How Minnesota United has transformed their attack into one of MLS’ best

While the world has its collective focus set on Inter Miami’s early days with Lionel Messi, they may have missed another MLS team whose fortunes radically improved this summer thanks to an Argentine playmaker.

For roughly the first 40% of the 2023 season, Minnesota United was without its most important player. Emanuel Reynoso did not report for the team’s preseason; that absence extended well into May with little explanation from player or team about his lack of involvement. Finally, upon returning in mid-June, he explained to local media (through a club-employed translator) that his four-year-old daughter had a personal “problem” that kept him from heading north. 

“Thankful to God that I was able to solve it and be here in Minnesota, which is what I wanted most,” Reynoso said, having only just begun to shake the rust off in a couple of appearances from the bench.

His performances on the pitch have driven home both his desire to be in Saint Paul as well as his singular impact on the Loons. Since making his first start of the year on June 24, he’s made a staggering 119 progressive carries (moving the ball at least five meters toward goal via dribbling) across the regular season and Leagues Cup; only Riqui Puig has more, with 132. His 32 non-penalty shots trail a trio of MVP candidates: Denis Bouanga, Hany Mukhtar, and Cucho Hernández. He leads all players in chances created (36) and is tied with Luciano Acosta for the lead in open-play chance creation (24). 

Simply, Reynoso has played with the conviction of a man who just went three full months without earning a paycheck. 

His return coincided with the club snagging a worthy partner ahead of him, longtime Norwich striker Teemu Pukki. Finland’s all-time leading goalscorer, Pukki was prolific in England thanks to his reading of space and ability to consistently hit the target while shooting in full stride. 


Reliability, goals and smiles: What Minnesota United can expect from Teemu Pukki

It’s a skill set that plays directly into Reynoso’s strengths, as one of MLS’ best at slotting through-balls between or over opposing defenders. While it’s still early days for the tandem, they showed an initial proof of concept of their nascent connection in a Leagues Cup knockout match at Columbus.

Rey to Pukki 1

Minnesota has had one head coach since joining MLS in 2017: Adrian Heath, who has kept many of his principles in play consistent throughout the years with minor adjustments. By and large, his teams will line up in a base 4-2-3-1: a double-pivot midfield, overlapping fullbacks to provide width while wingers cut toward goal, and a true No. 10 encouraged to find areas to exploit as the game progresses. He’s hitched his wagon to these centerpiece playmakers, from Kaká and Kevin Molino in Orlando to Molino, Darwin Quintero and Reynoso in Minnesota.

As many teams have adopted more positional approaches over the last five years and prioritized passing to move the ball efficiently, Heath’s tactics are something of a throwback to an increasingly bygone era of soccer: one where players are, in fact, asked to dribble. There’s a reason it’s not the “modern game’s” approach, of course — the ball scurries quicker with a kick than a series of prods and pokes — but it has undoubtedly changed the way we view ball progression.

As a result, the more dribbly approach can often be more effective in transition moments after a turnover than during set play. It’s often led to Minnesota playing with far less freedom at Allianz Field, as visiting opponents challenge the Loons to break them down with more of the ball than they’d ever want to control. Here, however, Minnesota is the away side — and after Columbus failed to cash in on a corner kick, the Loons’ wings are perked up to head the other way.

Rey to Pukki 2

Reynoso’s dribble spins him around his first mark before he knocks the ball beyond Aidan Morris and evades him with a juke that would make Barry Sanders blush. From there, he has ample space to survey his options and find that, well, there aren’t many in front of him. For the first 40% of the season, this fact would often lead to Minnesota recirculating the ball toward goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, allowing the opponent to establish its defensive shape and stymy the Loons’ attack in short order. 

For Reynoso, however, that’s entirely too mundane. Darlington Nagbe (another of MLS’ elite readers of space) has set himself up to negate the logical outlet toward the sprinting winger. The Argentine picks his head up and sees the sole teammate of his who didn’t join the corner kick scrap: Pukki, who’s on an island with one defender to beat.

Rey to Pukki 3

It’s exactly why Heath and the technical staff wanted to bring Pukki in as a free agent. The ball from Reynoso is sublime, a 52.6 yard dart of a pass sent with inch-perfect precision. From here, it’s easy to envision the rest of the sequence: a Premier League veteran striker beating one MLS defender to set his shot up however he sees fit.  

