Sloppy home opener ends in draw for MN United FC

Minnesota Aurora midfielder Kervin Arriaga (33) slide tackles the ball away from New York Red Bulls forward Cory Burke (7) during the match at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, March 11, 2023.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

It was not the chaotic excitement of the Snow Opener or the unconscionable cold of that USMNT qualifier. But the condition of the field quickly became the story of MN United’s 2023 home opener, a 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls.

“This is like the under-18 team,” Red Bulls head coach Gerhard Struber said, unprompted, after the game. “And the moment where I was so surprised when I got outside and I cannot see any green. Whatever the reason for that, this is very unprofessional, and I have a completely different expectation [on] how we should play in this league, on this level…. Everyone here has the responsibility to keep the snow away,” Struber continued. “I absolutely have no understanding that we played today in these circumstances in an MLS professional game. I think both teams don’t deserve that, and this was not a big promotion for the league.”

When asked, MN United head coach Adrian Heath was slightly more diplomatic, saying only, after a long pause, “I was disappointed that there was so much snow on the field.”

But Heath was also quite clear that the field conditions determined the run of play. “I thought [RBNY] played the conditions the first 10-15 minutes better than we did. We were still trying to play and it wasn’t on to play.”

“Obviously,” Heath continued later in his postgame comments, “the conditions were difficult for both teams. They used the weather conditions and the snow better in the first half than we did… It was difficult, you have to play long, you have to play straight, anybody who had to play too intricate with the ball, invariably it got turned over.”

In hindsight, this was absolutely correct. The difficulty was that only New York seemed to realize it in the opening of the game itself. The Loons were lucky to not be down by two or three goals after twenty minutes. It is to be expected, by this point, that the Red Bulls are going to press hard and transition quickly. They are, of course, an energy drink. Less expected, though, was how well they would adapt as visitors to the playing conditions. Again and again and again in the first twenty minutes New York would press the Loons into a turnover in the middle of the field and simply chip a ball forward, a ball that would skip once on the icy slush past the Loons defense before slowly rolling to a stop in the snow, sitting for Cory Burke or Lewis Morgan to run on to in front of Dayne St. Clair. Minnesota’s lack of midfield pressure made this tactic incredibly easy for New York, but the consistency of the move was stunning.

But if New York got the tactics right in the first twenty minutes, Minnesota got the equipment right. Both Robin Lod and St. Clair commented earlier in the week on the need for longer studs on a slushy snowy field and it seemed to work. While the Loons had very few problems with traction during the game, the Red Bulls were slipping everywhere. And it was a slip that led to Minnesota’s goal in the 18th minute. In a good moment of high pressing, Franco Fragapane recovered the ball deep in the team’s attacking half and quickly released Ménder García at the top of the box. Playing it along the ground, though, the ball got hung up in the snow and should have been easily cleared by New York captain Sean Nealis. Instead, Nealis slipped as he tried to turn, allowing García to recover. With some desperate defending Nealis was able to get the ball clear, but only across the end line for Minnesota’s first corner kick of the season.

It produced their finest moment of proper sloppy conditions play: Micky Tapias got a head on the corner, redirecting it to Bongokhule Hlongwane. Bongi was able to get a first header on goal that was saved by Carlos Coronel, but the keeper couldn’t control the snowy ball and Bongi was quickest to react, redirecting the rebound into the back of the net. It was a reactionary, pinball goal, the kind that the conditions called for. It was also completely against the run of play and seemed to shock the Red Bulls into a bit of complacency, resettling the game.

It is worth pausing for a moment over the set-up to the goal, to note, first, that this Minnesota United team, without Emanual Reynoso, who remains absent without much explanation, can play a very effective high press. In the first two games, the only moments of offensive creativity for the Loons have come from quick transitions off of turnovers. Lod is much more willing and able to center a high press, and without Reynoso the team has an incredibly hard time transitioning through the middle of the field. It is high and quick and not much else. Second, even in creating a goal, Minnesota was unable to adjust their tactics to the demands of the game. This was not a game for through balls on the ground, but the Loons found it almost impossible to release García or Bongi in the air. This continues to be, at some level, a team built around the ground control that Reynoso provides, even in his absence.

After the goal, the game settled into what one would expect from two teams who want to counter-attack, playing in the snow. Minnesota’s first half passing map is a near picture-perfect representation of the organization of the game. Or rather, it’s lack.

This could have been how the game played out, except that Minnesota began the second half not quite ready to play, and within five minutes, New York had tied it up. There is very little to add about the goal, a free header by Andrés Reyes off a corner, beyond what the two coaches said after the game. From Heath: “I thought it was a poor goal from us. A poor goal to concede. What is he, six-foot-two, six-foot-three? One of the biggest guys on the field and he gets a free header in the six-yard box. We’ll have another look at it and see where we were and see who wasn’t blocked or who didn’t attack the ball in their zone. Obviously, it’s disappointing to concede from a set piece.” And from Struber: “I think we trained this sort of thing two times in the week exactly how is our target. I think the service was great in this moment, and it blocked also Andrés free this moment. This was, in the end, what we trained.” A well-executed, poorly defended set-piece goal.

The game finally turned in Minnesota’s favor in the final twenty minutes, as the Loons created a number of good scoring chances. For Heath, this was a matter of the improving field conditions as most of the snow had been scattered. “[When] the conditions got better,” Heath noted, “and there was less snow on the field we suddenly then started to get a little bit more possession in their half of the field. Started to get some crosses in. Hassani [Dotson] come on, I thought he did excellent.”

It is the second point that needs to be highlighted. The difference that Dotson made to the game was clear. The midfield trio of Arriaga, Dotson, and Lod was a step up in creativity and after two games it might be time to recognize Dotson as the preferred pairing alongside Arriaga. It was also clear, though, that the high-energy pressing of the Red Bull’s had taken its toll; even with the use of all five substitutions in the second half, New York was exhausted after traipsing through the snow. Unfortunately, Minnesota was unable to take advantage.

In his usual turn of phrase, Heath said after the game that he would have been pleased if you would have told him that the team would have four points after its first two games. And that seems fair. In their season opener, the Loons got the tactics all right and came out ready to play, capturing a stunning three points on the road. In their home opener, the field conditions dictated a style that the team was unable or unwilling to play and they suffered to a point. In pre-season, the club emphasized the need for greater consistency and so far, that has been hard to come by. But it also feels like an opener, a bye-week, and a snowy sloppy mess are hard games to say too much about.

So now, the season begins, with four points of six, and a missing DP.