We’re accustomed, in American sports, to celebrating power.
Home runs. Sternum-denting tackles. Slapshots and slammed dunks.
Emanuel Reynoso on Thursday night elevated a franchise with a soft-shoe routine, bringing Minnesota United a 3-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City during an MLS Western Conference semifinal game at Children’s Mercy Park in K.C.
Reynoso, the smallish midfielder from Argentina, produced three first-half assists with a touch so soft it wouldn’t wake a sleeping cat. His Toe Trick came within one assist of tying the MLS record for a full playoff game, and he produced the most important performance in the biggest game in franchise history while wearing No. 10.
Last week, Diego Maradona, the Argentine superstar, died at 60. He made No. 10 famous in his home country. Reynoso could make it famous in Minnesota.
“He’s elevated everybody who plays around him,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “They love playing with him. We were never in any doubt about his ability …
“The one thing we didn’t know and you never know is what type of character are you getting? And the most important thing for us is, he’s incredibly popular.”
Reynoso leading the way without scoring. That’s difficult to do, and sure to make him friends in the locker room.
On his first assist, Reynoso deftly redirected a pass that led Kevin Molino toward the unguarded left side of the Kansas City goal, and Molino’s shot deflected off the keeper’s hands into the middle of the net.
On Reynoso’s second assist, he chipped a left-footed pass over the defense as Molino broke from the top of the box toward the right side of the goal. Molino slid and flicked the ball into the left front corner to give the Loons a 2-0 lead.
On Reynoso’s third assist, he struck a corner kick that Bakaye Dibassy headed in for a 3-0 lead, giving him 10 assists in his past five games.
The Loons acquired Reynoso, Dibassy and Kei Kamara during the summer transfer window, paying a $5 million transfer fee for Reynoso — the equivalent of an NBA team paying a maximum salary.
The Loons had never won before at Kansas City, but they had never had Reynoso in Kansas City.
Reynoso isn’t just winning. He’s giving Minnesotans not raised on soccer an understanding of what is meant by “The Beautiful Game.”
Most soccer players in most situations in most games make the sport look difficult. Because it is. Soccer is harder than a frozen sidewalk. How do you play a sport without using your thumbs?
Then the ball rolls toward Reynoso and he does more with a toe tap than most can accomplish with a head of steam.
The MLS isn’t the Premier League, so I’ll try not to go overboard with comparisons. But stylistically, Reynoso is remindful of Wayne Gretzky or John Stockton, smallish players who thrived because of unselfishness and uncommon anticipation. They know you’re open before you know you’re open.
And like most great passers, he uses his intuition to shut down opponents.
“He defends from the front,” Heath said. “Which is sometimes a rarity for those No. 10s, the playmakers. This guy defends from the front, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have a few clean sheets.
“He’s a top-drawer player and a top-drawer guy.”
Minnesota was the lowest-seeded team remaining in the playoffs, but those seedings weren’t the result of recent play, or reflective of the way Reynoso has altered his new team.
The Loons aren’t just better with Reynoso. They’re more interesting.
Winning ugly is fine; winning pretty is better. Reynoso is the kind of must-watch player who appeals to casual fans, the kind who sells merchandise to kids, who attracts the curiosity viewer. Your eyes don’t leave him even when the ball does.
There are two ways to build a sporting brand: Winning, and fielding compelling stars.
The Loons have accomplished both since they signed Reynoso, master of the soft shoe.