When Minnesota United entered MLS in 2017, they were welcomed with a gut-punch and the people's elbow from the top rope.
Their first game was a 5-1 loss on the road to the Portland Timbers and the second, their home debut in the snow at TCF Bank Stadium, ended in a 6-1 loss to Atlanta United. Those results foreshadowed the ailments that would ultimately doom Minnesota's first two seasons in the league. But they had always talked about a three-year plan: 2019 was the year everything was supposed to come together.
No team underwent more of a fundamental or metaphysical transformation this offseason.
On Wednesday night, led by yet another strong defensive performance with a gritty, never-say-die finish, Minnesota United clinched their first MLS playoff berth. The scenes on the pitch at Allianz Field between players, their families and the many fans who stuck around in the stands, showed just how far they've come from a team that conceded 11 goals across their first two MLS matches. This season, they've been dropping the people's elbow under the soothing tune of 19,400 fans screaming "Wonderwall" at the top of their lungs.
It was the perfect microcosm as to how and why Minnesota United are headed for the playoffs for the first time in their short MLS history. Here's how they've done it.
This winter, Minnesota were intent on following through with what's been their message since day one: This is a three-year plan. We're here now, Allianz Field is opening and this club are intent on christening our new cathedral with a winning team.
That started, and perhaps ended, in defense. Two moves stand above all.
Minnesota made their first big splash in free agency, signing Ozzie Alonso, one of the best defensive midfielders in league history. Entering his age-33 season, the move was seen as a calculated risk. Sure, he'll be a vast upgrade in the heart of midfield when healthy, but he had just tied his career-low in starts with 21 the year prior. It was a big investment for a player on the wrong side of thirty, particularly one who relies on athleticism and never pulling out of a tackle.
A few weeks later, Minnesota made another splash: Trading for star center back Ike Opara. They sent Sporting a base fee of $900,000 in TAM, which would rise to $1 million if the club made the playoffs. Again, it was a calculated risk: The 2017 MLS Defender of the Year had his own battle with injuries over the years, was soon to turn 30 and the fee was easily the most allocation money exchanged for a defender in league history.
An undervalued part of those two particular transactions: Opara and Alonso immediately instilled a championship pedigree to Minnesota's locker room, the physical manifestation of the abstract goal of improving the culture and changing the club's perception.
After a season in which Opara is favorite for MLS Defender of the Year (again), Alonso has logged 26 starts to date (and scored the first goal in Allianz Field history) and the club have been one of the best defensive units in the league, anyone got questions about the price tags now?
It wasn't just Opara and Alonso, of course, though they were the foundation. Midfielder Jan Gregus has been the perfect midfield partner for Alonso, Romain Metanire was an All-Star and has been one of the best right backs in the league this year while Mannone has been one of the top 'keepers. All three were signed in the offseason, all three have had vital roles in the Loons' revival.
They also got huge contributions from places they weren't expecting.
Hassani Dotson and Chase Gasper, both selected in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, have been invaluable members of the first team while Mason Toye has been one of the league's unexpected breakout stars. He kept Quintero on the bench for the U.S. Open Cup final and is keeping Designated Player Angelo Rodriguez out of the matchday squad with his performances.
The Loons have reached the postseason. No more pointing to the future. They are more than likely to have a Round One home playoff game at Allianz Field and have the inside track to grabbing the second seed out West behind LAFC. There's much more on the table for this team to grab in 2019.
Minnesota United have come a long way from that 6-1 loss to Atlanta in the snow at a college football stadium in 2017.