Mon. Dec 4th, 2023

Image: Minnesota United

The buzz around Teemu Pukki’s move to the United States and into the jersey of Minnesota United has been building for weeks, and this week saw the buzz turn into reality with Pukki’s signing, first appearance, first start, and even first goal in Wednesday evening’s 3-0 win in Houston. That buzz of “could this finally be the one” has justifiably not gone anywhere with Pukki’s first 94 minutes in Minnesota in the books.

By the numbers, Pukki has inherited one of Minnesota’s classic issues for their starting striker. In the 60 minutes of his first start on Wednesday, the Finn recorded a grand total of ten touches of the ball. He attempted six passes, converting three of them, and attempted just one shot. That shot, of course, was all he needed, as it beat Steve Clark in the 20th minute to push the Loons’ lead to 2-0.

As this play develops, look at where Pukki begins his run. Before Emanuel Reynoso even receives the ball from Hassani Dotson’s header, Pukki has turned upfield in anticipation of what could happen. In the initial viewing of the goal, you’ll notice that Pukki isn’t even visible on the screen when Reynoso plays the pass.

By the time Reynoso plays the ball, Pukki is already off to the races and has only Clark to worry about, with both Houston centerbacks easily beaten and the ball at his feet.

The ability to sense those openings as they develop and the ability to convert those chances to goals is, as has been well documented, the biggest thing Minnesota has been missing in MLS basically since they joined the league in 2017. More than that, the Loons’ ability to play on the counter demands runs like this to provide them an outlet from invited opposing pressure, and Pukki’s speed already appears to be on another level from even the quick players that Minnesota has previously employed.

Minnesota finished Wednesday’s game with just 27.4% possession, content as they so often are to play on the break and withstand the Dynamo’s pressure. The differences in this match were simple: they converted their chances, and they didn’t allow the backbreaking late goals that have so often been their demise.

Pukki’s positional weaponization was on display from his first touch in black and blue on Saturday. Even as the Loons were down 3-0 in a particularly embarrassing Allianz Field display against Austin, Pukki’s entrance served to wake the crowd up and highlight the potential he brings to the attack.

You might notice a little familiarity here from Wednesday’s goal. Reynoso plays a ball from the midfield to a sprinting Pukki, who is splitting the space between the two Austin centerbacks. Pukki was unable to control the pass and did not get a shot away from this attempt, but literally within a minute of his entry to the game, he had stretched the field in a different way than Mender Garcia had been able to do.

Compare the positions of the touches that Pukki and Garcia recorded in these past two games. You’ll notice that while Mender is generally more involved in the run of play, his touches and involvement are typically further back the pitch and in wider areas, while Pukki finds the ball less often, but in more dangerous places.

Admittedly, the Loons were chasing the game against Austin and opened up accordingly, which likely led to Pukki’s constant presence in the box in his 35 minute stint. As the Loons welcome LAFC to Allianz Field on Saturday evening, it will be interesting to see what degree of confidence they have in their attack, and how aggressive they are able to be. The connection between Reynoso and Pukki, even with so few minutes logged, is already a matchwinner for Minnesota. What else can Pukki provide as he grows into this team?

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