Cruelty and Chaos Collide As MNUFC Concedes a Late Goal Against Austin FC

We often like to believe that soccer is a beautiful game. More balletic beauty and artistic creativity and ontological manipulation of space and time than sheer brute competition. But it is also and mostly quite cruel.  As Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath said after his team’s 2-1 road loss to Austin FC, “I’m devastated for the players. 21 efforts at goal. After the first 20 minutes, when we changed the shape, I thought we were far and away the better team… So, disappointed in the result, certainly not disappointed with the players: performance and the effort was magnificent…. You feel for the players because their effort to take opportunities, to run forward, to get in the box, to do what we did was magnificent on the back of the games we’ve had recently. I can’t fault the players tonight, they’ve done everything that we’ve asked of them, and they’re very, very unlucky that they haven’t taken not only a point, but could’ve taken all three.” It is, of course, a rather stock analysis from Heath, but it felt quite true on the night.

Playing their 11th game in 40 days Heath made one change to his team, Ménder García getting the start up top as Luis Amarilla was dropped from the team, apparently on his way out of the club. And the team remained consistent, conceding possession on the night, 46% – 54%. But they won almost every other statistical category, with 22 shots, 7 on target, to Austin’s 13 and 6, winning 7 corners to Austin’s 4, defensively taking 49 duels to Austin’s 37, winning 10 tackles to Austin’s 5, and notably ending the night with 3.1xG to Austin’s 1.3xG. Unfortunately, statistics do not win games.

Austin began the night in control and were unlucky, after a wonderful bit of goalkeeping from Dayne St. Clair, quickly getting a hand down to push aside a close-range shot, to not be up after 10 minutes. Throughout the opening Austin was at their unsurprising best, able to build out of the back, easily and consistently finding their wings, Jon Gallagher and Adam Lundqvist, out wide. In the 19th minute it got them their first of the night. After a bit of patience in the back, center-back Julio Cascante found Lundqvist on the left side with a sweeping cross. As Minnesota dropped back to cover they seemed unsure of their responsibilities, parting the width of the field leaving Gallagher wide open on the far side of the box for an easy, if well taken, opening goal.

Since goals change games, Minnesota certainly felt poorly done to not already be up at that point. In the 5th minute, after a bit of good pressing work in the middle of the field, Kemar Lawrence threaded a wonderfully weighted pass down the channel for García, who had snuck between two of Austin’s center-backs. Collecting the ball almost at the end line García put a cut-back into the trailing run of Joseph Rosales who sent a decisive finish off the bar into the back of the net. After a VAR review the goal was called back, the officiating crew agreeing with the assistant referee that García had gone early and was caught offside. Without seeing the VAR review it was a hard call to understand.

But after Austin’s opening goal Minnesota responded quickly, finding the back of the net 7 minutes later. In a mirror image of their first called-back goal, Hlongwane picked the ball up in his own half, almost in the same spot on the other side of the field that Lawrence had been to begin the earlier attack. Again holding his run at the half-way line, García took a more direct route to the channel, simply passing in front of his defender as Hlongwane fed him in on goal, creating a 2v1with Rosales. Before getting to the end line, with a great bit of body work to protect possession, García dropped a nice easy touch to his left for Rosales who put away the clean finish, now officially his first goal in MLS play. If the first for Minnesota seemed close, this one seemed to be off, Hlongwane holding the ball a second too long. But after another VAR review, the goal stood. However those two plays turned out, García and Rosales both put in very good shifts. García was dangerous all night finding the space in behind in all the ways, peeling off the shoulder of his defender, slipping in between the center-backs, or simply making the direct run. And aside from Austin’s first goal, when everyone for Minnesota seemed unsure of their responsibility, Rosales had another solid night on defense, being composed in possession, and adding a bit of attacking flair that was certainly his best performance of the season.

With the equalizer Minnesota changed their shape a bit, setting their press higher up the field, unsettling Austin’s build-up play. With Austin unable to keep possession, Minnesota spent much of the rest of the game in control. After a cheap under-pressure give away by Daniel Pereira, Franco Fragapane put one just wide of goal; Wil Trapp hit the top corner with a banger off a corner; Hassani Dotson put a free-kick from 35 yards out just off the outside of the post. It seemed that Minnesota would at least get the road point, if not all three.

In an article published earlier in the week, Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press offered a great bit of statistically commentary on Heath’s use, or lack of use, of substitutes. In the piece, Greder offers a long quote from Heath that we have heard before, Heath arguing that “What I do know is, if you suddenly make four and five changes, sometimes you completely disrupt the rhythm of the group. It takes them a while to get into the game and understanding what their opposition is doing. Sometime you can go the other way and you give yourself no chance from when you had a chance.” It is a position, of course, in line with his understanding of the game as being determined by the quality of individual players. It is also a position that was confirmed in practice last night as Minnesota again realized that the cruelty of the game is often accompanied by some poor decisions. Putting aside the injury necessity of Zarek Valentin coming on for Lawrence in the 54th minute, the two late game substitutions – Sang Bin Jeong on for García in the 61st , Kervin Arriaga on for Rosales in the 76th , and Cameron Dunbar on for Fragapane in the 77th – disrupted Minnesota’s dominance of the game. Hoping to pack it in and hold on for the road point, Minnesota instead conceded a late goal off a broken and confused play. From a long throw-in lofted into the box, Micky Tapias went into a congested scrum but couldn’t get his head anywhere near the ball. Then, as the ball bounced around the middle of the box, 5 Minnesota players – Arriaga, Michael Boxall, Hlongwane, Taylor, and Valentin – watched the ball as late substitute Sebastian Druissi drifted off the chaos, collecting the ball when it bounced out, slotting it home to put Austin up in the final minutes of the game. It was a moment of pure confusion that ultimately cost Minnesota the game.

Which is a bit unfair, as Austin’s field players did everything they could to concede a late equalizer, holding on for the win only through the sheer will of goalkeeper Brad Stuver, who played a shut down final 10 minutes.

Minnesota now returns home to close out this stretch of games against a Toronto FC club that is in disarray. It will, it now seems, be a different United team that takes to Allianz Field on Saturday, as Amarilla appears to be gone and with Heath teased that Emanuel Reynoso may be on the bench. Hopefully they will be able to get a different result.