It wasn’t the prettiest goal Ramon Abila has ever scored, but the Argentine forward putting home his own rebound in an Oct. 27, 2018, game serves as the biggest finish of his soccer career.
Everything about the circumstances amplify that goal’s magnitude. It was in the Copa Libertadores final, the end of a tournament to crown the club champion of South America. Abila was the starting striker for Boca Juniors, and their opponent was arch rival and Buenos Aires neighbor River Plate.
Abila’s shot under River’s goalkeeper bounced into the top of the net and sent the 55,000 blue-and-yellow-clad fans into euphoria inside the famous La Bombonera stadium. The goal gave Boca a first-half lead in the first leg of the series, but River would go on to win the trophy four days later.
Fast forward three years and Abila’s most-memorable goal for one of the most historic clubs in the Western Hemisphere is an anecdote among the reasons Minnesota United has a high level of optimism for its 2021 season. This week, the Loons brought in the 31-year-old goal-scorer on a one-year loan with an option to purchase his rights.
“Playing for Boca Juniors goes with a certain responsibility,” United manager Adrian Heath said. “When you run out at La Bombonera every time you are at home, the expectation levels on the players are incredible.”
Abila plugs a hole in the Loons’ roster, which fell just short of the MLS mountaintop with a defeat in the Western Conference final last December. The Loons’ new season begins against the team that killed last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs run, the Seattle Sounders, on national television (FS1) at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
With Abila in the fold, MLSsoccer.com commentator David Gass said the Loons climb the league’s pecking order of those capable of raising MLS Cup in December. Nine of 10 contributors on the league’s website forecast United making a third straight playoff appearance this fall.
“They are in win-now mode,” Gass said during Thursday’s episode of the Extratime podcast. “… This is a legitimate Supporters Shield and MLS Cup contender right now. … I think they’re in the top five in this league.”
Abila knows the expectations are high in Minnesota after watching former Boca teammate, central attacking midfield Emanuel Reynoso, lead the Loons to their best postseason finish last autumn.
“It’s not pressure to come out champions, but it’s the goal,” Abila said through club translator Gabriela Lozada. “It’s what one fights for, what one plays the game for, to come out champions, to compete, to win. It’s not pressure, but a privilege to come to a team that got to a final and was close.”
Abila joined the Loons for the end of preseason training camp in Florida last week. He subbed on in their final friendly versus Orlando City on Friday and provided a nifty give-and-go assist on rookie Justin McMaster’s goal.
“From what I’ve been able to see, the intensity (from) the technical staff, what they ask for and demand to be able to compete again this season to the final,” Abila said Wednesday. “That’s the objective. I know how Rey plays, what he can do. We have a great connection, and I hope we can bring that as a service to the team; that’s most important.”
Abila scored 34 goals in 81 appearances for Boca Juniors. He and Reynoso played in the same 44 games with Boca. They weren’t stars while at Boca, but Abila will be expected to play a leading role next to Reynoso in Minnesota.
Abila was the backup to Dario Benedetto, who now plays for Marsellie in France’s Ligue 1, and Abila also dealt with a groin injury that sidelined him over the past few months.
When Abila played, the broad-shouldered, 5-foot-9 player nicknamed Wanchope was a terror in the box.
“If you sent him a pretty good cross, nine times out of 10 he would be the first on to the ball,” said Gabriel Aguero, a commentator on the Boca in English podcast. “His positioning in the box was phenomenal. Very quick to get to rebounds.”
Heath has said Abila provides different ways to score goals. He can provide hold-up play and is good in the air. Heath said Abila’s first 25 minutes of playing time with the Loons on Friday proved how “smart” he is on the field.
“He’s a pretty tough player,” Aguero said. “He would go at defenders a lot and battle it out in the box. Most of the time he would win. He would be scary to go up against, I would say, for any rival team. … As far as having a threatening presence in the box, I don’t think there were many players in Argentina better than him.”
But Abila doesn’t have the pace to beat defenders one on one, Aguero said. “He’s not a player that will pass two or three or four players in order to get to goal,” Aguero said. That’s where Reynoso comes in after his 13 combined assists from the Loons’ 2020 season and playoff run.
Aguero said most of the chemistry developed between Abila and Reynoso with Boca from 2018-2020 came off the field.
“They are from the same province in Argentina, they are both from Cordoba,” Aguero said. “They both grew up playing for rival club teams in the province of Cordoba. Off the pitch, they were phenomenal friends. Really, really close, listen to the same music.”
With Boca, Reynoso wasn’t a regular in the lineup and wasn’t in the centralized attacking role he has with Minnesota. “The few times I did get to see them, there was a bit of chemistry,” Auguero said. “Reynoso just has that talent to be able to connect, if played in the right role, with any forward.”
Abila should have more room to work in MLS, Auguro believes. “In Argentina where the defenses are really tough, defenders usually try to get away with ‘dirty’ plays,’ Abila did well.”
Abila also scored against River Plate in one of his final games with Boca on Jan. 2, but that 2018 goal in the Copa Libertadores still resonates years later. “I thought he played absolutely incredible,” Aguero recalled.
The Loons hope for the same result when it matters most.