Still Desperate to Find Home Form, MNUFC Settles for Draw with Real Salt Lake

Draws are, in addition to being a punchline in the opening episode of “Ted Lasso,” their absence saying something about the nature of American sport, rather complicated results, in MLS, with its travel and overly weighted home field advantages, a good result on the road. But for a home team, they can feel like points lost or a fair result. After Minnesota United’s 1-1 draw at home to Real Salt Lake, the feelings were mixed. For Michael Boxall, it was “Definitely two dropped. I don’t know, we have to be better. I don’t think that’s good enough at home”; while Hassani Dotson felt that “we played a good match, and I think the vibe of the team is that we’re disappointed not to come away with a win. But, it’s the nature of the beast”; and head coach Adrian Heath, seemingly able to remain focused on the long season, one with nine playoff spots a conference, insisted, “I always say to you, I’m never disappointed from taking anything from the game. I thought we might have done enough to have won it. We created some good opportunities. About three games ago if we would have said we’ll take seven points then we would have taken it at the run that we were on at that particular time. I want to look at the positives rather than the negatives.”

Draws are often also hard to build storylines around. Last night, Minnesota continued a recent return to its early season defensive form, absorbing pressure and stifling Salt Lake’s offense for most of the night, limiting the visitors to 9 total shots and only 2 on target. And it was, as it has been, a team defensive effort. Joseph Rosales, getting the start at the left wing in a post-Lod pre-Reynoso Loon’s 4-2-3-1, put in another good defensive shift, while Luis Amarilla, Franco Fragapane, and Bongokuhle Hlongwane all did the organized hard work out of possession. With Dotson and Wil Trapp continuing to grow into their partnership in the middle, Minnesota was able to keep its defensive shape, closing down Salt Lake’s options, controlling their defensive space of the field with a good, organized game.

But in the 28th minute, all of that organization came undone, as Minnesota was, out of possession, pulled apart with a bit of movement that Salt Lake had tried, on the other side of field, two minutes earlier. In the 26th minute, with Salt Lake harmlessly building out of their own half, DJ Taylor was drawn out high and wide, leaving Danny Musovski open in behind. When he was found with a beautiful long pass, both Michael Boxall and Micky Tapias were pulled outside. Salt Lake quickly rotated through a triangle out and back in as Dotson and Trapp were left chasing to get back. The ball ended at the feet of Damir Kreilach with acres of space but well outside the box for a rather harmless shot from distance. In the 28th minute, on the other side of the field, Kemar Lawrence was now drawn out by Bode Hidalgo. With Danny Musovski dragging Tapias across and out, Real, rather than circulating the ball around, was able to go directly down the middle to Jefferson Savarino as Boxall chose to stay closer to home. Boxall was never able to recover the space, and Savarino slotted his shot through the legs of a charging Dayne St. Clair to put Salt Lake up. In both cases, the build-up in the 26th minute and the goal in the 28th, Salt Lake had absolute control of the space of the game, dragging Minnesota around at will.

The night was also a reminder of how reliant the Loons’ offense is on the individual creativity of its players, as the absences of Lod and Reynoso where sharply felt. Although Minnesota continued to hold its shape in possession, looking comfortable keeping the field wide building out of the back, the team, for most of the night, seemed to lack any organized bite in attack. They were, in the attacking third, lacking for ideas, and it was a moment of quality, and quite a bit of luck, that led to their goal, three minutes after Real had taken the lead. Building down the right side with Trapp, Taylor was, with a wonderfully threaded ball, able to find Hlongwane at the top of the box making a quick, outside run. Dropping his inside shoulder to get position on Braian Ojeda, Hlongwane carried straight to his favorite spot, the end line just outside the near post. He is, this season, setting up home there, a nice little bit of land from which to find a trailing run or turn and shoot. Last night, he took the shot. Hitting the post, Minnesota got a great home-field bounce, with the goal officially credited to Justen Glad, the Real defender getting in the way of the careening shot. But if it ended with a lucky bounce, it was luck created by a great bit of individual effort.

Although there are rumors, now, that Amarilla is about to be traded away, after a difficult start to the season he is beginning to find a bit of form in partnership with Fragapane. Like Sang Bin Jeong and Lod, when they are in the #10 spot, Fragapane does not play as a #10, but he is growing into the role, setting up a number of good chances last night, in the 42nd minute freeing Lawrence out wide for a good crossing opportunity and playing well with Hlongwane in the 54th minute. But it was in the partnership between Amarilla and Fragapane last night that the Loons’ offense started to show flashes of creativity and control of the field, moving to drag Salt Lake’s defense around. In24th minute Amarilla and Fragapane together up front created Minnesota’s first good chance on goal. Carrying the ball in from the left side Amarilla played a back-heel into the trailing outside run of Fragapane who returned the favor, feeding Amarilla into the top of the box. Getting his feet right on a tricky angle, Amarilla was then able to continue the ball across the top of the box through traffic finding Hlongwane who got two good chances on goal, the second sliding just wide. Although it didn’t come to anything on the night, and it may be ending soon, Amarilla and Fragapane showed flashes of what they can do together when given the chance.

So the draw was, in many ways, rather inconclusive. Minnesota’s great defensive shape and discipline was undone in key moments while their offensive reliance on individual moments of quality hid the possibility and potential of a budding partnership. In the end, the draw maybe is just a sign of Minnesota not being good enough on the night. Heath is certainly right, it is a long season and on the whole, a point is a point and his Loons are still in good position, especially as they continue to play without Reynoso and now without Lod. But it is a long season in other ways as well, and at some point the team is going to need to find a more consistent run of quality and form.