Just like beauty, success is in the eye of the beholder, and the abrupt end to Minnesota United’s transformational third MLS season left its players and coach seeing it both ways.
In 2019, United rose from a losing team that surrendered 141 goals in its first two MLS seasons to a winner that allowed 43 and reached the U.S. Open Cup final and the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time.
But it also failed to improve its playoff seeding when it didn’t earn at least a draw at Seattle on the regular season’s final day. Its season ended early after it became the only home team among six to lose a first-round playoff game.
United veteran defender Michael Boxall lived the depths of those first two seasons, then experienced a turnaround in which his team climbed as high as second place in the Western Conference.
“If you look where we’ve come from, this season is a massive step forward,” he said. “But to have our season done with what I know this team is capable of … another day we beat that team and we know we can beat LAFC at their place. I wouldn’t have put it past us to make it all the way to the Cup final. That’s how I see the pieces we’ve got, how good we are.
“It just stinks we have to wait another 12 months to earn that chance again.”
Midfielder Jan Gregus, acquired from Denmark’s top division last December, knows only this United team.
“A great season,” Gregus said. “This is a strong team, strong characters, strong players and we built this season.”
United coach Adrian Heath promises changes that will accompany “some big decisions” his team needs to make to get better — particularly offensively — next season as much as it did this season.
“We can’t stand still, not in this league, not in the Western Conference, trust me,” Heath said. “If we stand still, we lean backwards.”
MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone could choose not to return to Minnesota or the MLS. Star Darwin Quintero, striker Angelo Rodriguez, fan favorite Miguel Ibarra and others might not be back, either.
Whatever happens, Mannone said he and his teammates always will have this shared season, despite their first-round loss.
“It doesn’t take anything away from the season,” he said. “We have one of the best teams because we proved it all season. I can mention a few games where we showed we are a better team than that last game. We are a team that is at the same level as all the other playoff teams that went through. So I expected a little bit more, but this is football. It doesn’t take anything away from the season.”
“It was a brilliant season, a brilliant run.”
Mannone was one of seven starters on Sunday who wasn’t with the team in 2018. Neither were right back Romain Metanire and midfielders Gregus and Robin Lod. All four come from European leagues where the regular season — and the chance to qualify for UEFA Champion and Europa leagues competition — is the thing.
So is the system of promotion and relegation of teams in each league that is as foreign to Americans as knockout playoffs are to Europeans. This season MLS started a new single-elimination format throughout its playoffs.
“Here, it’s quite harsh,” Mannone said. “We finished fourth and were level on points [with Real Salt Lake] for third, and we just missed out on the last game [at Seattle]. We could have finished second. Anywhere in the world, if you finish second, third or fourth, it’s an amazing season. It’s painful I still think we have one of the best rosters out there. The way we went out hurt a little bit because if we score one of those chances, it’s a different game.
“They changed the rules. It’s one game now and you need to deliver. Unfortunately, we fell a little bit short. You can play one game and you’re out and it kind of writes off a little bit what you’ve done this season.”