Singular talent Reynoso poised to elevate Loons even more

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Jerry Zgoda, Star Tribune
·7 min read
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Since we last left Minnesota United's Emanuel Reynoso in disbelief on the pitch in Seattle last December, he vacationed with teammates in Miami and spent the winter at home in Argentina. He now has returned north to play his first full MLS season, which starts Friday night right where last season ended.

And still, he hasn't shaken that Western Conference final loss. in which his team missed reaching the MLS Cup final by a minute.

"Honestly, it was a game I won't ever forget because we were winning 2-0 and practically had the game cooked," Reynoso said in Spanish through an interpreter. "It'll stick with me. But now we have a rematch. We know it's not the same game, but we have a chance at a rematch and hopefully we can get to where we want to be this season."

Tempered by pressure playing for South American soccer's famed Boca Juniors club and its steep, loud "La Bombonera" stadium, Reynoso in 16 games showed himself the Loons' singular talent after a midseason arrival last August.

He did so with the kind of skill and vision that made him the first player in MLS history to produce multiple three-assist playoff games — and consecutively, against Colorado and Sporting Kansas City.

He is the kind of dynamic talent who could transcend his sport and team in a Twin Cities market with young stars such as the Wild's Kirill Kaprizov, the Timberwolves' Anthony Edwards, the Vikings' Justin Jefferson, and former high school basketball phenoms Paige Bueckers and Jalen Suggs earning national college acclaim.

Loons fans haven't even seen him play at Allianz Field yet because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first time, in limited numbers, will be April 24 against Real Salt Lake.

"Our supporters are very knowledgeable, they'll know quality when they see it," Loons coach Adrian Heath said. "The first time they see this kid in our stadium, they'll be as excited as we are."

As good as Reynoso was in those three mere months, could he possibly be better with a full preseason behind him?

"If he is, I'll be delighted," Heath said. "He was so good for us last season."

Or maybe a better question: How much better can he be?

"We still haven't seen a full 34-game season with Rey," Loons veteran Ethan Finlay said. "We only saw him about 12 games, late in the season."

Complementary playersMinnesota United paid a club-record $5 million transfer fee to Reynoso's Boca Juniors team and acquired an MLS talent who Heath calls league MVP-worthy. He is good enough that Heath reconfigured the roster to fit him after Kevin Molino — with whom Reynoso found instant connection — left to sign with Columbus.

The Loons obtained Reynoso's Boca Juniors teammate Ramon Abila on loan. They are targeting fellow Argentine Franco Fragapane, another attacking midfielder who can play together in some of the same spaces as his countrymen.

Heath calls Reynoso master of the "slide-rule pass," which is played forward along the ground, without looking, through a defense unaware.

"A lot of players can see the pass, but can't deliver it," Heath said. "Some can deliver the ball, but can't really see the obtuse pass. Rey has the ability to do both. He's really, really talented."

Abila is the 31-year-old striker from Reynoso's hometown of Cordoba, a city of 1.3 million in Argentina's mountain foothills where Fragapane now plays. Heath used the term "same wavelength" when he sought players who will complement his 25-year-old star.

Abila says a "lovely friendship" with Reynoso came from their two-plus seasons together for Boca. It helped persuade him to leave his wife and three children in Argentina for now to follow his former teammate to Minnesota, sight unseen as Reynoso did himself. Telling in that decision were recent conversations they had about Minnesota United, its training facilities, Allianz Field and the quality of competition in MLS.

"To see him doing so well, having fun and last season was so successful, all that was important," Abila said when he was introduced with the Loons.

Unnoticed, not unsungReynoso credits Heath, his new teammates and his family back home for such a smooth transition to a new country, new language and new league that takes some players much longer, even if he didn't arrive in midseason shape. He explored on Lake Minnetonka in late summer and, raised in a country famous for its beef, enjoyed Minnesota's "meat" restaurants.

Abila called playing for Boca Juniors a "24-hour demand" that he considered a privilege, not pressure.

Other than posing for a few photograph upon his arrival at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport or at a restaurant, Reynoso goes mostly unnoticed in Minnesota.

"People don't really recognize me," he said. "I like the city. It's strange to train in the snow. It's all strange and new for me. I like it."

His family and friends couldn't visit last season because of COVID travel restrictions. But he hopes his parents and brothers, if not his young daughter, will this season.

"Anytime you're new it takes some time to really get going," Loons defender Michael Boxall said. "That it took him — what, two weeks? — to really get going just speaks to his quality."

Reynoso, Abila and likely soon Fragapane are among a growing number of Argentine players now in MLS. From 20 in 2016 to more than 40 now, they span all ages, from Portland veteran Diego Valeri and newcomer Abila to Reynoso, just entering his prime, and Atlanta United's 22-year-old Ezequiel Barco.

Loons technical director Mark Watson, who made multiple trips to Buenos Aires to seal the Reynoso deal, said Argentine players possess a "profile" he and Heath seek.

"You combine a really high skill level and an incredible mentality in terms of working, running, battling," Watson said. "That's something we're trying to build here, defining a style of play, a philosophy. They're top players and they really have a mentality that aligns with our ethos of the club here."

'Drive to triumph'Heath said Reynoso turned down bigger offers from Brazilian teams a year ago to come to MLS and Minnesota, where Watson and Heath sold him on being the "No. 10" playmaking midfielder. It's a prestigious position and number in Argentine soccer history, worn by greats such as Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme.

Heath wants Reynoso to play higher up the field in what he calls the field's "danger areas." Heath wouldn't mind, either, if Reynoso were less selfish and scored more than his two goals last season.

"You've heard me say a million times that goals change games," Heath said. "Those who can score and make goals are the most expensive, and we've got a guy who can do both. We've just got to keep pushing him in that direction. Score a goal as well as make a goal."

Reynoso wore No. 10 for his hometown Talleres team and wears it now for the Loons.

"It's a big position, in Cordoba and in all of Argentina," Reynoso said. "When I came here, they quickly sent me a jersey with the number 10 and I liked it. I came here with the drive to triumph."

Heath said he's convinced Reynoso wants to be — and can be — great.

If Reynoso is good enough, he will attract attention from bigger clubs in England, continental Europe and elsewhere on the transfer market sooner rather than later.

"There's no part in our thinking about Rey moving on, trust me," Heath said. "It wouldn't surprise me if teams were interested because of how good he has been. Certainly, we are trying to build a team capable of winning championships. By doing that, you don't get rid of your best players."