MNUFC Sucks the Life Out of Shell Energy Stadium, Beating the Houston Dynamo 3-0

For nearly an entire night in the sweltering Houston heat, Minnesota United FC returned to their early season form, walking away with a dominant result on the road. An impressive and in-control win against Western Conference opponent Houston Dynamo was as important for its balance – as complete a performance as the team has shown this season, with Bongokhule Hlongwane, Teemu Pukki, Dayne St. Clair, and head coach Adrian Heath earning Team of Matchday 25 selection – as the 3 points the team collected. Those points were not enough to move the Loons above the playoff line, but with a game or two in hand against everyone else above them, they are now 9th in points-per-game with one more to go in July before the final push to the playoffs, a twelve-game run to the finish.

It is easy to begin with praise for Teemu Pukki. The DP striker collected his first goal for Minnesota in the 20th minute of his first start for the club, slipping a deceptively difficult shot past Steve Clark on the break, having been released by a wonderfully simple and direct through-ball from Emanuel Reynoso. “I believe I will have fun with him on the pitch,” Pukki said in a post-game interview with AppleTV, a sentiment shared by all who watched. As Heath reiterated after the game, “Good players like playing with good players. I know that once Rey starts to know that this guy is going to be on the move, making those little runs in behind defenders, putting little straight runs on for balls… it didn’t surprise me. [Pukki] has made a career of this and now he’s playing with somebody who’s arguably as good as anybody for the final ball. It’s encouraging to start.”

Those little runs also helped to bring Hlongwane into the game in a new way, as the two goal scorers were at times able to play into the spaces created by the other. For now, so early and with little time to train together, these relationships, between Pukki and Reynoso and between Hlongwane and Pukki, seem to be grounded in vision and skill, veteran intelligence, and instinct rather than any tactical deliberateness. But with a month away from regular season games, the club should be able to develop those partnerships into something quite special.

On a night of few opportunities for the Loons, Hlongwane opened the scoring in the 15th minute on a goal that began with another Reynoso through-ball. Splitting two defenders down the right side, Reynoso freed DJ Taylor into the wide channel. With Houston’s defense falling back and collapsing on Pukki’s near-post run, a low-driven cross from Taylor forced a long punch-out from Clark. The ball rolling to Hassani Dotson, in the right place at the right time, it looked like Dotson would get his second of the season, but the banger didn’t quite bang, unable to make it through a pile of scrambling bodies. But the deflection fell to Hlongwane, having drifted in Pukki’s wake to the top of the 6-yard box, who, after waiting for the bodies to clear, finished cleanly into the top corner.

Although he won’t get official credit on either, Dotson was key to both of Minnesota’s first half goals, the opener coming off his deflected shot, while the second began with his positioning and quick reaction, winning the second ball off an errant Zarek Valentin throw-in and putting a header right to Reynoso. If Reynoso’s turn and pass make the official score sheet and highlight reel, Pukki’s run was timed off Dotson’s effort, a combination of positioning and reaction that he showed all night. But it was, in all, a rather uneven night for Dotson, a game where his positioning, especially alongside Kervin Arriaga in midfield, was often spot on while his skill let him down, missing too many passes, especially early, and being dispossessed too easily.

After the game, Dayne St. Clair, getting the quick start after returning from international duty, offered a great analysis of the team’s defensive effort. “We wanted to stay compact,” he said, “so that meant us dropping back, but it was important for us to go out and get pressure on the ball and guys did a good job of blocking shots and dealing with crosses and when I had to make the saves I made them as well. It was more-so just about staying compact and staying in good shape and being hard for them to break down…. [We were] able to keep our compact shape, and we didn’t beat ourselves. We didn’t really give them any opportunities from our giveaways or anything that has hurt us in the past and we defended set pieces really well today.”

That compact play was not always pretty, as Minnesota conceded 73% possession on the night. But it was wildly effective. The team’s positioning, which began with Arriaga and Dotson sitting higher and with more balance than when either is paired with Wil Trapp in the middle, was, in the first half, near perfect, as Minnesota was able again and again to absorb the first wave of Houston’s attack before clogging up the middle of the field, suffocating any opportunities the home team might have had. It was a withering performance in the Texas heat.

Joseph Rosales was much improved over last weekend’s performance, sitting deeper to contain Franco Escobar, while Taylor had another excellent night, often left alone in the first half against Nelson Quiñónes. With Michael Boxall and Micky Tapias back in their regular spots, the entire defense looked comfortable and in control for the first 45 minutes.

That control was lost, though, in the opening 15 minutes of the second half as Houston made two early substitutions, bringing on Ivan Franco and Thorleifur Úlfarsson at the break. With Aliyu Ibrahim pushed out wide making space for Úlfarsson to play centrally, and Franco finding spaces tucking inside, Minnesota’s back-line was stretched and pulled out of position. Luckily for the visitors it was not Houston’s night and their brief run of creativity and dominance went unrewarded. If the first half was a display of Minnesota’s defensive shape and quality, the opening of the second half was a display of Houston’s inability to score.

In the 60th minute Heath figured out a tactical response, bringing on Ismael Tajouri-Shradi for Rosales and Trapp for Reynoso, while also taking the hour mark to bring on Ménder García for the still-gaining fitness Pukki. With Trapp sitting deep Minnesota’s back-line was able to spread itself out, containing Houston’s new-found width, while Tajouri-Shradi, switching sides with Hlongwane, was able to close down the half spaces that Houston had been exploiting. The substitutions worked and the Loons were able to go back to comfortably absorbing pressure to see the game out.

But before the night was over Tajouri-Shradi was rewarded for another quality shift, netting his first for the club in the 87th minute. With Dotson again in position to be first to the second ball, he sent off a quick flick to free García on the break. Joined by Hlongwane on his left and Tajouri-Shradi on his right, a bit of hesitation and a poor first pass almost wasted the break. But Hlongwane’s wrong-footed shot deflected to Tajouri-Shradi who finished off the decisive closing goal.

It was a vintage win for Minnesota, and afterward, looking forward to a visit from LAFC, it is hard not to think back to 2019, one of the club’s greatest wins, that snatch-and-grab bit of pure thievery at the Banc of California Stadium. And so with hope and opportunity, a final look at the stats from both nights:

September 1, 2019 at Banc of California Stadium: LAFC 0 – 2 MNUFC (Toye 25′, 29′)


July 12, 2023 at Shell Energy Stadium: HOU 0 – 3 MNUFC (Hlongwane 15′, Pukki 20′, Tajouri-Shradi 87′)