ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Loons have plethora of options at striker for 2022 season

In addition to Hunou, MNUFC brought in younger strikers in Amarilla, Danladi and Hlongwane

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Minnesota United FC
Minnesota United midfielder Adrien Hunou (23) crosses the ball while Sporting Kansas City defender Andreu Fontas (3) defends in the second half Oct. 31, 2021, at Allianz Field in St. Paul.
David Berding / USA Today Sports

ST. PAUL — In the previous two seasons, Minnesota United has supplemented its striker ranks, in part, with a handful of players 30 years of age or older.

Kei Kamara and Aaron Schoenfeld joined in 2020, then Ramon Abila and Fanendo Adi came aboard in 2021. Each player turned out to be short-term rentals with very few goals to his name with the Loons.

This season, the Loons have brought back Luis Amarilla and Abu Danladi, who are both 26, and signed 21-year-old South African Bongokuhle Hlongwane to compete with 28-year-old Adrien Hunou, who joined Minnesota last May.

This foursome will compete for what is likely to often be a one-striker position in manager Adrian Heath’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation when the season kicks off Saturday at Philadelphia Union. Heath knows he has some difficult choices to make.

“I don’t think we have the depth that we’ve got (now) in any stage since I’ve been here,” said Heath, entering his sixth season with the Loons. “At times in the past when you’ve looked at the bench and think, ‘What am I going to do here to make it better?’ I don’t think that is going to be the case (this season). I think we have different players. We have game changers, we have a lot of pace, got a lot of smarts. I’ve got a lot of options and a lot of big decisions to make.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The players underneath the striker are more locked in to the starting lineup: left wing Franco Fragapane, central attacking midfielder Emanuel Reynoso and right wing Robin Lod are every-day type talents.

Lod led the team with nine goals in 2021, while Fragapane had six in an abbreviated season, including one in the 3-1 loss to Portland in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Reynoso, an MLS MVP candidate, distributed 10 assists and chipped in five goals.

MLS: CF Montreal at Nashville SC
Nashville SC forward Abu Danladi (7) works against CF Montreal defender Rudy Camacho (4) during a June 26, 2021, game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today Sports

Overall, the Loons scored only 42 goals in 34 regular-season games in 2021, which ranked 11th in the 13-team Western Conference.

Hunou, MNUFC’s highest-paid player at $2.5 million this season, was the biggest drawback in 2021. The Frenchman scored seven goals, but the advanced stat of expected goals had him pegged for 10.2, according to fbref.com; that minus-3.2 was tied for the third-worst mark in MLS in 2021.

Hunou had played sparingly for Rennes in France’s top flight before coming to Minnesota, with only 198 minutes across eight games in nearly five months before playing for the Loons.

Hunou didn’t make any excuses about his performance last season, but pointed out how he was more familiar playing alongside another forward, not doing it alone at the top of the attack. Heath said he was trying to get Hunou to stay in the 18-yard box and not drift back to link up with midfielders.

“I have to do better,” Hunou said earlier this month. “It’s not easy when you finish a season and then start a new season when you arrive (in) another country and you have to speak another language, but I don’t find any (excuses). It’s just football, and it’s my job. I prefer to reach to solutions, not problems. But I feel better this season. My teammates are very good for me.”

The Loons spent more than $3.5 million on a transfer fee to Rennes for Hunou’s rights, and they paid roughly $1.5 million to Argentina club Velez Sarsfield for Amarilla, a source confirmed to the Pioneer Press.

ADVERTISEMENT

Amarilla, who had three goals in 621 minutes while on loan for Minnesota in 2021, scored 15 goals in roughly 2,000 minutes on loan at Liga de Quito in Ecuador’s top flight. He scored four goals in two of South America’s biggest tournaments — Copa Sudamericana and Copa Libertadores.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Portland Timbers
Minnesota United FC forward Luis Fernando Amarilla celebrates after scoring a goal against the Portland Timbers during a 2020 game at Providence Park in Portland. Amarilla, who was on loan with the Loons in 2020, played for L.D.U. Quito in Ecuador in 2021 and has joined MNUFC permanently for the 2022 season.
Soobum Im / USA Today Sports

“The biggest thing about Luis is he wants to score goals; that is what he thrives on,” Heath said Tuesday. “He came with a big claim when he said he was going to score 25 goals (in the 2020 season), but if he plays every game this season, I think he will certainly be around the 20 mark, if we create opportunities that we did last year.”

Hunou, meanwhile, also set a personal objective for 2022: “I want to help my teammates, but I think it’s important that I have more than 10 goals.”

Then there’s Hlongwane, who has impressed with his pace and instincts since joining the team for preseason in Portland. MNUFC paid a fee of $500,000 to Maritzburg United in South Africa for his rights and signed him as part of MLS’ new Under-22 initiative.

Danadi scored eight goals as a rookie for Minnesota in 2017, but he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his pro career. He scored only six total goals in the following four seasons for United and Nashville SC.

In the Loons’ final preseason game against Viking FK in Portland on Saturday, Heath experimented with Amarilla at striker, Hunou at right wing and Hlongwane at left wing. Hunou assisted on an Amarilla goal in the 2-2 draw with the Norwegian side.

Heath isn’t revealing which striker he might go with for the noon kickoff Saturday in Pennsylvania. Does he have an idea, though?

“In my mind, yeah,” Heath said.

ADVERTISEMENT

A reporter followed up: Was that borne out from preseason?

“A little bit — and instincts,” Heath answered. “There is a couple of people a little bit behind. Luis only just joined us last week. Bongi has not played much football (lately). You can see his quality (Tuesday). He’s good technically. He’s quick and very athletic.

“We have a lot of different options, for sure.”

Related Topics: SOCCERMINNESOTA UNITED FC
What To Read Next
Pro
Minnesota outscored Denver by 16 points in McLaughlin’s 12 minutes en route to a 128-98 rout of the Nuggets.
Pro
Delayed event to finish on Monday.
Pro
Cousins threw three touchdown passes, besting Derek Carr's two for the AFC in likely his last appearance in Las Vegas as a member of the Raiders.
Pro
After a week off, the Wild will play the Arizona Coyotes on Monday night at Mullett Arena in Tempe, Arizona.