Loons Soar to Leagues Cup Victory Over Liga MX’s Club Puebla

Minnesota United forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane (21) scores a goal during the MNUFC vs Club Puebla Leagues Cup match on Sunday, July 23, 2023 at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

On a humid Sunday night in St. Paul, a sell-out crowd filed into Allianz Field to see their first taste of continental soccer, as the Leagues Cup opened in the North Star State. Liga MX’s Club Puebla served as the home side while on Minnesota United’s home turf. After taking the lead, a red card looked to derail Minnesota’s night, but rather then allow that to happen, the Loons blitzed to a crushing four goal victory in their first group stage match.

Adrian Heath’s side came out in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation with Teemu Pukki getting the start up top. Reynoso would slot in directly behind Pukki, with Hassani Dotson and Bongokuhle Hlongwane sitting to Reynoso’s left and right respectively. Arriaga and Trapp started in the defensive half of the midfield, with Valentin, Dibassy, Boxall, and Taylor taking up the back line, ahead of regular starting goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair. Minnesota only listed eight substitutes for the night, shorting themselves compared to Club Puebla who brought eleven.

MNUFC put Puebla on notice early, getting the first shot of the match inside the opening minute. After intercepting a pass very close to the attacking third, Teemu Pukki cut slightly towards his close sideline, getting inside the 18 yard box before floating a ball over the top of Puebla keeper Jesús Rodríguez which had the misfortune of landing directly on top of the goal.

After trading shots back and forth inside the opening 20 minutes, it was Minnesota who broke the deadlock in the 24th minute. The play started all the way back in their defensive third when DJ Taylor, near his own penalty area, sent a pass 15 yards up to Bongokuhle Hlongwane. After deflecting the ball up toward the sideline, Hlongwane corralled it and sprinted downfield, slipping through Gastón Silva’s tackle attempt after 50 yards. Hlongwane then cut back down towards goal firing a low roller past the keeper’s far side to put MNUFC up 1-0.

The party didn’t last for long though as just five minutes later, following a VAR review, defender Michael Boxall was sent out of the match for violent conduct. His red card was the second of four total cards issued, in a fairly chippy match that ended with 30 fouls. The red card would not deter Minnesota United, who in fact would continue to pile on the goals through the night.

“I look at the body of work that the players have done. Even the guys that come on put an incredible shift in,” said Adrian Heath post match. “I couldn’t be more proud about the way they went about it.”

After trading shots once again to end the first half, the start of the second half initially looked to be all Puebla’s. Minutes into the restart, La Franja peppered the Loons with shots nearly sneaking in a goal in the process, but missing the mark in the end. In the 51st minute Hlongwane struck for the second time on the evening, this time with a header. Hlongwane started the play by sending a ball to Reynoso, who then took it out wide before floating a cross from the edge of the box back to Hlongwane, now inside the box, he reared his head back and struck the ball into goal from 10 yards with a powerful header.

The goal was Hlongwane’s 10th of the season. After the match he said, “It means a lot to me. I feel like it gives me the confidence to go for more each and every game, but if it didn’t happen, then maybe if I would have scored today than I wouldn’t have scored another goal after that game. I need to be consistent with my goals. I need to work hard, so that I can score each and every game.”

The striker was involved in another goal just eight minutes after his brace. He intercepted a pass and broke out down the near side of the pitch. As he entered the edge of the penalty area, Hlongwane slipped a quick pass back to a trailing Reynoso, who was wide open near the arc. Reynoso one-touched the ball forward, sending it up and over Jesús Rodríguez, who had come slightly forward and dropped down in an attempt to try and cover the shot. Minnesota, with two goals in less than eight minutes while down a man, had blitzed out to a 3-0 lead in the second half.

In the 65th minute Emanuel Reynoso sent an absolutely wonderful free kick directly into goal. “I’m very happy. In training, as I said before, we had watched videos of them [Club Puebla] that when there was a ball near the goal, they were far away,” Reynoso said. “So I kicked the ball so that our defender or forward could reach it. I took the shot and I’m very happy, happy that it went in.”

That would be the Loons final goal of the evening, as they would see out the remainder of the match, having used four subs, held just 31% possession, and having been massively outdone passing. In the 88th minute Puebla gave Minnesota fans a scare, when Daniel Álvarez appeared to put the home team on the board. Álvarez forced his way into the box and while off balance, got off a low roller of a shot that hit the toe of Dayne St. Clair’s boot and popped into goal. Following a somewhat lengthy VAR review, the ball was determined to have been out of play long before the attack, nullifying the goal and keeping Minnesota’s clean sheet.

The Loons next match is Thursday, July 27th when they host the Chicago Fire in MNUFC’s second group stage match. With three points secured after the win over Puebla, MNUFC only needs to force the game to penalties to gain a point and move on to the knockout round.