In general, this is a team that feasts in transition but suffers a famine with too much time of possession. Even factoring for the slow start to the year, Minnesota has MLS’ second-highest rate of fast break goals per 90 minutes (0.22) across the league and Leagues Cup, trailing only Los Angeles FC (0.27). They also have the league’s highest rate of turning fast breaks into goals, with 7.8% of direct attacks ending with the ball in the net.

Having an artistic distributor like Reynoso isn’t just conducive toward a functioning attack of this kind — it’s operationally mandatory, as seen in the before/after splits from when Reynoso made his first start of the year on June 24 against Real Salt Lake.

Minnesota United before and after PukNoso%402x 1

The results have been immediate, even if they haven’t materialized quite according to plan just yet as Pukki has just one goal in 511 minutes across both competitions. Since Pukki made his debut on July 8, he and Reynoso are two of just 21 players to accrue at least 2.0 non-penalty expected goals (npxG) across the MLS regular season and the Leagues Cup. That makes Minnesota one of just five teams to have multiple players among those 21. 

Here’s the thing, though: neither Reynoso nor Pukki are even their own team’s leader in npxG. 

MNUFC racking up npxG%402x 1

Surprise! This is now a piece about Bongi Hlongwane.

By the time you read this, it’s almost certain that Lionel Messi will have surpassed Hlongwane at the top of this chart. All the same, a few players are color-coded to drive home the South Africa international’s fierce form before the Leagues Cup semifinal round kicked off. From right to left, there’s the two headliners of Minnesota United. Then there’s the reigning league MVP, Mukhtar. Then the resurgent Loons legend turned Columbus striker, Christian Ramirez. Then there’s the game’s greatest-ever player, Messi. And then, ahead of them all, is the guy who has owned the team’s No. 21 shirt like no other since Ramirez’s departure in 2018.

When Minnesota signed Hlongwane as its first U-22 initiative player, it was assumed he would need time to settle. There isn’t much of a track record of players moving from the National First Division in South Africa to MLS. There’s arguably an even thinner list of young international players signed by Minnesota who came good, especially after the poor returns from little-utilized Uruguayan designated player Thomás Chacón, once-capped Costa Rica international José Leitón, and Ecuador international Romario Ibarra (who only blew up after leaving for Pachuca). 

Hlongwane did need a year to acclimate, scoring just twice in 29 MLS appearances last season. However, he was the team’s most in-form forward entering the Leagues Cup — and, at the time of Minnesota’s elimination in the quarterfinal against Nashville, he was tied with Messi for the tournament golden boot at seven goals apiece. Not bad for a $500,000 flier of a transfer.

How is he doing it? Surprise again: that highlight we broke down earlier isn’t a Pukki goal. It’s Hlongwane’s.

Pukki to Bongi 1

As you’ve surmised, that sprinting winger who was initially screened by Nagbe’s positioning was Hlongwane. His pace has allowed him to catch up to Pukki as the ball headed his way. While the ball moves more efficiently in the air than on foot, Hlongwane is somehow even quicker. It’s a two-on-one with Crew defender Steven Moreira, whose focus is understandably on the former Premier League striker. Pukki keeps his composure as he anticipates Hlongwane’s route…

Pukki to Bongi 2

…before expertly timing a pass into the near-acres of space between Moreira and goalkeeper Evan Bush. From here, Hlongwane can set his shot up however he sees fit. Which, unfortunately for Bush, means chipping him and leaving the keeper helplessly flailing an arm after the ball is already migrating to goal.

Pukki to Bongi 3

In tandem, the trio has swiftly become among MLS’ best attacks heading into the regular season’s final trimester. Minnesota is just outside the playoff line, sitting 10th in the West with a game in-hand on the two teams directly above them, Dallas and Houston. Continuing their Leagues Cup form could take them clear of the play-in round and put them into the conference’s playoff qualifiers, possibly all the way to the top four as they have two games in-hand on Real Salt Lake and Seattle. Such is the state of the West, which is almost entirely wide-open at this point.

(Photo: Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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