playmaker in MLS can hit – that guy in Miami, and no that’s not meant as a slight to anyone in Cincinnati, Atlanta or Nashville – and young Bongi Hlongwane started to turn all that potential into productivity, running neck-and-neck with that Miami fellow for the Leagues Cup Golden Boot.
Watch the clips, I’m begging you. The show that this team, and in particular those two guys, put on for five games was just the type of magical, glorious stuff that is the reason we all love this sport in the first place.
I’m not about to do the Plato’s Cave thing where I pretend the analytics are the full story, the actual reality. But there just aren’t a lot of guys whose radars can be compared to Messi’s for non-meme reasons:
Emanuel Reynoso is insanely good at soccer. INSANELY good.
If there is any justice he will be healthy and happy and ready to cook next year, and for the five after that. Minnesota deserve a title-producing sports hero, and I firmly believe anyone who can make our sport look so beautiful deserves a trophy.
So yeah, Leagues Cup ended and Minnesota kept it going for a few games, taking seven of the next nine points on offer. But Bongi went cold, Bebelo got hurt, then Bongi got hurt, and all throughout the defense slowly disintegrated.
Enter that seven-game winless skid I mentioned above. Here’s the last act of game No. 6:
That was a must-win.
Four days after that the Loons went to downtown LA and got absolutely smoked, which was the final nail in the coffin of the Adrian Heath era.
Hlongwane’s non-penalty expected goals per 90 in 2022, his first year in Minnesota, was a super-promising 0.24. He damn near doubled that to 0.47 npxG/90 in 2023, and that’s just for the regular season – that’s not even counting his Leagues Cup heater.
The bad part, obviously, is Bongi underperformed his xG by more than anybody in the league. My long-standing take on that, however, is to trust guys who know where the goal is to eventually start putting the ball in the back of the net.
I don’t think he’s a future Bouanga, but something like 12 goals next season doesn’t seem unrealistic.
Dayne St. Clair was supposed to take a step forward this year into Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year contention. He pretty clearly took a step backwards instead.
Five Players to Build Around
- Reynoso (AM): He’s the king.
- Hlongwane (W): I made the case above. Consistency will come soon.
- Pukki (FW): Took a minute to find his stride, then became one of the most reliable No. 9s in MLS. Fits perfectly with Reynoso and Bongi, even if he’s a bit older.
- St. Clair (GK): Has the tools to be one of the best ‘keepers in the league. I expect a bounce-back next year.
- Kervin Arriaga (CM): The big Honduran’s attention to defensive detail can wax and wane, but when he’s locked in he's a game-changer.
- Rebuilding the front office.
- Rebuilding the coaching staff.
- Rebuilding the backline.
- Upgrading d-mid.
I think the attacking core of Reynoso, Pukki, Bongi, Sang, Lod, Franco Fragapane, Ménder García and maybe another young No. 9 is good enough to win a trophy in this league. I think some combination of Lod, Arriaga and Hassani Dotson is good enough at central midfield, and as I said, I’m predicting a bounce-back for St. Clair in goal.
I don’t have much faith in that backline, though, and while Wil Trapp is steady and should continue to have a role, that d-mid spot is an obvious one to upgrade.
Get those moves right – most important is the first one from that list above – and this team can compete next year. Get them wrong, and this season’s disappointment won’t be a one-off.