As Minnesota United chases a third consecutive playoff berth, the painful memories of its early days in MLS are fading already.
Each game, including Sunday's against the Colorado Rapids at Allianz Field, feels critical for a team right on the Western Conference playoff bubble. It's easy to forget that not long ago, regularly competing for playoff spots felt like a very distant goal.
The Loons set an MLS record by allowing 70 goals in 2017, their first season in the league, and would have set another record in 2018 with 71, if Orlando City hadn't face-planted that year and allowed 74. Minnesota finished in ninth place, double-digit points out of the playoffs, in both years.
Continuing down that sort of road would have put them among the ranks of the many MLS also-rans. Even with seemingly enforced league parity, it's common for struggling franchises to get stuck in quicksand (see: the first eight years for Toronto, or the last 12 for Chicago, or Cincinnati's entire MLS history).
But Minnesota quickly corrected course. The Loons finished fourth in the West in both 2019 and 2020. Last season, they reached the conference finals, and came within 20 exhausted minutes of toppling Seattle, which was given two extra days of rest. Of the 13 expansion teams since 2010, the Loons are one of only four to ever reach the conference finals.
The Loons have remained patient and stable, with manager Adrian Heath and Sporting Director Manny Lagos still at the helm. In a league where selling young players has become a badge of honor, where the development of under-22 players has become so revered that it's a regular feature on the official league website, the Loons don't have a single regular starter under the age of 24, but have five over the age of 30.
In short, this is a team built to win now.
If this was a baseball season, it would be almost September 1, and we'd be talking about the stretch drive. Minnesota United has seven regular-season games to go, still with a chance to claim a home playoff game but also in danger of dropping out of the top seven playoff spots.
But even now, the question remains: What sort of team is this?
On its best days, with its roster healthy, and especially at Allianz Field, Minnesota looks like nothing short of one of the best teams in the league. The Loons started the season with a stumble, losing their first four games, but have been dominant at home since.
But when the Loons start dipping into their depth for attacking players, or when they go on the road, the team's offense has a tendency to go missing. Minnesota has been held scoreless in five of its past 10 games, as injuries piled up.
That Jekyll-and-Hyde routine has the Loons teetering on the edge of the playoff picture. They currently trail fourth-place Portland by eight points, with a game in hand, for the final spot that comes with a home playoff game.
No matter the injuries, no matter the location, Heath has consistently reiterated his high expectations for the group. Even wins and losses don't always affect his opinions. The manager was clearly happier after the team's 0-0 draw with Dallas last week, when the Loons had several chances to take a victory in the second half, than he was after the team's 2-0 win against Houston the previous Saturday, when Minnesota had to hold on for dear life at home.
Another fourth-place-or-better finish, and that home playoff game, remains the team's goal. "We all know what's at stake," goalkeeper Tyler Miller said. "We know that there are seven games left now. We have four at home and three away. If we can continue to make Allianz Field a difficult place to play and, when we go away from home we pick up a point in all of those games, then we're averaging two points a game. That will definitely put us competing for a home playoff game, and that's everyone's goal right now."
Whether Miller's math works out or not, a playoff berth remains the bare minimum for this year's Loons. They have an excellent defense, which has conceded just 22 goals in 23 games since Miller became the starter. When their preferred lineup is healthy and available, they have plenty of offensive firepower. When they're on their game, they can play with any team in the league.
Miss the playoffs, though, and that quicksand that has claimed so many other franchises will begin sucking at Minnesota, too. And five years into their MLS journey, the Loons will still be looking upwards toward their goal: becoming one of the league's small group of consistently excellent teams.