Wed. Jun 7th, 2023

Image: Minnesota United

220 days. That’s how long it’s been since Minnesota United’s last league win at Allianz Field.

After an 0-1-3 start to their 2023 home MLS campaign, the stadium DJ was finally able to play Wonderwall over the speakers after the Loons topped Houston Dynamo 1-0 Wednesday night.

The win also breaks a six match winless streak and a stretch of five losses in that span.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said manager Adrian Heath. “It was pleasing and satisfying to see it through.”

The deciding goal came by way of Bongokuhle Hlongwane in the 14th minute. The South African found the ball rolling directly into his path after a bad Houston giveaway, and with confidence high following his two-goal performance in the U.S. Open Cup win over Philadelphia, Bongi toe-poked a right-footed shot from the edge of the box past goalkeeper Steve Clark and brought 18,000+ to their feet in celebration.

The goal was Hlongwane’s fifth in all competitions and third in MLS play. He’s the only Loon with more than two in either category. Just a couple weeks after Heath challenged his young attacker to take the next step in his evolution as a player and gain more composure in the final third, the South African has seemed to answer the call.

“He might get the 25 [goals] he promised me when he left last year,” joked Heath.

An inability to finish quality chances has been a common thread for Minnesota over these first few months, with just 10 goals in 11 league matches prior to Wednesday. While the Loons had multiple opportunities to extend their lead before halftime, it wasn’t necessarily a lack of finishing that thwarted those efforts, but more quality goalkeeping.

After giving up the opener, Clark proved determined to keep the visitors within a goal. In the 41st minute, Franco Fragapane got on the end of a Kemar Lawrence low cross at the doorstep, but Clark stood tall to deny that effort and Hlongwane’s rebound opportunity, which deflected off both Clark’s glove and the post.

Four minutes later, Luis Amarilla, still looking for his first open play goal of the season, put a good header on frame but Clark was there to make the stop once again.

Early in the 2nd half, Fragapane found himself once again right in front of goal with an A+ chance to double the lead, but Clark got a shoulder on the Argentine’s effort to further frustrate everyone in black & blue.

“You can’t complain when the keeper has to make a great save to keep the ball out of the net,” said Heath. “Tonight, I can’t fault the guys. Two or three of those saves were outstanding.”

It should also be noted goals of any kind have been hard to come by against Houston this season. Coming in, the Dynamo had earned clean sheets in seven of their 12 matches, holding opponents scoreless in four of their last five as well.

With a home victory within reach, and the sting of numerous late home equalizers conceded still fresh in the minds of players and fans alike, tension rose as the match entered its final stanza. 

It looked as if that tying goal might come in the 77th minute, as Thor Ulfarsson was able to tee up an open shot just inside the 18-yard box, but Kemar Lawrence came sliding into frame, seemingly from out of nowhere, to make a key block and keep the Loons ahead.

“[Lawrence] was in a really good position, a defensive position, and that’s why he managed to get the block in,” said Heath.

May 17th isn’t exactly the ideal time to get your first home win of the season, and it’s tough to call any match this early in the year a “must-win”. However, with the spiral this team had been on prior, and two more road matches ahead over the next six days, this one felt extremely important for Minnesota to get all three points.

While the win doesn’t necessarily solve the issues the team has been facing early on, like a lack of goalscoring and inconsistent defensive efforts, it provides something positive this team can build off of. One of those building blocks being 2.11 expected goals against statistically one of the best defenses in Major League Soccer so far this season.

“Not having a win at home was definitely kind of I think weighing on a lot of us,” said goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair. “Our fans are so good and they’ve supported us through thick and thin, so I think being able to share the joy of Wonderwall at the end has been something that we’ve been chasing for a while.”

MNUFC now travels to Portland for a Saturday late-night tilt with the Timbers before heading straight down to Houston for a round of 16 U.S. Open Cup affair with the Dynamo on Tuesday.

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