Minnesota again fails to close out a game, concedes two late goals to draw Real Salt Lake

For 60 minutes it seemed like Minnesota United had refound their early season form, doing just enough – sitting back, absorbing pressure, converting an opportunity – to get a result on the road. Before the night began, taking home a 2-2 draw from Utah against Real Salt Lake would have sounded good enough. But conceding two late goals is different; “Obviously, it feels like a defeat at this moment in time,” head coach Adrian Heath said after the game. But as Salt Lake head coach Pablo Mastroeni said afterward, “the challenge was about character, you can lay down or you can fight. And there’s two ways to effect a game: tactically, and we did that bringing in Danny [Musovski] and [Jefferson Savarino], and then there’s with intensity. And I think both of things made the biggest difference.”

And on a night when Salt Lake got the tactics and character right and Minnesota didn’t a tie feels like something worse than a loss.

Salt Lake began the night on the front foot even as they struggled to do anything with their control of the game. Dragging Minnesota’s defense around the field, pinning the Loons back into their own half with a strong press when out of possession, they struggled to create any definitive chances. One of their best chances of the night was denied with a difficult to understand VAR call early in the night. In the 18th minute DJ Taylor tried to stand up Bode Hidalgo who had received a long, sweeping cross-field pass well outside the box. The Salt Lake midfielder went right past Taylor, who, in desperation, got both hands up, wrapped around Hidalgo’s waist as Hidalgo went down turning the corner to goal. The initial call was for a penalty, but after a long VAR delay the penalty and foul were called back. At first it seemed that VAR had determined that the foul took place outside the box, but the official statement seemed to indicate that there was no foul.


That was not the only difficult VAR decision of the night. Early in the second half Salt Lake appeared to get one back. In the 48th minute Bongokuhle Hlongwane failed to clear an errant and harmless cross through the box, allowing the ball to pop out for Braian Ojeda. After Ojeda’s initial shot was blocked, three Minnesota players failed to react, leaving Pablo Ruiz time and space to finish with a blistering low shot into the far corner from distance. The initial effort and scramble, though, had caught Anderson Julio in an offside position. After another lengthy VAR delay, it was ruled that Julio interfered with the play, obstructing Clint Irwin’s view, and so the goal was called back for offside.

But before and outside all of that, Emmanuel Reynoso, getting his first start of the season, was the difference maker for Minnesota. “Every time he got the ball, he created something,” Heath said after the game. “Every time he got in space, he looked like he would find the pass. I thought some of his touches and movements are as we expect from Rey and we have to do better.” If his fitness is not quite there to go a full 90 minutes and his defensive commitment is still not always apparent, his creativity and vision on the ball is fully back. In a game where Minnesota rarely had possession – the night ended with Real Salt Lake at an almost unbelievable 70% possession – Reynoso was the team’s one bright spot in attack. And he was involved in both of Minnesota’s goals.

The first, in the 27th minute, was created from the singular effort of Reynoso to keep the play going. Loosely marked by three Salt Lake defenders, Reynoso initially found the space to put a speculative, low cross into the box. When that cross rebounded back out to him, he simply reset the play, again making the space to put a cross into the box. This second cross was sloppily batted away by Zac MacMath, the ball falling to Hassani Dotson who put a first shot into traffic but finished the rebound into the top netting for his first goal of the season, marking a full return from injury.

Minnesota doubled their lead 12 minutes later, seemingly putting the game away early from a much more well-worked play. Breaking quickly after gaining possession near midfield, Dotson pushed the ball out wide to Taylor in one of the rare moments when Minnesota was able to create any width in attack. With a beautifully weighted through ball Taylor led Sang Bin Jeong to the endline from where he sent a lovely chip all the way across to a wide open Reynoso at the far post. It was, in the end, an easy finish for the DP playmaker, created as much from a wonderfully quick counter as from defensive laziness. But either way, it seemed to cap a great performance from Reynoso and, with Salt Lake looking defeated and dejected, lock up a road win early.

But Minnesota has had a very hard time closing out games this season and they failed to do so again on the night. As Mastroeni noted, Salt Lake made a tactical change at halftime, but they also came out of the half with a determination that had been lost in the first half. By the 65th minute, when Justen Glad put a header off the crossbar, Salt Lake was back in control of the game and it seemed like they would at least find two to equalize.

They got their first in the 79th minute from a simple ball over the top, as Ruiz cleared Michael Boxall, having been left alone in back as Minnesota tried to push forward, with a through ball to half-time substitute Musovski who slotted it home past the charging Irwin. It was a clean, direct, and disappointingly easy one for Real to get back into the game.

Salt Lake’s second came late into injury time – 90’+8’ – after a series of defensive substitutions failed to shut down the game for Minnesota. In the 80th minute, a good 15 minutes after Salt Lake had retaken control of the game, Heath brought on Kervin Arriaga and Brent Kallman for Dotson and Sang Bin, while Bakaye Dibassy made his first appearance of the season in the 90th minute, coming on for Reynoso. It was, of course, wonderful to see Dibassy on the field again, another step closer to being recovered from his awful and strange injury last season, but it was also a bit desperate. With Cameron Dunbar having already come on for Ménder García in the 67th minute, Heath had nearly cleared his bench, with only Devin Padelford and two goalkeepers left. And it felt like that, like bodies were simply being thrown on the field without much purpose or plan. Salt Lake’s final equalizer was exactly the kind of goal that could be expected from that.

The goal began with a wonderfully accurate sweeping, cross-field ball from an unmarked Ojeda to Diego Luna in the far channel. With 6 Minnesota defenders on the field, the ball cleared everyone, allowing Luna the time to settle a one-touch back into the middle of the box for a wide open Glad, who had simply drifted alone into space for the clean, decisive finish. “[W]hen we put men on at the end,” Heath lamented after the game, “we don’t mark in the box. It’s like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Everybody’s thinking someone else is going to do something and not deal with the ball.”

On a night when there could have been a number of things to celebrate – a first goal for Dotson, a first start and first goal for Reynoso, a first assist for Sang Bin, a good shift from Valentin, good minutes for Dunbar, minutes for Dibassy, a solid performance from Irwin – it was all wasted. As Dotson said after the game, “We were right there today. It’s pretty disappointing, especially with the work we put in and they were able to come back from two goals…. Anytime you are ahead, no matter when the goals come you are frustrated. Especially when we capitalized so quickly in the first half. We had a couple warning signs to boost the energy or do better and unfortunately we didn’t capitalize.”

With a mid-week friendly before hosting Portland on the weekend, it will be another busy week as Minnesota tries to figure it out how to turn around a season that is falling away.