Season preview: Can Loons withstand leadership and tactic changes to contend in 2024?

Season preview: Can Loons withstand leadership and tactic changes to contend in 2024?

On the field, Minnesota United is a team built for right now.

The bulk of this roster is what ex-manager Adrian Heath had compiled into his seventh season in 2023 — before he was fired in October while falling just short of making the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2018.

Off the field, the Loons are a club in transition.

New Chief Soccer Officer Khaled El-Ahmad wants success in the short term but is clearly building for the future. El-Ahmad has not added clear difference-makers to raise the level of the roster. He has tinkered around the edges to add some youth at key spots from bargain bins in USL Championship, Sweden and Costa Rican leagues.

MNUFC signed Eric Ramsay to be its next head coach late this week — an addition expected to become official early next week — but interim head coach Cameron Knowles will lead the team for the opening weeks of the 2024 season, starting with Saturday night’s game at Austin FC.

El-Ahmad — via Knowles and then Ramsay — will be bringing a high-pressing style of play to MNUFC. That tactic might feel like a square peg in a round hole, given the team’s two best attacking players (Emanuel Reynoso and Teemu Pukki) are not known for their defensive acumen.

Will these changes in leadership and tactics induce hiccups and inconsistent form for the Loons in 2024?

For some players, there is no time to waste.

“I don’t know if people consider us in transition, but I don’t think so. That’s not how I would want — who know how many years I got left,” said Michael Boxall, the Loons’ oldest player at age 35. “I’m not going to let our standards drop, I think with what Khaled’s saying about us wanting to win, and wanting to win now, doing everything we can to do that this season. So, yeah, if there’s mumblings outside this group, they’ll think otherwise, and that’s on them.”

Besides Boxall, the Loons have five other field players over age 30 — Robin Lod, Wil Trapp, Franco Fragapane, Zarek Valentin and Pukki.

Given the lack of big offseason additions, the brightest sign of encouragement is the rekindled pairing of Lod and Pukki in MLS.

The teammates on the Finnish national team are simpatico on the pitch, but didn’t get to show it in MLS matches last season. Lod’s season-ending knee injury came in May, while Pukki was added in the summer transfer window and debuted in July.

Lod’s injury “was a big hit for us,” Boxall said. “For someone who does so much defensively and incredibly well with the ball to help our front three, four players, I think you saw how we stuttered a little bit in front of goal. I think he provides so much of that for us; him coming back is going to be huge for us.

“I’ve seen it a few times in training (during preseason),” Boxall added. “Robin, he doesn’t even need to look, he’s knowing where Teemu is making runs and what type of balls to play in.”

Pukki, of course, is up top at striker, but Lod has been playing in central midfield in Knowles’ 4-3-3 formation in preseason. That’s where Lod can be integral in playmaking and pressing.

While Lod is back, the Loons are not at full strength going into the season opener. Emanuel Reynoso (knee) and Bongi Hlongwane (U.S. green card) are out against Austin, meaning MNUFC will be without its maestro midfielder and its best field-stretching winger.

Neither absence is expected to be long term. Reynoso has been dealing with setbacks to an MCL strain all preseason, while Hlongwane just returned to Minnesota after obtaining his U.S. green card in a trip back home to South Africa.

Without those key pieces in preseason, MNUFC managed only three goals across four preseason games in late January and February. They compiled a 1-2-1 record, with the only win coming 2-1 against USL Championship side Phoenix Rising.

Knowles said he doesn’t put much stock in preseason results, pointing toward the team’s professionalism and control with and without the ball in the final scoreless preseason game against Charlotte FC. They produced some scoring chances, but weren’t clinical enough — a continuing bugaboo that followed Heath’s teams like a shadow.

The Loons in 2024 are expected to use a hybrid of the new high-pressing tactic, meaning a line of confrontation that isn’t as advanced. That’s an acknowledgement to how the personnel might not best fit the style, and they implemented that modification against Charlotte.

Last season, the roster’s average age was 27.2, which ranked 14th out of 29 teams, according to wyscout. That collective age has been brought down with the addition of Swedish center back Victor Eriksson (23), Panamanian central midfielder Carlos Harvey (24) and a handful of others. Midfielder Caden Clark, 20, was acquired under Heath last summer, and the Minnesotan joined from RB Leipzig at the start of preseason in January.

El-Ahmad has been intentionally measured in the transfer market this winter, holding onto the club’s one vacant Designated Player spot and one Under-22 initiative spot.

One determining factor in a big-picture direction is whether Reynoso will rise up to be an MLS MVP candidate, like some in Blaine believe he can be? Or will he meander and not be a cornerstone for the club going forward?

The initial plan is for the Loons to go bigger in the summer transfer window. That will come after Ramsay has gotten familiar with the roster and more comfortable with his first leadership role with a first team in MLS.

The big question: can this current iteration of MNUFC withstand the changes in coaches and tactics with little immediate roster infusion to be a contender in 2024?

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