Minnesota United officially begins its second season Sunday night at Allianz Field with a first-round playoff game against Colorado.
It only seems like five or six.
A season that started way back on March’s first day finally has reached its postseason. It has done so after a four-month suspension because of the COVID-19 pandemic, two restarts, disrupted training sessions, injuries more than usual, games postponed or canceled in a redrawn, condensed schedule because of viral outbreaks and too many nasal-swab tests to remember.
“So many I’ve lost count,” Loons veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay said. “We’re numb to it by now.”
Its roster completely transformed since the franchise allowed 70 and 71 goals in its first two MLS season, the Loons now in their fourth season aimed high after they opened the season with convincing victories at Portland and San Jose seven months ago before major sports leagues shut down the season and the Loons’ home opener was postponed.
“You work hard in preseason to get the team in a good spot, which we were, and then the world kind of falls apart,” Loons defender Michael Boxall said.
They were isolated in their apartments for weeks, unable to visit the team’s Blaine facility, instructed to hunker down at home until individual and small-group training was allowed starting in May. George Floyd’s death at the knee of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day sparked riots some players could see in the distance from their windows. The unrest provoked an emotional social justice campaign unveiled among MLS players starting in July’s MLS is Back tournament under a protective “bubble” in Orlando away from their families a month or more and continuing into these playoffs.
“It has been difficult in the world,” Finlay said. “I don’t want to sit on a soapbox here and say how difficult it has been. A lot of people are out of work and out of business and dealing with a pandemic. It has been difficult for all of us and our families. It has been forever changing, it seems, daily and weekly.”
Now here the Western Conference fourth-seeded Loons are after losing two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller and striker Luis Amarilla for the season, during which captain Ozzie Alonso and others were sidelined for weeks at a time.
They’re here riding a club-record, eight-game unbeaten streak, four victories away from winning the MLS Cup that’s just three weeks away.
To get there, Minnesota United reshaped its roster yet again before last month’s transfer window closed by adding game-changing playmaker Emanuel Reynoso, French defender Bakaye Dibassy and MLS all-time fifth-leading goal scorer Kei Kamara.
“It feels like torture for the last nine months and now we’re in a situation where we could be a month away from the end of the season,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “It has been a really difficult year for everybody, and I think we’ve had it a little bit more than most with the injuries we’ve had.”
Heath repeatedly has deemed his club an underdog throughout his four seasons as coach but now acknowledges it is the favorite at home Sunday against a Colorado team that didn’t play a game for a month starting in September. He calls his team “fit and healthy” for the first time maybe all season, provided Jan Gregus, Robin Lod, Romain Metanire and Kamara all test negative for the virus after having returned from overseas play with their national teams.
“I honestly believe this group can go a long way,” Heath said “Sometimes I don’t think we believe in ourselves. We wait for things to happen rather than initiate it, taking the game by the scruff of the neck. But this team is fully capable of beating anyone in MLS. I firmly believe that. If that makes us favorites, so be it.
“Talk is cheap. Let’s go show people we can fulfill what we think we’re capable of.”
Heath suggested Sunday’s opponent — a Colorado team the Loons beat 2-1 on a very late own goal at home Oct. 28 — in retrospect might be fresher because it didn’t play games or travel on same-day charter flights because of an outbreak that postponed five games in October. The Rapids have played five games since then, and have found their form in a season while playing played three fewer games than the Loons.
Colorado won its final three games, beating Western Conference powers Portland and Seattle on the way. It is 5-3-1 on the road.
“Maybe some sports scientist would say so,” Colorado coach Robin Fraser said when asked if his season’s pause could prove beneficial. “I think when you take a month off and then dive into five games in 15 days like we did, it’s not really optimum. It’s taking its toll, and it has taken its toll in certain ways. Do I think it’s an advantage? No, I don’t recommend anyone take a month off in the middle of the season.”
Last year, the Loons lost a first-round home playoff game — their first in three MLS seasons — to star-studded L.A. Galaxy with a 2-1 loss that disappoints Heath to this day.
“It’s not very nice to lose, I know that much,” he said. “I want us to play better than we did last year. If we lose this game, I want to lose it on our terms. I don’t think we had enough belief in ourselves last year. We were waiting for the game to be handed to us, and it didn’t happen.
“I want us to play off the front foot. I don’t want us to be thinking about ifs, buts and maybes after the game.”
Either way, a season that stretched forever is nearing its end. It will for three teams Sunday.
“Seems like a long, long time ago,” Finlay said about season’s start. “If you asked me straight up, I’d think it was last year, even though it’s still 2020. It has been quite crazy. Hopefully, we can make something good out of it as we get to the end of the year here.”