Loons without Emanuel Reynoso? Duck and cover

Since Emanuel Reynoso arrived in Minnesota in September 2020, the Argentine maestro has been the fulcrum in Minnesota United’s starting lineup.

The classic, playmaking No. 10 — or central attacking midfielder — has played in 71 games for MNUFC and become a two-time MLS All-Star and darkhorse MVP candidate.

But when he doesn’t play? Duck and cover.

The Loons have averaged 0.7 points in the 11 matches Reynoso has been sidelined by injury or suspended for cards in those two-plus seasons. When he plays, MNUFC has averaged 1.2 points. When Reynoso has contributed a goal and/or primary assists, that rises to 2.2 points a game.

As these numbers show, the Loons have been carried as far as their 5-foot-9, 150-pound MVP has taken them.

Over his six seasons, manager Adrian Heath has made it a personal cliché to say “goals change games.” Yet when it comes to Reynoso, you can take that steps further; his goal contributions have changed the course of the club.

But Reynoso has remained in Argentina for “personal reasons” since preseason opened in early January. The club announced in mid-February that MLS has suspended him without pay. Two more weeks have passed since then and missing those substantial paychecks, on a roughly $2 million salary, has not spurred his arrival in Minnesota.

“Are we disappointed? Yes,” Heath said Friday. “Has it been a problem? Of course it has. You don’t lose your best player (and not feel it). If suddenly (former MLS MVP) Carlos Vela is not playing for LAFC, they are not the same. It is what it is. We have to get on with it.”

The Loons maintain hope that their talisman will rejoin them soon, but they will solider on without him in the season opener against FC Dallas on Saturday night at Toyota Stadium.

When the Loons have been pigeonholed as Emanuel Reynoso-or-bust, Heath has pushed back, saying it’s a team game. Now the Loons have to prove it for the foreseeable future.

Preseason results might be a bad harbinger. The Loons scored four goals in six preseason games, none in open play in three friendlies in California this month. Their only goal at the Coachella Invitational Tournament came from a penalty kick from Mender Garcia.

The most-reflective preseason games, when the Loons used more first-team players, came against New York Red Bulls and Vancouver Whitecaps.

“I thought between both boxes, we were excellent,” Heath said of those matches. “I thought our defensive shape was very good. (We) have to improve in the final third of the field. (I) don’t think for the amount of quality possession we had in the final third we had enough attempts at goal and created enough.”

That, of course, is Reynoso’s specialty.

Heath prefers to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Reynoso in the middle of the row of three. Without Reynoso, the Loons have used more of a 4-3-3 in preseason, a formation the Loons have, at times, employed on the road in regular seasons.

When that setup has been used, MNUFC has often lacked a connection between the three midfield players and three attackers. Heath said Friday that has not been the issue in preseason.

“I feel like our final ball has been really poor when we play a 4-3-3,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve made the right choices.”

That brings us to the Swiss, er, Finnish Army Knife, Robin Lod. The natural right winger was called on to play as a false nine forward and regularly in central midfield in 2022. Now, it appears he will take on some of Reynoso’s role. After conscription in the Finnish army last winter, Lod has had all preseason to get ready for a new role, but it won’t just be on his shoulders.

“I don’t think you can ever expect one player to fill (Reynoso’s) shoes,” said Loons vice captain Michael Boxall. “Obviously, with a special player as Rey, we know what he can bring, when he is on his game. That’s the responsibilities of two or three players to fill that.”

United has never been a high-scoring team in MLS, with more than 50 goals in a season coming just once (52 in 2019). The Loons’ ability to do it again will be more challenging without Reynoso for the foreseeable future.

Given the points-per-match splits, their four-year streak of making the MLS Cup Playoffs appears to be riding on it.

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