MNUFC Opens the 2023 Season with a Big Win to Quiet the Noise

MNUFC opens 2023 season with 1-0 win at FC Dallas on Saturday, February 25. (Photo courtesy MNUFC)

It was, by any measure, a rough start to the year for MN United. “We’ve had a difficult off season,” head coach Adrian Heath began his post-game press conference. “You can’t deny that with what’s gone on.” Just in the last week, he continued, “we had three players who haven’t trained, Kervin [Arriaga] and Joseph [Rosales]. And obviously, Luis [Amarilla] is not back. Obviously, we’ve had the disappointment of the [Emanuel] Reynoso situation.” And as defender Michael Boxall added, “it was a pretty disruptive week. One of the days we maybe had only a dozen guys, we had a lot of snow the other day so we couldn’t train.” Add to that the injury concerns for Ryen Jiba, Doneil Henry, Brent Kallman, and Mikael Marques, who were all unavailable for the game, and DJ Taylor, who was available, as well as the poor results in their pre-season scrimmages and the noise around the team was getting very loud.

But a win has a way of quieting it all down.

One game, of course, is only one game. But the result feels bigger than that. Grinding out a 0-1 victory on the road to open the season, against an FC Dallas team that tends to win at home in their opening games, unbeaten in their last 13 home openers. Many of the questions that had been swirling around the team won’t go away; it is a long season, and with a bye-week coming up there’s time for the noise to build back up before the home opener against New York Red Bulls March 11. But for now, a win is a win and 2023 starts with three big road points.

There were long stretches last night that still felt like pre-season. Both teams lacked a bit of quality, especially in their attacking third. Communication and timing were a little off all around as players seemed a half-step out of synch. The rhythm and pace were a little erratic as the game was hard to find.

In a sign of a possible Rey-less style, the Loons opened the game with a very high, flat four press, something that is possible with the work of rate of Robin Lod in the 10 spot. Together, Ménder García – getting the start in place of Amarilla who is still at home working on his green card – and Lod dictated and disrupted FC Dallas’ build-up play.

“I just thought we had a really, really good defensive structure from the front two on,” Heath said of the teams defensive effort. “The way the modern game is you defend with 10 outfield players, you attack with 10 outfield players, and I thought the two front men actually gave us a great base to work from. We made them play into the pockets where we wanted them to play.”

When FC Dallas did beat the press in the first half, though, they were able to create gaps at the top of the box. Flooding the middle of the field with a front five who all collapsed in, a team of false nines and tens, Dallas largely controlled the first 45 minutes, even as they only truly threatened Dayne St. Clair in goal one or two times. “Obviously their front three and their two eights have good movement,” Boxall noted, “so as long as we read the passes and read their movement and we weren’t reacting to when the ball was going then we found ourselves in good spots and cut it off like that.”

Encouragingly, from the start, new signing Miguel Tapias and Boxall seemed to have found a good partnership; “As long as we keep communicating and keep things tight then we can be a fairly solid partnership this season. It’s a nice start, but it is just the start,” Boxall said of the pairing. Together they were able to keep Dallas from any significant threat. Wil Trapp,though, had a harder time finding his way into the game and struggled to anticipate the movement of Dallas’ front five. He eventually got there, but it was not his best performance.

After a rather lackluster offensive first half that ended 0-0, the Loons started the second half showing a much needed opportunistic side to their game. Creating a turnover deep in Dallas territory three minutes into the second half, Franco Fragapane, who had a wonderful workman-like game that we have come to expect, let go with a scorcher of a shot from the top of the box that was struck right at Dallas keeper Maarten Paes. It was all Paes could do to get his body in front of the ball and with a quick and thoughtful reaction García turned off his defender to find himself alone in front of the goal as the rebound dropped at his feet. It was, in all, an incredible instinctive and reactionary goal, a just reward for a lot of hard work. As Heath summed up García’s game, “he kept working and working away. He’s worked really hard in preseason [and] that will do his confidence no harm. It’s a great start for us, great start for the kid, so we’re pleased.”

From there, the second half played itself out with Minnesota continuing to find success with a high press, while also figuring out how to push the Toro’s attack out wide, where Zarek Valentin and Kemar Lawrence both had good, if not spectacular, defensive games.

It was, then, a solid start to the new season. The team showed a glimpse of a possible Rey-less style of play, one that sees them pressing much higher up the pitch, relying, for their offense, on quick turnovers rather than pure counter-attacking. They still struggled, without Reynoso, to generate any offense on their own, but with a strong defense and another season of league best goalkeeping from St. Clair, the high press has potential. And the defensive line did look good. Although Lawrence and Valentin got caught out a few too many times, it was nothing that, at least on the night, Boxall and Tapias couldn’t manage.

If there is a more general worry from the game it is with the youth movement. Although he got the goal and put in an incredibly hard shift defensively, García was mostly absent on offense, ending the night with 16 touches. Likewise, Bongokuhle Hlongwane, starting on the right, had an incredibly hard working shift and put in a strong effort. But too many times his final touch and decision making betrayed him. And Joseph Rosales, coming in as a sub for the final 20 minutes of the game, had a great work rate, but it was too often unfocused effort. The kids clearly have potential, but this is a year when they are going to need to do more than just work hard.

And finally, a note must be made concerning Hassani Dotson. Coming in for García in the 63rd minute to help see the game out, Dotson looked good. He was strong and fit and determined and ready to make an impact on the game. Clearly given defensively minded instructions, his play was a little conservative. But one of the best signs for the season was his quality shift. And the emotion of his return was hard to miss. “It was great,” the always exuberant Boxall said after the game. “Honestly for all the work he has had to put in. He’s such a great kid. So happy for him to see the pitch again… So stoked for him and his work ethic is outstanding and he has such a good future ahead of him.”