ST. PAUL -- Since Emanuel Reynoso joined Minnesota United last September, new teammate Michael Boxall has received an up-close and personal look at one of the most creative attacking players in MLS.
As a center back with 11 years of professional experience, Boxall shared a sense of befuddlement in describing the challenge of defending the crafty 25-year-old Argentine playmaker during small-sided games in training sessions at the club’s grounds in Blaine.
“He always puts the ball where you think you have a chance, but he knows you have no chance,” Boxall said during the club’s preseason camp. “He’s so deceptive with his body movements, and he’s a lot quicker than you think.”
During the final two-thirds of the 2020 season, Reynoso’s skills, primarily in passing, helped propel the Loons to a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference.
Before his arrival, American Soccer Analysis’ advanced stat of goals-added had the Loons at 1.86 per game in a small sample size of seven regular-season games. With Reynoso on the field, that number jumped to 2.30 in the final 13 matches. That nearly half-goal increase was the fourth-highest improvement of any MLS club in that timeframe.
In the playoffs, Reynoso’s performance shifted into fifth gear. Nicknamed “Rey,” which from Spanish translates to ‘king’, he distributed six assists, then capped off an impressive run when he scored a wonderful free-kick goal in the 3-2 Western Conference final loss to Seattle Sounders.
It’s a highlight that will be replayed when the Loons start their 2021 season against the Sounders at 8:30 p.m. Friday back at Lumen Field in Seattle.
During the Loons’ MLS Cup Playoffs run, the MLS record book actually awarded Reynoso a secondary assist in the first-round win against Colorado, so his seven total assists means he holds an MLS all-time individual record of 2.33 assists per game.
“It’s almost like alchemy in how he plays; it’s just beautiful to watch,” MLSsoccer.com analyst Matt Doyle said in an interview.
With Reynoso’s big postseason performances last November and December, he was mentioned as an early candidate for league MVP this season. Doyle puts him just outside the top tier for that award; he has LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez in an exclusive group. Toronto FC’s Alejandro Pozuelo won it in 2020.
“But that next group down has a lot of Argentinian playmakers, and he is right with that group,” Doyle said. “If he plays like he did last year down the stretch in the playoffs, he will certainly have a shot” at MVP.
When it comes to central attacking midfielders, the No. 10 position, Reynoso stands out even more. American Soccer Analysis ranked him No. 1 in the league at that spot, with 0.08 goals-added per game. Another comparison on fbref.com had Reynoso’s goals plus assists minus penalty kicks at 0.76 per game, which was higher than former Loons star and current Houston Dynamo player Darwin Quintero (0.75), Pozuelo (0.58), Sounders star Nico Lodeiro (0.45) and Timbers leader Diego Valeri (0.55)
Reynoso’s sublime passing ability boosts his overall stats, both traditional and advanced. American Soccer Analysis breakdown of goals-added goes in six categories: passing, receiving, shooting, interrupting, fouling and dribbling.
Per ASA, Reynoso’s dribbling was his second-best sub-category. He was 13th in MLS with 4.2 dribbles per game — 2.2 successful and 1.9 unsuccessful — according to whoscored.com.
Meanwhile, Reynoso’s interrupting and fouling were near the ASA average, not statistically helping or hurting. They define “interrupting” as tackles, interceptions, clearances, blocks, recoveries and contested headers, while “fouls” are both ones he committed on an opponent and ones he suffered.
Doing the ‘dirty work’
Boxall said the willingness is there for Reynoso to help defend from his advanced position on the field, which was a welcomed development once “Rey” arrived in Minnesota.
“He’s not afraid to do the dirty work as well, which I was fairly surprised to see. He’s tracking back runners, he’s getting into 50-50 tackles to really help us out,” Boxall said.
Reynoso said his defensive effort is to keep his midfield and back-line defenders from exerting too much energy in regaining possession. “I’m always going to try to do something to help the team,” he said through a translator.
For all his brilliance on the ball, Reynoso only netted two goals of his own in 16 games last season, and United manager Adrian Heath wants Reynoso to score much more in 2021.
“With his ability to get in and around the box and in set pieces …, there is no reason why can’t be getting between seven and 12 goals a season,” Heath said.
American Soccer Analysis contributor Ryan Anderson disagrees. Reynoso’s shooting and receiving analytics from ASA came in slightly below average last season.
“I don’t think that is what he is best at, nor is the offense set up that way,” he said. “We have his best value on the runs that he makes and the passing he does.”
United’s 2020 season included a second-half void of first-choice striker to get on the end of Reynoso’s often-table-setting passes. Winger Kevin Molino had 13 total goals last season, but he left for a three-year contract in Columbus, one Minnesota felt was too long of a commitment given his extensive injury history. Fellow winger Robin Lod had 10 goals in all competitions and returns.
The Loons have addressed their striker shortage in 2021, bringing in Reynoso’s former Boca Juniors teammate Ramon Abila, who has a strong goal-scoring record in Argentina. They also bring in experienced forward Juan Agudelo as a backup and have been closing in on the transfer of Argentine winger Franco Fragapane to help fill the hole left by Molino.
But everything starts with Reynoso, who had 12.7% of the team’s touches in games he played in last season. “Reynoso is the guy that the ball is going to in the Minnesota offense,” Anderson said.
Some within the club tried to set a tone that as a newcomer, Reynoso wasn’t receiving as many whistles as he should have. For how good he was, Reynoso started slow, with one assist and no goals in his first 456 minutes.
“There were a couple of games (in 2020) where he would repetitively get fouled and I’m screaming at the ref, getting on his case because (Reynoso) needs looking after,” Boxall said.
Doyle, however, sees that is just an advantageous narrative for the Loons to try to put out there.
Doyle said Reynoso’s string of success last year will make him even more of a marked man in 2021. Doyle said Sporting Kansas City didn’t adjust to Reynoso enough in the Western Conference semifinal — and he lit them up with three assists in a 3-0 drubbing.
“Everybody knows who the first name on the scouting report is, and everybody knows why,” Doyle said. “We might start to see teams do some stuff with breaking their shape a little bit to man mark him or drawing their line of confrontation a little differently.”
Despite Reynoso’s star status, he blends in with the guys off the field. “He’s just such an easy-going, likable guy. It’s not too complicated. It’s not like he is doing the TB12 method and all this preparation,” fullback Chase Gasper said, with a reference to Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady’s famous methods. “He’s friendly with everybody, no matter who you are at the club. It’s just great to see. He’s a great teammate, and we all know on the field what he’s capable of doing and how phenomenal of a player he is, but he matches that off the field with just how good of a person he is.”
On the field, Reynoso plays at a different speed, and it often isn’t faster. While he can provide a quick turn, Doyle described him as a player who “can’t be hurried.” He plays at his own pace and often picks out what he wants, with a vision that sometimes seems to come out of nowhere.
“There is a reason why you spend a lot of money on a player like that,” said Doyle, referencing Reynoso’s $5 million transfer fee. “It’s not (just) the goals and the assists, it’s because he’s an entertainer. To me, he makes Minnesota United a must-watch team.”