MNUFC stun hosts and league with 2-1 win at Austin FC

Minnesota United FC opened the 2024 MLS season at Austin’s Q2 Stadium on Saturday night, pulling off a stunning 2-1 win over hosts Austin FC. It was the clubs’ eighth meeting, the win being the Loons’ fourth all-time against the side and only their second win in an away meeting. Finnish winger Robin Lod punctuated his return to club play by scoring the opening goal and a quartet of youngsters, three of them debutantes, combined for the second goal, illustrating what can happen when a club invests in and trusts in the development of young local talent. The match also served to buoy the hopes of fans frustrated with a lackluster offseason and the lack of a permanent head coach.

Interim head coach Cameron Knowles rolled out the 4-3-3 Minnesota worked on throughout preseason. While the preseason results were nothing special, lending some credibility to loud concerns that the ‘coachless’ squad would struggle from the jump, the formation did seem to allow each regular starter to shine in their own style of play without clashing too hard with the game plan and a high, quick press meant that the attack controlled its own destiny.

That was precisely what we saw from the first half in Austin, in which MNUFC tallied a single-half record 11 cornerkicks (the previous record was 9) and outshot Austin 14-2 (7-1 on goal), entirely neutralizing a threatening Austin FC squad. Gyasi Zardes’ name did not even appear in the match feed until the 21st minute when he got his head on a corner serve but missed the goal. By that time, the Loons had tallied 2 missed chances (Hassani Dotson 6′, Sang Bin Jeong 16′), hit the woodwork twice and forced Austin goalkeeper Brad Stuver to make 3 saves (Franco Fragapane 12′, Teemu Pukki 12′, Sang Bin 15′).

With the match still scoreless and having struck the woodwork once already, Robin Lod got another opportunity in front of goal in the 34th minute, making good on the squad’s tenth shot of the night. It was a big goal for the Finn who had not scored since May of 2022 and had not worn the Black-and-Blue since May of 2023. It also brought his all-time regular season goal tally to 23 — the most of any Loon in the club’s MLS era.


The hosts did find a spark before halftime when Austin’s Ethan Finlay (formerly of MNUFC) registered his side’s first shot on goal in the first minute of added time but Finlay and his teammates went to the dressing room looking like a shadow of themselves, frustrated by the unexpected persistence of the Loons.

In the second half, Austin clawed their way into Minnesota’s third on multiple occasions and even found opportunities to get some extracurriculars going inside the penalty area. Emiliano Rigoni, Alex Ring, and Owen Wolff were especially troublesome and became more, er, troublesome as the night wore on. After a cluster of chances inside the box in the 63rd were stifled by the Loons’ defense, the clashes in front of goal became a bit more personal.

But the Loons did not fall apart. Knowles re-energized his side by replacing Lod and Pukki with Alejandro Bran and Tani Oluwaseyi just before the 70th minute. Oluwaseyi played under Knowles for MNUFC2 in 2022 and was a common sight on stretched first-team benches before spending 2023 out on loan, but it was Bran’s first MLS appearance. Fewer than 10 minutes later, they were joined by the newly acquired Caden Clark and Loic Mesanvi, who joined MNUFC2 in 2023 and traveled to Austin as a short-term loanee (replacing Fragapane and Sang Bin, respectively). Knowles had made no secret of his willingness to play the kids, emphasizing through last week that anyone appearing on the pitch had earned it, and it paid off on Saturday night.

All four players troubled an exhausted Austin backline. Mesanvi dribbled into and through multiple defenders in Austin’s third on several occasions, opening space for trailing runs. He did this so many times from the left that when Clark made a run down the Loons’ right, Oluwaseyi and Bran found gaps easily. In the 90+1′, with Mesanvi trailing on the left, Clark sprinted up the right channel and found Oluwaseyi open and ready for the ball. He clipped it past a sliding Stuver just yards from the goal line, finding Bran mid-sprint. Goal.

It was a rare and refreshing moment for a club that is not known for trusting young players in big moments. But Knowles, who has coached two of the quartet and saw promise in the others through preseason, said:

“We’ve got to trust them. They’ve earned a lot of trust tonight over the way they came into the game. We added Loïc [Mesanvi] to the roster, and he comes into the game, and obviously there are nerves, then you’ve got Alejandro Bran, first time playing in the league game. These guys, to come into a game that are young but fearless in the way they played. It’s really exciting and sort of bodes well for the future.”

The game wasn’t over. Just seconds away from a 2-0 clean sheet, Dayne St Clair found himself caught out when Wolff fed Guilherme Biro for an easy, untouchable finish in the 90+5′. Biro’s goal was the last touch of the game, sparing the favored hosts their blushes. But a 2-1 win awards the same three points as a 2-0 win and the Loons were more than happy to take them home.

The biggest surprise may have been the fact that the Loons never let up and instead kept up the pressure through 90 minutes, even after Austin came out of the break looking far livelier than in the first, and into added time. Conceding a consolation goal in the last second is far better than losing a lead late in regulation – or inside the first ten minutes. Dotson credited that performance to the coaching staff’s approach:

“We did a lot of video throughout the week, and I think he [Cameron Knowles] tried to instill a lot of confidence in the group. Believe in yourself. And they’re [coaching staff] open to any changes or any questions that we had, for us to feel like we were a part of it, we have a voice, and that we’re all going through this together. I think he had a good game plan and once you see the game plan start to work, everyone gets a little more encouraged, a little more energy, a little more bite. We came out with the win today – couldn’t be more pleased.”

Despite their coachless appearance, this is a squad that has worked hard to find themselves and an identity — something that the team has lacked for much of their MLS tenure. With the arrival of a permanent head coach in Eric Ramsay imminent (He surely has thoughts on the Loons’ record high 15 corner kicks), there are sure to be more changes and shake-ups in the squad’s near future. However, Knowles has earned the trust of the squad.

“When we started 40 days ago that first day, first meeting we had with the players, it was about, ‘let’s focus on what we can control’. We know there’s going to be a lot of noise,” he reflected after the win, one that was unexpected by many. “There was a lot of noise about the new interim coming in, then we have noise surrounding what’s going to happen, and what’s the appointment going to be, and we just have to get on with it. We said from day one, the rest of the league won’t wait for us. We have to just continue one day at a time, one week at a time putting that together. So yes there has been noise, but within the confines of the training group, we have, and the broader staff, have done an outstanding job of just keeping the guys on task, and the guys have done an outstanding job of just working every day.”

The work paid off in an opening week that saw Emmanuel Reynoso sidelined by a re-aggravated knee injury and Bongi Hlongwane unavailable due to a now-resolved visa issue. It paid off when four young players, including three debutantes, subbed on late and took ownership of the pitch. It paid off when opponents started chirping as the tension of a close game rose. It paid off when a last-gasp goal did not sink more than 95 minutes of full-team effort. It paid off when they brought 3 points home from Austin, TX, for only the second time ever.

One match down. 33 to go.

MNUFC will return home to Allianz Field on Saturday, March 2, for a matinee meeting with last year’s MLS Cup Champions, Christian Ramirez & Company – otherwise known as Columbus Crew. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 PM CST (1:09 PM actual). Follow Northland Soccer Journal for coverage.


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