A blunt, players-only meeting preceded Loons’ hot streak and MLS Cup Playoffs spot
After the meeting, the Loons lost just 1 of its next 11 games
ST. PAUL — Minnesota United’s airing of grievances was scheduled for June 26 in Los Angeles.
The night before, the Loons had capitulated, allowing two late goals to turn what should have been a road win into a deflating 2-1 loss to Inter Miami. MNUFC had lost three straight games, six of eight and had a long cross-country flight to think about what the heck was wrong.
With a record of 5-8-3, team leaders set up the players-only meeting for after their regeneration session on the West Coast. The general idea was “let’s get it out there” because there was a feeling of it being a “do-or-die” moment in their season.
The losses were causing frustration, but the accelerant was the way they were losing. Just before the loss in Miami, they gave up another second-half lead in a 2-1 loss at New England Revolution. There was a belief, late in games, they were loosening their belt when they should have been buckling down.
Players addressed the issues as they saw them. There was venting and constructive criticisms. The back-and-forth helped players understand each other better. They sought accountability that could be put into action on the field.
After that meeting, the Loons lost just one of their next 11 games (8-1-2), they were the hottest team in MLS, and during that mid-summer run they amassed more than 54 percent of their 48 total points this season. That hot streak through late August is the foundation of MNUFC earning the Western Conference’s sixth seed in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Minnesota faces third-seed FC Dallas in a first-round match at 8:38 p.m. Monday in Frisco, Texas.
“I think if you take the time to sit down, you can be a bit more transparent and getting on the same page,” vice captain Michael Boxall said last week. “It’s important because you’ve seen it in many games when it looks like we’ve got four or five guys on different game plans and playing their own game. I think during that stretch, that certainly helped.”
Some of the team’s most vocal leaders — Wil Trapp, Michael Boxall, Robin Lod and Bakaye Dibassy — spoke up in the meeting.
But the goal was for other voices to chime in, from key figures Emanuel Reynoso and Dayne St. Clair as well as little-used role players, such as Jacori Hayes and Nabi Kibunguchy. Leaders wanted to get away from most players listening, leaving and the real meeting happening in small groups later on.
“People can give their opinions about what they think is good for us and what’s bad for us and what we need to focus on,” Lod reflected. “It’s one of those things that puts the team a little bit closer together and start to think the same way. People know what we are aiming for, and it gets a little bit easier for the games.”
Causation can be a tricky thing to nail down, but beyond cleaning the air, they aimed to return to their principles of play — primarily being hard to break down. And not to be overlooked is how the hot streak came with Robin Lod moving from attack to midfield.
After that players meeting, the Loons still wilted late but held on in a 3-2 win over the Galaxy. But an ankle injury to Kervin Arriaga on top of Hassani Dotson’s season-ending injury in April forced Lod to move to a spot he was unfamiliar with in Minnesota but had played with the Finnish national team.
The Loons were 7-0-2 in that run with Robin in midfield, including when Trapp went down with a hamstring injury and Arriaga returned.
Lod was in and out of midfield in their winless six-game stretch from late August to early October, but he came back from a calf injury to play at less than 100 percent in the 2-0 final-game win over Vancouver that clinched a playoff spot.
“I think, as a team, we get a better rhythm of the ball and have some balance between the strikers and defenders, so the team doesn’t stretch so wide,” Lod said about his role. “It’s typical for our team to play counter attack, against counter attack, against counter attack and the game flows from one end to the other. It’s good to get it a little bit more balanced there.”
Lod’s exit from the attack during the hot streak didn’t leave a void because at the same time, Reynoso, Fragapane and Amarilla got hot. They each scored at least six goals during those 11 games.
The only loss during that 11-game run came with Lod, Reynoso and Boxall suspended for yellow-card accumulation, and their six-game winless streak came at the same time Dibassy went down with a season-ending quad injury. Causation in many shades.
When positive results came to a screeching halt and dragged into early October, the Loons did not hold a similar meeting to their L.A. sit-down. But there was a focus on staying compact.
“We addressed that during the week. We were far too stretched in the San Jose game and probably in the Kansas City game a couple of weeks before that,” Boxall said of two losses leading up to Decision Day. “That was something that we put an emphasis on going into the Vancouver game. Myself, Brent (Kallman) the whole back four stepped up and tidied that up.”
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