Heath said that “everybody's crowned them champions already” before his team’s win (1-1, penalty kicks) over Columbus Crew SC in the Round of 16, and then afterward said “I didn't read or hear or see anything before the game that suggested we had a chance.”
The view was echoed by Minnesota defender Chase Gasper in an interview with ESPN following the final whistle, which prompted analyst Taylor Twellman to literally break down laughing.
That got us wondering: How much validity is there to Heath and Minnesota's claims? The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle.
Starting way back in preseason, here’s a look at what’s been said about the Loons’ fortunes in 2020.
All but one expert cited in MLSsoccer.com’s team-by-team preseason preview had Minnesota making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Charlie Davies had them placing as high as third, although Univision analyst/MLS legend Marcelo Balboa had them ranking as low as 10th.
The fourth-year club made the postseason in 2019 for the first time in club history. They hosted a first-round game at Allianz Field against the LA Galaxy, but lost 2-1 to end a remarkable run. After two poor seasons defensively, they’ve turned things around with the likes of Ozzie Alonso and Ike Opara as centerpieces and brought in some attacking sparkplugs.
MLSsoccer.com’s preseason power rankings also had Minnesota in 8th out of 26 teams, placing them in the top third. All five reporters in the USA TODAY Network had them making the playoffs, while ESPN had them 13th in their preseason power rankings.
Minnesota weren’t quite thought of as a Supporters’ Shield favorite, but their quality was certainly acknowledged. As it stands, the Loons are also one of three MLS teams left undefeated in 2020 (LAFC and FC Dallas are the others).
MLS is Back Tournament preview
Before teams departed for Orlando in early July, Group D was deemed as one of the toughest groups. It included Minnesota, Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids – four teams that can all impress on their day.
As for the Extratime experts, three out of six predicted that Minnesota would navigate the three-game group stage and avoid an early exit. Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collins both had them in 2nd place, while Matthew Doyle had them getting a Wild Card spot.
The Loons ultimately finished second with a 1-0-2 record. They’ve dealt with Opara, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, not being in Orlando whatsoever. Alonso, forward Luis Amarilla and attacking midfielder Kevin Molino have all dealt with injuries at various points.
Knockout Round predictions
When sizing up the Round of 16 field, MLSsocccer.com contributor Greg Seltzer predicted that Columbus would advance behind a top-end midfield trio. But ultimately it was Minnesota that advanced via a Robin Lod goal and some Tyler Miller heroics on PKs.
Now ahead of Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup with the San Jose Earthquakes (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada), Seltzer has deemed Minnesota the favorite. He cites Heath’s record against Matias Almeyda, with the Loons recording a 5-2 win at Earthquakes Stadium way back on March 7 before the four-month stoppage.
Who could win it all?
While Seltzer has Minnesota going through to the semifinals, MLSsoccer.com’s Charlie Davies and Calen Carr aren’t so sure. They both had the Loons as the eighth most likely team to win the Tournament, with a 2021 Concacaf Champions League spot and $1.1 million prize pool on the line.
Taking the highs and lows, there’s certainly something to Heath’s remarks. And regardless of the validity of the comments, it makes for a compelling narrative, and, more importantly, the us vs. them approach appears to be paying big dividends in terms of galvanizing the team. Heath probably put it best after the Columbus win.
“But the most important people thought we had a chance, and the most important people are the players and our staff,” the head coach said. “I said to them before the game: If we play well, we're capable of winning the game. And we're capable of winning again at the weekend. But the actual belief is still growing. And I think there's more to come.”