Image: Minnesota United FC
Even with both Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath and defender Michael Boxall suspended due to card accumulation, there was an increased sense of buzz and anticipation in and around Allianz Field Saturday night ahead of a Western Conference matchup with Austin FC, and deservedly so.
A brand-new DP striker cleared to make his debut, one of the most lopsided wins in club history just seven days prior, and a sense that maybe (I said maybeeeeee) United had figured things out in the attack and could be a force to be reckoned with in the 2nd half of the season.
Despite a fast start and a flurry of chances, that anticipation turned to aggravation as 2022 MVP candidate Sebastian Driussi scored a brace, while Diego Fagundez and Emiliano Rigoni added goals of their own, and Austin FC downed Minnesota 4-1, dropping the Loons’ home record to 2-2-5 (W-L-D) on the season.
Heath was the one who spoke with media postgame, after having a birds’ eye view of the result and performance.
“Goals conceded were really poor, really poor, individually, collectively,” said Heath. “Every time we got some momentum we we gave the ball away and conceded a goal. I don’t think there was actually much in the game, if you actually look at the game. I thought some of the play at times as good in the first half, but you can’t concede the goals that we conceded.”
Minnesota had a golden opportunity to break out in front in the 10th minute, as Hlongwane took advantage of an Austin slip and broke out with Garcia to his left. Bongi played a great centering pass but the Colombian missed wide. The offside flag would go up anyway.
The Loons would keep the pressure on early, with Hlongwane getting another chance via a left-footed curler in the 19th minute. The ball beat the outstretched diving arm of Brad Stuver, but also beat the post to keep things scoreless.
Just a minute later, Reynoso sprung Garcia in on goal. Instead of taking the point-blank shot, the striker decided to take the unselfish route and play a pass toward the middle to Hlongwane, but the ball and the opportunity rolled right by the South African.
The home side were left shaking their heads in disbelief once again just before the half-hour mark, as Reynoso played an inch-perfect left-footed cross right on the head of Hassani Dotson, but the midfielder’s header hit the woodwork instead of the back of the net.
Despite absorbing countless opportunities, it was Austin who broke the deadlock thanks to Diego Fagundez, who played a perfect run behind the Loons’ backline, received an on-the-money pass from Dani Pereira, and beat Clint Irwin with the right foot.
Things went from bad to worse for the Loons in the 42nd minute, as Dibassy made a sliding challenge on Jon Gallagher in the visitors’ box and ref whistled for a penalty. Allianz Field (and MNUFC fans everywhere, I’m sure) screamed for a VAR review, and despite an extended conversation between referee Alex Chilowicz and the booth, and plenty of protest from Loons captain Wil Trapp, a review was never called and the decision on the field was upheld.
“For me, I was just trying to evaluate what [Chilowicz] was seeing, was he able to see that it looked like Bakaye [Dibassy] got a touch on the ball?,” said Trapp. “I think those are the moments where maybe you let it play and then you see what happens and maybe you go back and call the penalty, but to call the penalty immediately for me was a little bit hasty, but that’s what we were discussing. Alex [Chilowicz], he does a good job, he converses with the captains well, but at the heat of the moment, you are frustrated, you don’t want that second goal to go in.”
Driussi then buried the spot-kick and Austin found themselves up 2-0 despite being well behind in almost every other stat.
In the 2nd half, the anticipation of Teemu Pukki’s impending debut was only exasperated by the way the game was playing out. “We Want Pukki” chants began to ring out from the Wonderwall in the 52nd minute, unfortunately halted abruptly by Driussi’s second goal of the night off a nice feed from former Loon Ethan Finlay, who was making his 300th MLS regular season appearance.
A silent Allianz Field was brought to life five minutes later, as Pukki entered the match along with fellow newcomer Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and Devin Padelford, replacing Garcia, Valentin, and Rosales.
Anytime the Finn touched the ball in the box the decibel level inside the stadium reached a different level, with Pukki’s best opportunity coming in the 74th minute. Getting a pass from Hlongwane, the striker worked a right-footed shot that forced a diving stop from Stuver.
“Pukki had two or three little runs in behind, made great little angled runs that we’ll have to work with him to make sure that we’re aware of where he wants to run,” said Heath.”
There was a bit of consolation for a home crowd in the 85th minute, as Maplewood’s own Devin Padelford scored his first MLS goal. Reynoso sent a corner in that found the head of Dotson, who flicked it on to the 20-year old and the header found the back of the net to put Minnesota on the board.
“It was awesome, it was really cool, it was my first time my brother actually got to come [to a game] and it was awesome to score and have them react,” said Padelford. “It’s definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life, maybe even more so than my debut.”
Rigoni added the fourth and final Austin goal late in stoppage time. With the loss, Minnesota remains 11th in the Western Conference, but just one point behind both 10th place Sporting Kansas City (with three games in hand) and 9th place Vancouver Whitecaps.
Bakaye Dibassy, making his first start since returning from ruptured quadricep tendon, played 70 minutes before being replaced by Brent Kallman.
Finlay wasn’t originally slated to be in the starting lineup for Austin, but was inserted shortly before kickoff due to Rodney Redes being a scratch. The Duluthian is the 17th active MLS player to reach 300 regular season appearances.
Joseph Rosales made his 50th Minnesota United appearance Saturday across all competitions.
Former MNUFC2 standout Aziel Jackson put in a Man of the Match performance Saturday night for St. Louis City SC, scoring his first MLS goal in a 1-0 win over Toronto FC.
The Loons have a midweek matchup at Houston Dynamo before wrapping up the pre-Leagues Cup slate back at home next Saturday against LAFC.