Loons Best Houston at Home, End Long Allianz Field Winless Streak

Though there was nothing convincing about it, in their fifth

try Minnesota United got their first regular season win at home on Wednesday night, ending a 6-game regular season winless streak. With a return to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 and a renewed ability to absorb pressure, aided by the Houston Dynamo’s own struggles to finish, the Loons were able to make one goal stand, picking up a desperately needed three points.

“Seems like it’s been a long time coming,” head coach Adrian Heath said after the game, adding that he “thought it would have been a travesty if we hadn’t won the game with the clear-cut opportunities that we had created… It was pleasing and satisfying to see it through.”

As pleasing and satisfying as it may have been, it was also a rather strange game, as neither team seemed willing or able to take control of the play. Houston ended the night with 55% possession, but it was Minnesota with the better chances, creating 2.1xG to Houston’s .8xG, with each team getting off 12 shots, 5 on target for Minnesota, 4 for Houston.

Although missing two key attacking pieces, Houston started the game on the front foot, pressing Minnesota high, while showing a quickness and precision on the counter that generated the first real chance of the game. Four minutes into his first MLS start, young Nigerian international Aliyu Ibrahim got by Micky Tapias, covering for Kemar Lawrence after the left-back had made a deep run into the corner, with a smooth dummy to himself. Quickly advancing down the right, Ibrahim was able to get his head up, finding Adalberto Carrasquilla just outside the box. With a bit of skill Carrasquilla got off a great shot but pushed it just wide past an outstretched Dayne St. Clair.

But if Houston had the better of the first 15’, Minnesota was able to get the first goal, against the run of play, taking the lead in the 14th minute as Bongokuhle Hlongwane netted his 3rd goal of the regular season, 5th in all competitions so far this year. With their own well-organized high press, the Loons harried Franco Escobar into a poor back-pass. With Franco Fragapane challenging for the loose ball, Micael’s clearance was picked up by Hlongwane at the top of the box. All of his momentum moving across the box, Hlongwane was able to adjust his balance, putting a toe poke back across his body into the bottom corner. It was a wonderful team goal finished with a goal scorer’s instinct, a flash of skill and athleticism to put Minnesota up early.

Goals change games, and with that first one the Loons were able to build themselves into the night. In the 20th minute a quick little fluid exchange between Fragapane and Robin Lod, much more involved in the game back out on the right side, freed Hlongwane at the near post, but he couldn’t quite get his body around on the shot, putting it wide of goal.

Houston, though, was not done. After a cheap give away by Hlongwane in the middle of the field, Artur put Aliyu in behind DJ Taylor and Michael Boxall, but in a clear affront to physics, Aliyu’s shot careened off the inside of the upper corner, rebounding across the front of goal, as Houston’s finishing woes continued.

Even as Houston was able to generate chances, Minnesota finished the half finding their own opportunities down the flanks. As Heath noted after the game, “I thought we played some good football this evening. Especially the first half, some of our transition moments were excellent in terms of the play that we had. Switched the play well, got the fullbacks forward. Kemar had probably four or five crosses in the first half, DJ as well. It’s a bit more like us when we play at home. We’re always at our best when we can get our fullbacks into the game and get them in the final third. I thought we did a better job at that this evening.”

Minnesota closed out the half with two great opportunities in the 42nd and 45th minutes. The first coming after Lawrence and Luis Amarilla played a nice little give-and-go to free Lawrence into the corner. Getting his head up he put in a low cross right to Fragapane making a secondary run to the front post. Houston keeper Steve Clark anticipated the play well and put his body in position to make a first save on Fragapane’s shot. The rebound, though, went right to Hlongwane, drifting at the top of the 6, who was able to get a great shot off that was denied by an incredible reactionary second save from Clark, getting one hand to the ball, pushing it off the far post.

A few minutes later Taylor advanced the ball on the dribble down the right side before switching play to Fragapane deep in the box. With a nice bit of control Fragapane returned a cross to the far post finding Amarilla alone for a free header. Getting enough on it, Amarilla was denied as Clark again anticipated the play well, making what ended up being a relatively easy save.

Houston started the second half with two substitutions, head coach Ben Olsen trying to find more width out of the back for his own team. With those changes, the game settled into a rather open midfield battle, with neither team generating many good chances. It was, for 45 minutes, two middle-of-the-pack teams struggling to find their form, Houston missing a decisive attacking player, Minnesota still in search of an identity. Hlongwane, Fragapane, and Lod certainly play well together in the 4-2-3-1, while Lawrence and Taylor, when allowed, continue to provide attacking width and danger down the flanks.

But the insistence on leaving Amarilla alone up top does not work, his night, and current form, can be summed up in two moments. The first, the beautiful interchange with Lawrence at the end of the first half to set-up the two incredible chances; the second, a flubbed breakaway in the second half when, on the attack dribbling into the box, indecision caused the ball to get lost in Amarilla’s feet ending a great opportunity. He is, it seems, being wasted playing out of position, as his confidence continues to waste away.

The best chance of the second half came when Fragapane found himself with the ball at his feet in the middle of the box. But, again, Clark was able to get his body in position, sending Fragapane’s shot wide with his shoulder, the Houston keeper keeping his team in the game as Minnesota couldn’t find a second goal to put Houston away.

While Olsen continued to search for a way to get his team level, or at least creative in attack, Heath was content to pack it in and see the game out, bringing on Joseph Rosales, who had a great shift in an undefinable positioning, for Wil Trapp in the 63rd minute, Sang Bin Jeong for Fragapane in the 73rd minute, and Kervin Arriaga for Amarilla in the 80th minute, a long, drawn-out process of switching into a 4-5-1 to finish out the night. Even if Trapp was brought off early carrying a yellow card from the first half, it was a strange 17 minutes of substitutions to change the formation.

In the end, it wasn’t always pretty but in a very congested run of games, the win is all that matters. As Hassani Dotson noted after the game, “we’ve had a couple of [close] games like that so far this year. The biggest thing is making sure that we got the result. We won the game that we thought we needed to win, and we’ll fine tune those things during the week.”

With two more games in less than a week and four more this month there will be little time for any fine-tuning, and so a win is a win is a win and it’s off to the next.