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Loons implementing high-intensity, pressing style going into 2024 season

Minnesota United’s new style of play is coming into focus with the MLS season opener less than three weeks away.

The Loons are implementing a high-intensity, pressing style with a higher defensive line that forces the back line to win more one-on-one duels.

“We are really focused on an aggressive mentality,” interim head coach Cameron Knowles explained Tuesday. “Defending a little bit higher up the pitch, being a bit more aggressive in certain moments. Obviously that showed in the Montreal game (a 1-1 draw in a friendly on Jan. 27). … That was a real focus for us in that game.

“We will continue to instill that in players, and hopefully we see that as we go into this next stretch of games,” Knowles continued.

The Loons will play three exhibition games at the Coachella Valley Invitational in Palm Springs, Calif. — versus Phoenix Rising on Saturday, followed by Chicago Fire on Feb. 14 and Charlotte FC on Feb. 17. The latter two games will be streamed online for fans to get their first glimpse of the new tactics.

This style is how new Chief Soccer Officer Khaled El-Ahmad wants MNUFC to play and it will remain when a permanent head coach is installed. In the first year and as personnel changes, the Loons are expected to run more of a hybrid of this system.

The hiring process for the Loons’ next head coach has been progressing and is nearing a conclusion. No timeline has been shared, and it’s possible Knowles is on the sideline when the Loons open the 2024 campaign at Austin FC on Feb. 24.

Reynoso setback

It’s proven hard for Loons star Emanuel Reynoso to play catch up. And now the midfielder might have fallen even further behind.

The Argentine talisman was more than one week late to report to preseason training last month and had been working off to the side, away from the main group of players, with the team’s performance staff for the past week.

Then on Tuesday, Reynoso suffered an apparent left knee injury during training in Blaine. He was visibly upset, with his head in his hands, as the club’s medical staff assessed him. He then limped off to the locker room and did not return.

Knowles, who didn’t know specifics of Reynoso’s setback, was asked about Reynoso’s fitness when he joined the team in Arizona on Jan. 23.

“He did all the same testing that all the other guys did,” Knowles said. “(We) have a really good sense of where he’s at, and that’s why he continues to have an individual program like some of our other guys.”

Caden Clark, Victor Eriksson and Morris Duggan were working alongside Reynoso before the injury.

Six-pack

With El-Ahmad watching from the sideline, the Loons divided up into six-man teams for abbreviated short-sided scrimmages Tuesday. The group of Hassani Dotson, Tani Oluwaseyi, Sang Bin Jeong, DJ Taylor, Moses Nyeman and rookie Hugo Bacharach won both rounds of competition. Goalkeeper Alec Smir backed them up.

As a reward, that unit was excused from long wind sprints the losing sides had to push through.

Oluwaseyi was one of the standouts. After scoring 16 goals on loan at San Antonio FC in USA Championship in 2023, the 23-year-old first-round draft pick in 2022 appears poised to receive quality minutes with MNUFC this season.

You’re up, kid

With backup goalkeeper Clint Irwin (midsection) injured, the Loons have incorporated academy product Kai Zeruhn into first-team training sessions. Zeruhn has played on MNUFC’s Under-15 and U17 teams over the past few years.

This is another example of El-Ahmad’s insistence that younger players get shots in and around the first team. Maybe the biggest early example thus far was academy midfielder Darius Randell starting in the exhibition draw against Montreal last month.

Briefly

Teemu Pukki was Finland for the birth of his third child, a son, which was announced Tuesday. Knowles said the aim is for the Finnish striker to rejoin the team in California this weekend. The rest of the Loons will depart for Palm Springs on Wednesday. … Bongi Hlongwane remains in South Africa, working toward obtaining his U.S. green card. … Kervin Arriaga was sidelined Tuesday with “swelling,” Knowles said, without elaborating on the specific injury. A fear is that it’s related to a meniscus tear the Honduran midfielder suffered in his right knee in August. Despite being forced to watch the rest of the action, Arriaga maintained his jocular attitude on the sideline Tuesday. … Captain Wil Trapp (undisclosed) has had a minor injury but is working his way back into the group. … At 6-foot-4, Eriksson, a Swede still in need of a work visa, is an imposing presence on the field, sporting a variety of tattoos. The goal is for his visa to be sorted within the next week.

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