On A Glorious Night, MNUFC Walks Away with Another Home Draw Against LAFC

Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall (15) intercepts a pass intended for LAFC forward Carlos Vela (10) during the match at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, July 15, 2023.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

On a beautiful night of records and milestones, with Allianz Field electric, the record-breaking crowd relishing the chance to enjoy some beautiful soccer, a rollercoaster of a month ended with one of Minnesota United’s best games of the season. Once again, though, too many missed chances meant the Loons settled for a draw at home, their sixth of the season setting a franchise record, two early goals holding for the night.

Minnesota set up in a 4-2-3-1, but what most often played as 4-4-2, with Hassani Dotson out wide on the left, Emanuel Reynoso sitting just below Teemu Pukki, the newest Loon already firmly established up top. The start was Dotson’s 100th regular-season appearance for the club, and he had a wonderful game. “We wanted to play Hassani in sort of a little hole in midfield,” head coach Adrian Heath said after, “and I thought he was outstanding. Turning with the ball, running with the ball, picking a pass. So I’m delighted with how that turned out.” The effect of playing Dotson out wide in a relatively flat-four midfield was to stretch the field, challenging LAFC to match their width. And in the first 15 minutes, the visitors were unable to contain Minnesota’s left side, Reynoso drifting out to overload the side with Zarek Valentin pushing up in support, the home side creating three incredible opportunities.

In the 4th minute Reynoso walked around Stipe Biuk, the LA forward sucked all the way back to try to cover the side, with a stunning little dribble announcing his intentions: On a night of all-around performances, Reynoso was magic. After slipping past Biuk, he put a cross right into the path of Dotson, whose diving skimmed header missed the back post by inches.

In the 10th minute a throw-in from Valentin at midfield set up a quick interplay between Dotson, Pukki, and Reynoso that ended with Reynoso sending a one-touch flick curling behind LAFC’s back-line for Bongokuhle Hlongwane. Hlongwane was a quarter-step from getting to the ball in front of goal-keeper John McCarthy, but was ultimately ruled offside, having missed the timing on his run from the other side.

In the 13th minute, with the Loons pressing LAFC deep in their own half, Hlongwane stepped in front of an Aaron Long pass, quickly getting the ball out wide for Pukki. Picking his head up on the turn Pukki found Reynoso at the top of the six, the #10 flashing a deft little half turn of his hips to flick the ball on to Hlongwane, drifting into the box. McCarthy made an incredible save to deny Hlongwane, but from that distance and with that amount of time, Hlongwane should have done better. It was an incredible bit of vision from Pukki, another moment in the early showing of the partnership he may develop with Reynoso, on a night when the newest Loon looked like a player who hasn’t had a chance to train much with his new team: although the Finnish DP had a few occasions of quality, he largely drifted from the game.

After a stunning opening fifteen minutes from Minnesota, LAFC rotated their front five, while Reynoso began playing more centrally and to the right, giving the visitors a chance to settle into the game. Then, in the 21st minute, still slightly against the run of play, Carlos Vela did what Carlos Vela can do. A headed clearance by Denil Maldonado from deep in his defensive end was headed on centrally by Jose Cifuentes to a wide open Biuk, drifting into the middle from his left. A quick one-touch pass split Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy down the middle, Vela the first onto the ball. With Boxall in retreat Vela slid across the big defender’s body getting the ball on his left foot, stepping around the closing Dayne St. Clair before easily slotting it into the back of the net to open the scoring.

After opening the game by winning every second ball, challenging every LAFC possession, the Loons let up for a second and LAFC was able to walk down the middle of the pitch. If Boxall and St. Clair were beat at the end, Boxall unable to shield the ball, St. Clair coming out too quickly and without intent, it was a team lapse that saw them fall behind early.

Three minutes later, though, the Loons equalized through one of their best goals of the season. The club’s 300th regular-season MLS goal was a simple bit of magic, finished by Reynoso.

After the two quick goals the game settled into a nice bit of well-played soccer. Per MLS statistics, the night ended even on possession, with the home side taking 17 shots to the visitors 12, although they were on frame a much closer 3-2, and the Loons favored with 2xG to LAFC’s 1xG, a difference achieved mostly in the first fifteen minutes of the game. If one stat stands out in Minnesota’s favor it is the team’s 11 corners and 17 crosses to LAFC’s four and six, a sign of the Loons ability to once again create some width in their attack, something they had struggled to do through the middle of the season.

Minnesota’s central defensive box had an exceptional night, mostly quieting Vela and Denis Bouanga. Kervin Arriaga, Wil Trapp, Boxall, and Dibassy had a great game as a unit, while individually Dibassy was solid in the surprise start, Micky Tapias a late scratch with ankle swelling. Certainly there is a worry that Dibassy is being forced back too quickly, but after a shaky mid-week game he seems to have found a bit of comfort alongside Boxall. Arriaga, though, had a strange night, at times being absolutely brilliant in midfield, a brilliance that was interspersed with moments of shocking let-downs. Like all the young Loons who are getting significant playing time, he is still suffering from a lack of consistency across a full game, showing moments of brilliance interspersed with poor decisions and lapses in play.

LAFC midfielder José Cifuentes (20) and Minnesota United midfielder Wil Trapp (20) during the match at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, July 15, 2023.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

As the tension in the game built and LAFC began to look for the draw on the road, Minnesota had two great late chances. In the 60th minute Reynoso put the ball on Trapp’s foot just inside the box off a training-ground corner kick. Carrying it to the end-line channel, Trapp sent a slow cross all the way across the front of the goal, Dibassy and Dotson both half-steps away from taking the lead with a simple touch on the ball.

Minnesota’s best chance to take the lead came in the 78th minute. Off a relatively simple looking forward pass from Dotson, Sang Bin Jeong, on up top for Pukki, let the ball run between his legs, freeing Reynoso for a 1v2 break with Hlongwane. With Diego Palacios in full retreat Reynoso laid the ball off to his right at the top of the box, leading Hlongwane in-stride to the top corner of the six. After Hlongwane skied the sitter it might be possible to question Reynoso’s decision – he maybe should have been more selfish, taking the shot himself – but either way, Minnesota wasted their chance for a statement win.

As LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said after the game, the 1-1 draw felt entirely fair on the night, with both teams walking away with something to be pleased with: Minnesota putting in one of their best performances of the season against one of the league’s best, LAFC securing a point on the road after an incredibly difficult first “half” of the season.

After the All Star game midweek, and a month interruption for Leagues Cup, Minnesota will resume regular season play barely below the playoff line, wondering if they have turned a corner, ready to make a playoff push, or if they have wasted too many chances, their wayward finishing dooming a rollercoaster of a season.