A Wild Week for MNUFC Ends with Historic Goal Boost

MNUFC celebrating during the match between Minnesota United and the LA Galaxy at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, MN, on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Isaac Furey)

Minnesota United FC fit a month’s worth of headlines into four days last week, starting on Wednesday with a loss to LAFC. The dismal result was followed by the dismissal of long-time head coach Adrian Heath, announced early Friday. On Saturday, amid an in-house broadcast crew strike, the Loons capped off the crazy week with a massive 5-2 victory over the LA Galaxy to keep Minnesota alive in the playoff hunt.

Wednesday, October 4: LAFC 5-1 MNUFC

The Loons opened the week with the first of two straight matches against Los Angeles clubs, a Wednesday night clash away to LAFC. MNUFC entered the the match winless in their last six, while LAFC came in off a loss to Real Salt Lake. MNUFC continued their traditional hot start, with Hassani Dotson finishing off a very odd play with a headed goal to put the Loons up 1-0 just four minutes into the match.

However, the lead did not hold long. Two minutes after Dotson’s tally, Dénis Bouanga scored the equalizing goal for LA. He followed that with two more, in the 36′ and 45+1′, completing a fast hat trick and giving LAFC a 3-1 lead at the half. A 46′ own goal by Miguel Tapias widened the lead to 4-1 for the hosts and LAFC capped the night with another goal in the 67′, this time from Filip Krastev, to send the Loons back to Minnesota with a 5-1 defeat.

“I’m incredibly disappointed with the performance, with individuals. The second best in every facet of the game: poor with the ball, even poorer without it,” Adrian Heath said. “Five [goals] probably flattered us a little bit. A bad night. I take full responsibility for that performance. We’ll go again.”

Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath 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)

Friday, October 6: Heath, Watson dismissed

On Friday, Minnesota United dismissed manager Adrian Heath and technical director Mark Watson. Heath was only the third coach in MNUFC history and was the only club’s only coach in its seven-year MLS tenure. Mark Watson who, with Heath, joined the club ahead of its inaugural MLS season in 2017, served as assistant coach until being promoted to technical director following the end of the 2019 season (when MNUFC made the US Open Cup final).

“We are grateful to Adrian for his dedication to our club and for all that we have accomplished over the last seven seasons. This was a difficult decision, but we believe that the time is right to move in a new direction,” said CEO Shari Ballard in the club’s press release.

Heath compiled a 91-101-56 in all competitions, beginning and ending his tenure with 5-1 losses on the road. In the club’s inaugural MLS match, played away at Portland on March 3, Christian Ramirez scored the Loons’ lone goal in the 79th minute, making it a 2-1 game before MNUFC gave up a 82nd minute penalty and then two stoppage time goals from Fanendo Adi to end their inaugural MLS match with a 5-1 loss.

Heath and Watson’s fortunes have been tied since 2014 when they were hired as coach/assistant by then-USL Pro Orlando City and dismissed by the franchise in 2016 after two seasons in MLS. Watson’s first big move as technical director was the acquisition of Paraguayan striker Luis Amarilla ahead of the 2020 season. Though Amarilla’s impact was nowhere near his promised goal tally (stifled first by the COVID-19 halt and then by injury), he was a symbol of the next phase of what the club called its “Three-Year Plan”.

With two matches left to play in Year Seven, 2023, assistant coach Sean McAuley takes the lead as interim head coach.

Saturday, October 7 (Morning): In-house broadcast union announces strike

After nearly eight months of failed negotiations, MNUFC’s in-house broadcast crew, members of the IATSE Local 745 union, announced a strike on the the morning of the club’s last home match of the season. The video technicians have been bargaining for improved safety conditions and a small health benefits contribution, among other things and used the final home match of 2023 to send a message after negotiations had stalled.

Members of the club’s supporters groups showed their support on social media and by visiting the picket line, as well as wearing red and holding pro-union signs in the stands. Few people outside of the stadium, however, saw those signs as a number of their coworkers (also union members with separate contracts negotiated in 2022) refused to cross the picket line, forcing the club to reduce the number of cameras used for both the stadium video board and the broadcast.

An anonymous member of the union told Northland Soccer Journal that the group received no communication from the club on matchday. Instead, MNUFC announced that there would be no match feed on Apple/MLS Season Pass and that they would instead stream to the MLS website and make highlights available for Apple’s MLS 360 show. The biggest match of the season – the first without Heath, the final home match with playoff implications – could not be seen or analysed in full.

NSJ will be following up on this developing story in the coming days and weeks and will publish updates to the MNUFC Union’s negotiations as they become available.

Pukki evading a defender during the match between Minnesota United and the LA Galaxy at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, MN, on Saturday, October 7, 2023. (Photo by Isaac Furey)

Saturday, October 7 (Evening): MNUFC 5-2 LA Galaxy

The Loons wrapped up a hectic few days with their final home match of the season against the Los Angeles Galaxy. Interim manager Sean McAuley made a few changes to MNUFC’s Starting XI, swapping three players. Zarek Valentin and Bakaye Dibassy replaced Ethan Bristow and DJ Taylor at left- and right back, respectively. Additionally Ján Greguš got his 9th start of the season replacing Kervin Arriaga at defensive midfield next to Wil Trapp. After a hot start at LAFC on Wednesday, it took 33 minutes for Minnesota to get on the board. Once again it was Hassani Dotson scoring the opener, this time on a loose bouncing ball inside the six, to give Minnesota the first lead. The Galaxy tied the match in the 41st minute on a goal from Tyler Boyd, but right before halftime Teemu Pukki put Minnesota up again and it was the Pukki show from there.

Pukki tacked on a brace in the 60′ and completed a hat trick just seven minutes after to put MNUFC up 4-1. The forward added on one more goal, in the 76th minute, to bring his tally to 4 on the night and 10 on the season. Pukki is just the third MNUFC player, in the MLS era, to tally ten goals in one season (Emanuel Reynoso – 2022, Darwin Quintero – 2019) and is just one goal shy of Quintero’s second-best MNUFC tally of 11 goals (2018)

“There was a lot of space and we played really well. I think, in the last games that we had played before this, we had played well, but we hadn’t been able to get so many chances,” Pukki said. “I think today we were creating one after another. We could have scored even more goals.”

The massive win over the LA Galaxy keeps Minnesota’s playoff hopes alive ahead of  the upcoming international break and decision day. MNUFC will send six players out on international duty: Michael Boxall (New Zealand), Dayne St. Clair (Canada), Bongokuhle Hlongwane (South Africa), Teemu Pukki (Finland), Kervin Arriaga (Honduras), and Zarek Valentin (Puerto Rico). Following the international break, Minnesota will head south to face Sporting Kansas City in their final match of the 2023 regular season. In order to make the playoffs the Loons will need to win their match and get some help, in the form of losses for both Portland and San Jose to make up the points gap. While this spot is far from ideal, the 5-2 resurgence at home gives Minnesota a chance that seemed unreachable on Wednesday.