Leagues Cup Recap: MNUFC Beats Deportivo Toluca In Shootout to Advance to Quarterfinals

On a gorgeous Tuesday evening in St Paul, Minnesota United FC did what no other club had managed to do thus far in the Leagues Cup tournament – hold Club Deportivo Toluca goalless in a first half. The Loons also handed el Diablos their first loss of the tournament, sending them home on penalties. For Minnesota, this match had it all: An impressive start, a typical lapse, a strange ejection, and ultimately a thunderous rendition of Wonderwall.

While MNUFC was lucky to squeeze by Columbus Crew in a penalty shootout to make the Round of 16, Toluca finished all three previous matches with four goals, including a 4-1 rout at Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round. The Loons looked to change that script. Head coach Adrian Heath made just one change from the win in Columbus, replacing rightback Zarek Valentin with DJ Taylor. His back four set up in a low block, with wingbacks Taylor and Joseph Rosales free to work the wings to some extent without leaving centerbacks Michael Boxall and Micky Tapias stranded and outmanned. Wil Trapp and Dotson assisted the effort, putting the offensive onus on Emanuel Reynoso & Co. With this posture, the Loons easily deflected some shots and forced others to be taken to quickly and/or poorly. This left plenty of opportunities for counterattacks.

“I’m trying to think of the first half if they had any clear cut chances? Yeah, off his chest, near-post. For the amount of possession that they had, that was pretty good from our point of view. But I knew that we would get opportunities on the break,” Heath said. “I knew that, we studied them, we watched all the games they’ve played, not only here, but also their games down in Mexico. With the ball, they’re really really good. Without the ball, I feel in transition moments you can really get after them and we did that very, very well in the first half.”

Rosales was probably not in anyone’s list of Top 5 Loons Most Likely to Score vs Toluca, but that’s what a defend-and-counter posture gets you. Reynoso could have taken this one himself and was probably looking for another run, but Rosales was there and he made no mistake with his finish.

But a 1-0 lead is never safe at Allianz Field, especially when it comes in just the 13th minute.

Enter: Bongokuhle “Bongi” Hlongwane.

The South African winger, together with Reynoso and Teemu Pukki, had numerous opportunities in the first half, but Bongi was the one who finally connected, putting Minnesota up 2-0 in the 32′, and the goal was pure joy, top to bottom.

It also brought him level, again, with Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi in the Leagues Cup Golden Boot race, a fact unique enough to warrant a mention from MNUFC’s PA announcer, Tony DeLorenzo.

A 2-0 scoreline against Toluca at halftime was impressive from Minnesota, especially since the MLS side had only a quarter-share of possession through those 45 minutes. Purposeful possession is finally becoming less of an end-goal and more a mission statement for the Loons’ playmakers. If that trend continues beyond the tournament and into league play, the risks and distractions of the midseason Leagues Cup will all be worth it.

However, as Minnesota started to gain in their possession percentage in the second half, Toluca suddenly made the most of their share. For the second time on the night, a defender opened his team’s scoring. Captain Valber Huerta gave El Diablos life in the 66′, after an exceptional defensive display from the Loons, jumping on a ball after no fewer than three Loons had parried shots away from Dayne St Clair’s box. Huerta’s clean finish halved the Loons’ lead and Toluca was rolling.

Play got chippy and the Loons became distracted. A poor decision by Hassani Dotson, a high arm to the face of his mark in the box, led to the midfielder’s second yellow on the night. Not only was he ejected (following VAR), Toluca was awarded a penalty kick. Goalkeeper Tiago Volpi stepped up – like, 80 yards up – to convert and it was a level game in the 75th minute.

A lot happened in the remaining 15+7 minutes of regulation: A noncontact injury to Reynoso, who somehow stayed in the game, lots of Toluca cornerkicks and even a couple Minnesota cornerkicks, an offside goal by Bongi, more yellows all around, cheers and boos, jeers and cheers, fights, more fouls, many Toluca subs and few Minnesota subs…

And then – the shootout.

While Volpi set a tone with his cool, collected finish, Huerta’s was stopped by St. Clair and Morales’ went off the post. Sang Bin Jeong, who entered the match late for Pukki, got the honor of sending in the decisive shot.

Heath: “To force people to take penalties when maybe they don’t want one, I don’t see the point. I knew Boxy [Michael Boxall] would take one. I knew Joseph Rosales would take one. Sang’s [Bin Jeong]  been taking them in training and he’s looked really really comfortable so I was pleased for him. That will do his confidence no end of good as well.”

Since a coin toss sent the shootout to the Brew Hall end, the Loons got to celebrate twice: The penalty takers first at that end of the pitch, then the entire squad in front of the Wonderwall as the stadium sang.

Now MNUFC is off to the quarterfinals. They will play Nashville SC away, at GEODIS Park, on Friday night. Nashville beat Club América in a penalty shootout on Tuesday night. Despite Club América initially claiming the spot, set to move on to face MNUFC at Allianz Field on Saturday, VAR ruled that the final penalty would be retaken — And Nashville won.

Note: The freshly re-signed Jan Gregus, acquired this past week from Nashville SC, is not eligible to play for MNUFC in Leagues Cup play. The midfielder suited up for Nashville in previous rounds so he is “cup-tied” to that club.