Loons open MLS season with thrilling 2-1 victory in Austin

Missing both a permanent head coach and their best player, Minnesota United opened its eighth MLS season with a rousing 2-1 victory Saturday night over Austin FC at Q2 Stadium.

Loons veteran attacker Robin Lod scored the game's first goal in his first game back since he had season-ending knee surgery last May.

It came in the 34th minute and stood alone until Loons newcomer Alejandro Bran and Austin's Guilherme Biro exchanged goals in second-half stoppage time.

The Loons won their season opener on the road for the second time in as many years. They did so without injured star Emanuel Reynoso and with interim coach Cameron Knowles guiding a team still waiting for its next coach, Manchester United assistant Eric Ramsay, to arrive on the job,

"It was fantastic," Knowles said. "Right from the start, the guys showed trust in each other and a lot of belief. They were able to put Austin under a lot of pressure and created some good chances and they just kept building on it."

The Loons dominated the first half with their pressing defense and the energy it created winning second balls. Then they held on fiercely at the end in Knowles's MLS head coaching debut.

The coach of the Loons' reserve team, Knowles was named the second interim coach in three months just before preseason training began. He and his staff took over the first team while new sporting director Khaled El-Ahmad searched for a new replacement for Adrian Heath.

"We were charged with a tremendous responsibility to get the players ready," Knowles said. "It's not just me. There's an entire staff behind me. They cracked on with it and the players did the same. We knew there was going to be a lot of noise about a new interim coming in. We just had to get on with it."

Not only was Reynoso sidelined by a knee injury, but the Loons were also without absent starter Bongokuhle Hlongwane and injured Kervin Arriaga.

Saturday's game was Minnesota United's first opener without Heath, fired in October in his seventh season.

The Loons — who play their home opener Saturday against defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew — still are waiting the arrival of Ramsay. He signed a contract last week, but still must finish up at Man United and get a work visa.

Knowles, who has coached 12 seasons as an MLS assistant and second-team head coach, was asked if the players gave him the game ball or anything like that for the victory, given the circumstances.

"We got three points, just like them," Knowles said. "It's a tremendous privilege to have the responsibility. I don't take it for granted for one moment. I'm just really pleased we were able to get the season off on the right foot."

Lod played only 10 games last year in a season ended by May knee surgery. He hadn't scored since May 2022, but on Saturday he recorded the only goal in a first half when the Loons could have — probably should have — scored two or three more.

Lod scored in the 34th minute after Austin goalkeeper Brad Stuver single-handedly kept his team even in a scoreless game.

Lod's Finnish national teammate Teemu Pukki played the ball ahead to Sang Bin Jeong on the right side. Stuver deflected Jeong's cross near the goal line, but Lod was on the far side with an off-balanced, left-footed volley that gave Stuver no chance.

"I thought he was outstanding," Knowles said of Lod. "You see the relationship with him and Pukki, defending, putting pressure on. He was very, very good on both sides of the ball."

BOXSCORE: Loons 2, Austin 1

The Loons lost or drew several games last season when they led late and let it get away. On Saturday, Knowles called upon four players aged 23 or younger in his five substitutions from the 68th minute on. That included Bran, who ended up scoring the decisive goal, as well as Lakeville's Loïc Mesanvi and Medina's Caden Clark.

"We have a lot of new pieces, a lot of changes from before," Loons midfielder Hassani Dotson said. "But I think it has made the locker room closer. We're all figuring out our way to go through this together. We know what our responsibility is."

The Star Tribune did not send the writer of this article to the game. This was written using a broadcast, interviews and other material.