The scene played out quietly Wednesday night in a refreshingly dry Minnesota United locker room. While reporters crowded around Hassani Dotson, whose goal in the 90th minute beat Sporting Kansas City, 2-1, and clinched the Loons’ first Major League Soccer playoff berth, goalkeeper Vito Mannone approached teammate and captain Ozzie Alonso with a can of Summit Keller Pils beer in his hand. Alonso pulled a fresh can from a nearby orange ice bucket, and the two shared a celebratory toast.
That moment between two first-year Loons offered a poignant reminder of the difference between this team and MNUFC’s first two MLS entries, which combined to lose 38 games and surrender 141 goals. Sporting Director Manny Lagos brought in Mannone, Alonso and three other veterans this season to stabilize the middle and back end of the lineup. Wednesday, they helped lift the Loons to victory.
Mannone, on loan from Reading FC in England, made seven saves to give him 122 this season, breaking Bobby Shuttleworth’s 2017 club record. Two acrobatic stops on the same first-half sequence, after Sporting KC grabbed a 1-0 lead on a debatable goal (video suggested an uncalled handball), kept the Loons in the match.
Alonso, a four-time MLS All-Star acquired on waivers after ten playoff-qualifying seasons in Seattle, scored the tying goal in the 71st minute off a deflection, his first goal since the opening game at new Allianz Field in April. Until Wednesday, the Loons had never won an MLS game they trailed at halftime, going 0-8 this season and 0-32-6 since joining the league in 2017.
“Sometimes, as I just said to the players, football isn’t always about free-flowing football, about people showing you how good they are,” said Loons Coach Adrian Heath. “Sometimes it’s about rolling your sleeves up and having desire to go out and get a result, by hook or by crook, however you get that. That’s what we’ve done tonight.”
Neither Alonso nor Mannone are kids, unlike the 22-year-old Dotson, a rookie who dribbled through the penalty area and left-footed the winner past Sporting KC keeper Tim Melia. Dotson already had a Summit at his locker. “I’ve never had it before,” he said. “Local, right?”
It’s interesting how different sports handle milestones of success. A couple of hours later in Detroit, the Twins celebrated their American League Central Division title with the boisterous, champagne-and-beer mayhem we’ve come to expect from American pro teams. You know the scene: Plastic everywhere, players in ski goggles to keep stinging bubbly out of their eyes (an upgrade from swim goggles), one or two guys running around dousing everybody.
The Loons? None of that. No stale boozy smell in the room. Just dark-colored droplets on the ceiling, apparently from somebody shaking and spraying a can of soda.
The Twins had a little more to celebrate: Their first division title since 2010. The best the Loons can finish is second in the Western Conference, and they still have work to do to land a home playoff game.
Los Angeles FC, which comes to Allianz on Sunday, clinched the No. 1 conference seed and a first-round bye. The next six finishers in each conference make the playoffs, with the second, third and fourth-place teams hosting first-round games. With two games left, the Loons, with 52 points, likely need one more victory to finish in the top four. (Teams get three points for a win and one for a tie.) The Oct. 6 finale at Seattle, fourth in the West with 50 points, could decide it; their only other meeting this year was a 1-1 draw.
If the Loons host, the first round is the same mid-October weekend as the St. John’s-St. Thomas football game scheduled for Allianz Field. Wednesday, Allianz’s spongy-soft turf shed so many divots that a dozen grounds crew staffers spent halftime and postgame repairing them, armed with long-handed trowels and buckets of sand. Could the pitch handle Johnnies-Tommies on Oct. 19 and a playoff game the next day? (MNUFC did not respond to a request to speak with their groundskeeper.)
Wednesday, the Loons weren’t thinking much beyond what they just accomplished. Supporter groups singing Wonderwall, the 1995 Oasis hit and the Loons victory anthem, never sounded so good. Fans chanted Mannone’s first name when he finished his postgame Man of the Match interview pumped through the stadium sound system. Then he slowly circled the pitch, applauding to every section of the grandstand, acknowledging the sellout crowd of 19,609. Mannone thought of his deceased parents, especially his mother, who died in December 2017 of complications from a stroke.
“I’m hoping that song goes up to the sky, so my mom and dad can listen,” he said.
When Alonso signed last January, he told Heath he had no intention of missing the playoffs for the first time in his MLS career. Promise kept.
“Ozzie’s infectious personality and enthusiasm to play the game the way that he does rubs off on people,” Heath said. “As I say to people like Hassini, if you want to model yourself on anybody, don’t look any further than this guy.”
Heath won 10 games in his first season with the Loons while impatient fans criticized the club for not spending big for players. It didn’t help that expansion brother Atlanta United spent lavishly, made the playoffs in its 2017 debut and won the MLS Cup last year. But Lagos insisted the Loons were building long-term. Wednesday marked another significant step.
“It means everything to me,” Heath said. “I’m really proud of what I’ve done as a player and what I’ve done as a coach, but this is the most important thing because it’s the next thing. I still think getting ten wins the first year was a bigger achievement than making the playoffs.
“And as I said to the players, this is just a start. We have to keep moving on. We have to try to keep getting better. That’s what we’ll do.”