Fri. Dec 1st, 2023

Image: Minnesota United

Even with the struggles that have plagued Minnesota United at the striker position during their MLS tenure, there has always been another attacking player that has stepped up and scored goals.

In 2018, it was Darwin Quintero. In 2020, Kevin Molino spearheaded a run to the Western Conference final. In 2021-2022, Emanuel Reynoso.

This year? That non-No. 9 scoring threat has been Bongokuhle Hlongwane, and the South African continued his fantastic form this season in grand style Saturday night in Portland.

In the dying embers of a match seemingly destined for a 0-0 draw at Providence Park, Mender Garcia ran down a through ball just outside the box and centered a pass for Arriaga at the top of the box. The Hondurian could have taken the shot, but decided to lay it off to Hlongwane on the right. Composure is something Adrian Heath has said publicly he’s wanted to see more of from his young winger, and Hlongwane showed plenty of that as he teed up a right-footed shot that may have taken a minor deflection before it beat goalkeeper Aljaz Ivacic.

“I think last season, I got so many chances, but I couldn’t convert a lot of them,” said Hlongwane. “This season I told myself I have to work so much on my finishing. I know each and every game, I’ll get the chance, so I have to do that chance whenever I get it.”

The crowd fell silent, as it did at Allianz Field in both the Vancouver and Philadelphia matches earlier this season when the Loons conceded on the final kick of the game. This time, it was Minnesota scoring the last-second goal and stealing three points on the road.

“They say they even themselves out and maybe they do. I was so pleased with the players,” said manager Adrian Heath. “It’s a big night for us because obviously no Robin Lod, no [Emanuel] Reynoso, and we’ve come to a place that is always very, very difficult. I’m just pleased for the players that they’ve got their reward for all of the effort they’ve put in.”

It’s also fitting this would come on a night in which former voice of the Loons, Callum Williams, was on the call for MLS Season Pass.

A big reason MNUFC were able to take a scoreless draw into stoppage time was the effort from their back six. Heath opted to go with the same defensive half as Wednesday’s clean sheet against Houston, with Trapp and Dotson as the central midfield pairing and Kemar Lawrence, Micky Tapias, Michael Boxall, and D.J. Taylor along the back.

That group stepped up in a huge way in this one, blocking 11 shots and holding Portland to just three shots on target despite 19 total shots on the night.

Minnesota now has back-to-back clean sheets and five total on the season.

“We defended really well,” said Heath. “We got a lot of first balls, and when we didn’t, we were there for the second one, which is always hugely important, especially when the opposition are pushing as many men forward as they do. It didn’t surprise me we made the [11] blocks because we were in good spots.”

Both teams had multiple chances to squeak ahead over the course of normal time. Luis Amarilla had two opportunities in the first 12 minutes, capped off with D.J. Taylor sending a nice ball into the box and finding the head of Rosales, who’s header fell for the striker, but he didn’t get his first touch right and couldn’t fully get a shot off.

Amarilla had another opportunity in the 19th, after Hlongwane went 1-on-1 with Diego Chara and held up the ball for the streaking Paraguayan, but the shot was saved nicely by Ivacic.

“I just hope [Amarilla] can catch a break because it’s not for a lack of effort,” said Heath. “I know I keep saying it, and I feel like a bit of a broken record, but he’s got to get in the right spots, not overthink it, play free as he can. I’m giving him the confidence by keep picking him. I know he can score goals, I know he can. He’s got to keep believing in himself and keep getting in the right spots at the right time.”

After being held at bay for a majority of the first hour of the match, the Timbers’ $12M signing Evander would stake his claim in the match. The attacking midfielder found some time and space just outside the 18-yard box in the 66th minute, and let a rocket fly that banged off the crossbar and kept the game tied, for the time-being.

The Brazilian had another quality chance in the 73rd, this time with an absurd outside-footed chip from the edge of the box and St. Clair was able to tip over the bar.

Portland’s final opportunity to get a goal came in the 88th, as Evander slipped a pass to Claudio Bravo, who’s shot beat St. Clair, but beat the post as well as the ball flew inches wide.

Minnesota’s win is a league-best fourth victory on the road this season, and the Loons will try to carry that traveling quality into their U.S. Open Cup round of 16 match in Houston Tuesday night.

According to manager Adrian Heath, a number of changes will be made to the lineup considering this will be MNUFC’s seventh match in just a 20 day span.

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