Minnesota United star midfielder Emanuel Reynoso returns Saturday from injury and suspension with a new extended contract in his pocket and a team to uplift to the playoffs on his shoulders.
His Loons are seventh and in MLS' final Western Conference playoff spot with two games to go — Saturday at last-place San Jose and "Decision Day" at home against 10th-place Vancouver on Oct. 9.
They'll clinch a playoff spot if they win Saturday and Real Salt Lake loses or ties at LA Galaxy.
The Loons arrive off a week's FIFA international schedule break. Reynoso had an extra week beyond that to train and heal a recurring ankle injury after he was suspended for a Sept. 17 game at Sporting Kansas City. The suspension was the result of yellow-card accumulation, for which Heath has criticized him.
Reynoso missed games against Real Salt Lake and Portland and left a game against FC Dallas during a five-game stretch when his team went 0-4-1 because of leaky defense and a lack of concentration.
Reynoso calls himself fit now that he hasn't played since a 1-1 home draw with Los Angeles FC nearly three weeks ago.
"Honestly, I got a lot better," he said in Spanish through a team interpreter. "I wasn't really having a lot of time to recuperate well because I'd play and then I'd feel the injury again. So after the suspension and the break, it helps me a lot to be in better shape physically and technically. I'll try to stay healthy, be available for the games that are very important for the club."
Reynoso led the Loons to the 2020 Western Conference final by setting an MLS Cup playoff record by recording three assists each in consecutive games shortly after he arrived from his Boca Juniors team in Argentina.
Since his arrival in Minnesota, the Loons are 25-5-5 across all competitions when Reynoso has contributed a goal or assist. Heath made him one of his 12 coach's picks to represent MLS in its August All-Star Game against Mexico's best in August.
Reynoso is one of only three MLS players who has double-digit goals and assists, with 10 of each, this season.
Heath says it minimizes Reynoso's teammates to simply state the Loons go as Reynoso does.
Certainly it helps when such players as Franco Fragapane, Luis Amarilla and Robin Lod create goals as well. But when Reynoso is at his best, often so are the three aforementioned players and their teammates, enough so that Loons captain Wil Trapp discusses Reynoso's impact in musical terms.
"There's few players, if any in the league, who rival their importance to the team," Trapp said. "When he's in our group, it completely alters how the opponent prepares for us. It completely alters how we play on the field. Of course you don't want too much dependency on one guy, but he's the piano player for us and getting him back on the field is super important."
The Loons on Wednesday announced Reynoso has signed a new contract that supersedes his original contract that had one season in 2023 and a year's club option after that left. This one is intended to keep Reynoso — who turns 27 next month — in Minnesota through the 2026 season with presumably a healthy raise from the $1.07 million he is receiving this season in total compensation.
"That's massive," Loons veteran defender Michael Boxall said. "Everybody knows how he has transformed our team since he has come in. These guys don't come around too often. I'm buzzing that he's staying. We just need to get around him more and help him. He's a special player and he can do so much himself."
Reynoso was asked if he feels responsible to lead his team to the playoffs now that both player and club have committed to four more years together.
"Yes, individually, it's what I want most," he said. "Since I've arrived, we've always made the playoffs. Obviously with the contract I'm very happy. I'll continue to be the same as I was before, a professional. Try to give my best in each game, each practice, keep learning from my coach and my teammates. It will be a lovely three years I have with the club."