On Teemu Pukki’s Debut, Minnesota United Fall 4-1 to Austin FC

The oldest saying in soccer is that goals change games. Failing to convert their chances from a dominant opening thirty minutes last night, Minnesota United suffered one of their biggest losses at Allianz Field, falling to Western Conference opponent Austin FC 1-4. After a week full of promise it was a rather complete set-back for the team, as the Loons remain stuck below the playoff line with only two wins at home this season.

In many ways Minnesota’s dominance at the start of the game was a return to their early season form, especially their opening road win at Dallas. With Austin’s commitment to building out of the back, even with an untried center-back pairing, Minnesota was able to control the game out of possession from a well organized and suffocating press, forcing Austin into a number of mistakes, pulling apart the visitor’s back line with quick counters and transition attacks. And with Austin’s other commitment to sending their outside backs forward, Minnesota looked from the start to test right center-back Julio Cascante’s fitness with the speed of Ménder García and Joseph Rosales, in (after being away on international duty) for the injured Sang Bin Jeong, and the comfort of Kipp Keller, getting his first start at left center-back, with a commitment to sustained pressure from Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Emanuel Reynoso, working that side of the field. In all, it was a strong half for the Loons, with the team finishing just under on possession, at 49%, but up on (non-penalty) expected goals, 1.2xG to .5xG.

But expected goals are not goals, and Minnesota found all kinds of ways to squander their chances. Caught offside three times in the opening half, the team had trouble getting shots on target — García sliding one wide in the 10th minute, Hlongwane putting another wide in the 19th — and struggled to find any rhythm or connection on the break, wasting the effort in the 17th, 21st, 26th, and 28th minutes with missed connections, delayed decisions, and mistimed runs; were let down by the final touch, Hlongwane unable to test Austin goalkeeper Brad Stuver in 12th minute, García unable to control a wonderful Reynoso cross in the 22nd; and denied when everything else went well, Stuver coming up with a big save against García in the 30th minute, Hassani Dotson putting a free diving header off the post moments later.

After all of that, against the run of play, Austin opened the scoring in the 35th minute, with a quick dismantling of Minnesota’s back line. As Austin built down their left side they were able to take advantage of a series of individual mistakes from Minnesota, a cascade from Wil Trapp releasing eventual goal scorer Diego Fagúndez as the play developed. With no one there to pick up Fagúndez, Hlongwane and Bakaye Dibassy were caught in indecision, Hlongwane forced to choose between stepping to Daniel Pereira or following Fagúndez, distracted by Sebastian Druisi drifting into the play, Dibassy forced to choose between picking up Fagúndez or staying close to Driussi. In the moment of hesitation, Fagúndez continued his run around the back as Pereira waited with the ball for the play to develop, patiently and easily freeing Fagúndez in behind for the opener.

Playing with shifted positioning, Minnesota’s back line, Trapp included, looked unsettled all night. After the game, head coach Adrian Heath said of switching DJ Taylor and Zarek Valentin, “We wanted to get the threat down the side that we’ve had with Bongi [Hlongwane] and DJ [Taylor]. I felt that Zarek [Valentin] is better playing from behind the game.” And although Dibassy never looked comfortable on the right, he and Micky Tapias were unable to find a balanced pairing, as both center-backs like to play forward, stepping into plays, aggressively cutting off angles and stopping attacks before they can begin. As Heath noted after the game, Michael Boxall, out serving a yellow card accumulation suspension, was missed: “I thought we missed Boxy [Michael Boxall] this evening. We missed him coming out with the ball down that side which he’s been really good at this year.” More than that, though the back line missed his leadership and his willingness and ability to defend off his back foot, sitting deeper with the game in front of him.

With ten minutes to go in the half, the game was still on, as Trapp noted afterward: “at 1-0, with the way we are playing, and still creating, I wasn’t nervous or worried about it.” Unfortunately, they were unable to close it out, conceding a soft penalty in the dying moments of the first 45. After a long VAR review, referee Alex Chilowicz’s quick call against Dibassy was allowed to stand and Druissi cleanly put away the penalty. If the goal played out in frustration for Minnesota and their supporters – a quick and harsh penalty call, a long VAR review, Chilowicz not taking a second look – the result wasn’t unfair: Jon Gallagher earned the penalty by simply beating Hlongwane in a foot race, and so after a dominant opening to the game, Minnesota went into the half down by two.

The second half was a different game, with Minnesota dominating possession, with 63%, but Austin getting the better chances, with 2.25xG to the Loons’ 1.03xG.

Austin’s third goal, six minutes into the second half, was another simple and direct unsettling of Minnesota’s back line that started with Pereira on the ball, splitting Dotson and Trapp off the dribble near midfield. With Minnesota’s midfielders chasing the play and the defensive line retreating, Pereira found Ethan Finlay, making his 300th MLS appearance, out wide, and as Fagúndez cleared the area with a run to the front post, Druissi was left alone at the back post for an easy finish off of Finlay’s cross.

Austin added a fourth in the dying moments of the night, again pulling apart Minnesota’s back line with a bit of patience, organization, and well-timed runs, this time with Gallagher patiently on the ball as Druissi made a sweeping run around Devin Padelford, on for Valentin in the 56th minute, and no one picking up Emiliano Rigoni, another second half substitute, on the back post.

If there were some bright spots to the night for Minnesota it was in the play of the team’s three early second half substitutes: Padelford, and newest Loons Teemu Pukki and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, all coming on in the 56th minute. Although he at times still has the decision making of a young defender, Padelford is quietly becoming one of the better of the young Loons. And his first MLS goal, scored too-late and not-enough, is certainly worth celebrating. Connecting with a skimmed-through corner off of Dotson’s head, with his back to goal and so more a deflection than a headed goal, it was luck, yes, but also luck created from effort and so well done.

“I think just throwing my body in between the goal and trying to get my head on something,” he recounted after the game. “You saw it was bouncing around a little odd on that first ball I think [Emanuel] Reynoso was trying to find that front guy and I saw Hassani run near post and I just wanted to get into a spot where I could be behind him, but not too far, but where I could at least run and get some momentum behind it and it just came off really fast and right to my head – quick reaction.”

In their own short appearances, Pukki and Tajouri-Shradi each offered a bit of veteran presence and two quality performances that the team desperately needed on the night.

Minnesota has, in its shorts MLS history, often looked more like a collection of players than a team. If there is promise and hope remaining from the week after the loss, it may well be from that veteran presence, especially as shown by Pukki. This will, of course, remain a team built around the playmaking quality of Reynoso; even on a relatively quiet and disinterested night, his individual skill opened the game for Minnesota and freed the rest of the attack. But for all his brilliance, and for all the ways in which he creates opportunities for those around him, Reynoso does not make this team a team, in the way that, for example, Ike Opara made the 2019 Loons a team. And so although it is early, and it is a very small sample size, and he was brought here simply to score goals, maybe that is the thing the club needs from its most recent DP attempt: a veteran presence to make of these players a team.

With two more games before the All-Star and Leagues Cup regular season breaks, it is a lot to ask in a short amount of time, but this team could be better than it was last night, and if they can figure it out, a late run of joy in a season when almost everyone makes the playoffs is still a thing to hope for.