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Loons bounced from MLS Cup Playoffs with 3-1 loss to Portland

Larrys Mabiala broke through with a header goal just before halftime to tie the game, and Sebastian Blanco scored two in the second half for Portland.

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Minnesota United midfielder Will Trapp (20) defends against Portland Timbers forward Yimmi Chara during the first half Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in the opening round of the MLS playoffs at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon. Soobum Im / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The end of Minnesota United’s postseason held plenty of foreshadowing — from the entirety of the 2021 regular season to early in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday.

The Loons had stretches of positivity — from simply making the playoffs after an 0-4 start into May to staking a 1-0 lead over the Portland Timbers on Sunday — but in the end, MNUFC was too erratic, especially at the end of first halves to keep their season alive.

After Franco Fragapane scored in the 11th minute to put MNUFC up 1-0 on the road, the Loons gave up an equalizer just before halftime, a timeframe filled with conceding goals all season. Portland star Sebastian Blanco scored two goals in the second half, and fourth-seed Portland beat fifth-seed Minnesota 3-1 at Providence Park in Portland, Ore. The Timbers advance to play top-seed Colorado Rapids on Thanksgiving.

In the big picture, MNUFC was a very rare MLS club to overcome that winless start and find ways to claw back. It became their third straight playoff appearance, yet they didn’t reach their preseason goal to go farther than last year’s appearance in the Western Conference final. They exited in the opening round for a second time in three years.

“One of the words I would use is ‘inconsistent,’ ” manager Adrian Heath said. “I don’t think we’ve been as consistent as we can be with the group that we’ve got.”

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For long spells this season, the Loons struggled to convert on scoring chances as they were one of the least accurate clubs in the league. On Sunday, they often didn’t even get that far. At the top of the list was highest-paid player Adrien Hunou, who didn’t register a shot in his 70-minute shift.

“I said before our front four (attackers) have to play well and don’t think we have played as well as we have been of late,” Heath said. “Adrien has not had much in front of goal, not had many opportunities presented to him. It’s not like we can say, ‘Well, he got in there and had three or four good efforts.’ He hasn’t and that is pretty much indicative of the way we played.”

But the bigger issue was defense. During the season, Minnesota had 13 of its 44 goals conceded come in the final 15 minutes plus stoppage time before the half. It just happened with L.A. Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget on Decision Day two weeks ago, and it reached a damaging 30% of all goals allowed this season.

On Sunday, the Timbers applied consistent pressure as the halftime whistle neared. Larrys Mabiala had a bicycle kick saved off the line by Bakaye Dibassy’s shoulder, but on an ensuing corner kick the Timbers’ 6-foot-2 defender won a header between Dibassy, Romain Metanire and Chase Gasper in the 43rd minute.

The damage kept coming when Blanco scored two minutes into the second half. Roughly 20 minutes later, the Timbers turned the ball over, and many United players didn’t react to the counter attack, allowing Blanco plenty of time and space to tee up a long-range goal.

It completely undid Fragapane’s finish and the tremendous teamwork that built it up: Ozzie Alonso to Emanuel Reynoso to Robin Lod and a cross from Metanire. The early lead gave Minnesota’s 275-plus traveling supporters something to cheer about.

“It was a great start …” midfielder Wil Trapp said. “I just felt like we started to stop playing as the half went on.”

Goalkeeper St. Clair stepped in for starting goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who announced two hours before kickoff he would miss the game due to a positive COVID-19 test. St. Clair was making his first appearance for the Loons since May 8, but Heath said there wasn’t much St. Clair could have done to stop the goals.

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The true damage had been done in other areas of the field and could be seen coming for months.

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