This is no longer your plucky little expansion team taking its first steps in the highest professional soccer league in the country.

This is year No. 5, and Minnesota United has savvy, skill and scoring ability and should be regarded as a threat to make a lengthy playoff run. After reaching the conference finals last season, the Loons added depth to their roster — and have a couple more transactions to go — and are out to prove their legitimacy by collecting shiny objects like the Major League Soccer Cup or U.S. Open Cup.

"We're evolving and moving on from [being an expansion franchise] to where we have proven we're a force to be reckoned with," defender Chase Gasper said. "Now it's time to prove it with bringing home hardware."

While the long wait continues for the Vikings, Twins, Wild and Wolves to end their championship drought in this region, here's a team that knocked on the door last season and can join the four-time WNBA champion Lynx as recent trophy winners.

The Loons kicked off their season on Friday in Seattle and will play Real Salt Lake on Saturday in their home opener at Allianz Field.

Despite their run last season, the Loons are not considered the favorite to win the Cup. LAFC, Philadelphia, Seattle and Columbus are mentioned as more deserving contenders in many preseason rankings. One betting service has the Loons at 25-1 odds to win the title, which makes me want to drive to Iowa for a wager.

Here's what's exciting about the Loons:

• Tyler Miller returns in goal after being limited to five games last season by injury, and Dayne St. Clair was more than a competent fill-in. They are covered in goal.

• Creative midfielder Emanuel Reynoso joined the Loons during the 2020 season and was brilliant in 13 games. He's the rising tide that will lift teammates' boats.

• Who is going to score the goals? Former national team forward Juan Agudelo has joined the roster. Ramon Abila, nicknamed "Wanchope," has joined from Boca Juniors, the same place the Loons harvested Reynoso.

• There are reports that the Loons are in talks to sign Argentine winger Franco Fragapane and French striker Adrien Hunou. Hunou would be a designated player addition, and Fragapane would offset the departure of Kevin Molino.

So the final version of the Loons is not here yet, with two impact players waiting to slip on the Mississippi Blue. They are deeper and are among the best teams in the Western Conference. And they have the experience of playing in big games last season. They were leading 2-1 in the 89th minute before losing on two late goals in the conference final. They will be positioned to take the next step this season once the reinforcements arrive.

Will the Wolves stay?

The possibility of the Timberwolves being sold to Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore elicits multiple reactions.

One is excitement over having a rock star owner who would bring style and some glitz to the franchise. Think about some of the celebrities who would visit their boy A-Rod for a Wolves game. And Lore is a brilliant entrepreneur. He wants to build the city of the future. How about starting with the basketball organization of the future?

Another is terror. They can include as many clauses in the deal as they want, but not having a local owner would leave open the possibility that the franchise could sneak out of town one day. I'm really being Minnesotan with that one, stressing over the worst-case scenario despite how remote the chances of that happening may be.

There's also the uneasiness about having an owner who was part of one of the biggest performance-enhancing-drug scandals in sports history, one in which he attempted to cover up his wrongdoing. He was suspended for all of 2014 and blew his chance to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

And he officially has broken up with Jennifer Lopez. That stinks. A-Rod as Wolves owner could be disastrous as much as it could be spectacular.

Go deep on Negro Leagues

If you're a baseball fan and are into podcasts, "Black Diamonds," a new show devoted to telling the history of the Negro Leagues, is now available.

"Black Diamonds" debuted last week to coincide with Major League Baseball's annual Jackie Robinson celebration. Appropriately, the first two episodes dealt with Robinson's journey, which began in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs and took him to the majors as he broke baseball's color barrier.

There will be 20 episodes in all. The podcast is hosted by Negro League Baseball Museum (NLBM) President Bob Kendrick and will include several guests as the story of the Negro Leagues is retold. The NLBM, which was founded in 1990, is located in Kansas City, not far from where the Negro Leagues began in 1920.

In addition to tales about Robinson, other episodes will cover the careers of such important figures as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck O'Neill and others. The podcast is available on the SiriusXM app, Pandora and other podcast sites.

Watch the Twins finish April strong

Prediction No. 1: Eventually, Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton will be in the lineup together, Jorge Polanco is starting to hit, and the bullpen has too much talent to pitch this poorly. The Twins will finish April with a 14-12 record.

More West Coast winning

The Wild has been treading water lately, but it will take its scintillating power play on the upcoming West Coast trip and return with three wins in four games.

The 3-2 Pitch: Three observations and two predictions every Sunday.