United’s Fantastic Four attack gelling at the right time
Loons head into Sunday’s playoff opener with their top four attackers together and comfortable
Minnesota United was forced to wait more than one-third of the season until their preferred four attackers started a game together in July. But a first taste of what a majority of that group can produce came in June against the Portland Timbers.
While Robin Lod was out, Franco Fragapane, Emanuel Reynoso and Adrien Hunou produced what was then the fastest goal in club history. After a give-and-go with Fragapane, Reynoso took off on a long dribble through the midfield and fed Fragapane after his incisive cut into the Timbers defense. Fragapane then passed to Hunou in front of net for a calm right-footed finish.
The second-minute goal led to a 1-0 road win over the Timbers at Providence Park, a fitting location for a breakthrough given that’s where fifth-seeded Minnesota goes to face fourth-seed Portland in an MLS Cup Playoffs first-round match at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
The Loons’ ability to deploy that front four was delayed by transfer hiccups for Hunou into May and Fragapane into June, and then by international duties for Lod and injuries to Lod, Fragapane and Reynoso. They only started eight games together this season but when they were in the starting XI, the Loons are 4-2-2.
“If you look at the record since they’ve been together, the amount of goals that we’ve scored …. That’s as good as you could have expected,” manager Adrian Heath said. “Had we had them consistently all season, could have been 10 (wins). If they consistently play together, they will create opportunities and score goals.”
When one of those four attackers scored a goal in those combined starts, MNUFC is 4-0-1 this season. The draw came against L.A. Galaxy on Decision Day, when Hunou and Lod got on the scoresheet and a Galaxy own goal produced a 3-3 result. It pushed Minnesota into the playoffs for a third-straight season.
“Now, we have been building up the last few games with our chemistry and we know what others are doing,” Lod said. “I am really enjoying playing with those guys.”
Overcoming delays in getting the four on the field at the same time — and Hunou scoring after a slow start — proved vital. If they lost to the Galaxy, the Loons would have been knocked out of the playoffs entirely. But if they had been on the field together more all season, maybe the Loons’ route to MLS Cup wouldn’t be starting on the road. Had that been the case, Heath said, “I don’t think we would have needed to go to the last day and gone through what we did to have made the playoffs.”
The foursome started the last six regular games together. But to show how fickle this situation continues to be, Lod has been absent since the regular-season finale on Nov. 7 because he was called into Finland’s national team for World Cup qualifiers through Tuesday. He is expected to return to Minnesota on Wednesday, and the team will leave for Oregon after Friday’s training session.
The remaining three — Hunou, Fragapane and Reynoso — were “excellent” in training in Blaine on Tuesday, Heath said.
“We will probably go as far as them four play,” Heath said. “We need our big players to play. If Robin comes back hopefully fit after (Tuesday’s qualifier), Rey is looking really sharp, Adrien Hunou is playing with a lot more confidence and Fraga is doing really, really well. Keep them four going. Keep them involved in the game. Get them in the right spots. We think they will be a big, big plus for us.”
The Loons’ broke the club’s record for fastest-goal in a game in September when Frgapane sent a perfectly weighted pass to Lod at the near post for a goal in the first minute of a 2-0 win over Houston. It was another example of how quick and lethal the foursome can be, and one of the most dangerous factors of the Loons’ attack is its flexibility, with all four players willing to come inside and help create in the build-up.
Center forward Hunou prefers to have a partner at the top of the attack and right-sided midfielder Lod is comfortable creating that company. Central attacking midfielder Reynoso wants to pull the strings in the middle, as does left-side midfielder Fragapane. If they do this well, fullbacks Romain Metanire and Chase Gasper can provide other options with overlapping runs.
With these variations, it could feel like “wack-a-mole” for opposing defense.
“When coming from a defensive midfielder,” Will Trapp explained, “that is always hard when guys are floating in space and you don’t know if it’s your guy or your teammate’s mark.”
Minnesota’s attackers playing well at the end of the season — including Lod’s goal for Finland against Bosnia Herzegovina on Friday — comes at the perfect time for the Loons.
“When it comes off well, it’s nearly impossible to stop,” Trapp said. “That is always a great sign when you see that at the end of the season, right? Sometimes it takes time for everyone to gel in as it is. To have those four clicking at the end is what we want.”