MNUFC vs LAFC: New Head Chef, Delicious Home Cooking

Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall (15) jumps to head the ball over LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta (20) at the MNUFC v LAFC match on Saturday, March 16, 2024 at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Next Level Chef

This was the first week of Eric Ramsay leading training, and Saturday was his first MNUFC game on the sidelines. Michael Boxall spoke about the coach’s leadership: “It’s tough to do what most coaches would do in six weeks in four days. So he took the basics and similar principles to Cam and [had] a different way of applying them. It’s fun to learn off of different coaches and the first time he is dealing with the management side. Happy with his debut.”

Coach Eric Ramsay was born in England but raised in Wales. Chef Gordon Ramsay (no relation) was born in Scotland but moved to England at age 9. Gordon Ramsay actually moved back to Scotland at age 15 to play with Rangers FC (Glasgow). After three years, a knee injury prevented Gordon Ramsay from pursuing a football career.

“It was a heart-ache. I still love football, though, and I think cooking is like football. It’s not a job, it’s a passion. When you become good at it, it’s a dream job.” — Chef Gordon Ramsay

Although I planned the theme of this article weeks ago, Dave Reidinger who writes for MNUFC also noted the shared family name. He ended his article with “… welcome, Chef [Eric] Ramsay. We can’t wait to watch you cook.”

Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen / Allianz Field

For their home appetizer, Minnesota United FC drew the 2023 MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew. For their next Allianz Field serving, they would need to play the 2023 MLS Cup runners-up. That’s two grills’ worth of competitive heat early in the season, despite the windy cold weather in Minnesota.

On Saturday, March 16, Minnesota United FC welcomed Los Angeles FC to St. Paul, MN. While MNUFC entered MLS in 2017 and LAFC just a year later, LAFC has won two Supporter Shields (2019, 2022) and an MLS Cup (2022). MNUFC’s trophy case has some NASL hardware but is void of MLS-era trophies.

As I wrote in my match preview, the Loons did poorly in the last meeting in October 2023. LAFC won 5-1, but that was at BMO Stadium. The Black-and-Gold have never won in Minnesota. In 2018, Minnesota beat LAFC at then TCF Bank Stadium 5-1. The four matches at Allianz were all 1-1 draws.

Recent 2024 results have favored Minnesota: undefeated with 6 goals and 7 points in 3 matches. LAFC have struggled after beating Seattle to start the season. They lost 3-0 in snowy Sandy, UT, and came up empty in a 0-0 draw against Sporting Kansas City.

Perhaps, previous precedents, whether past postseason or present pluck, should not predict prospective performances. Maybe, muscles, mentality, and muster must mix to mediate a match.

The Contestants

MNUFC Starting XI Front 3: Clark, Pukki, Sang Bin Mid 3: Dotson, Trapp, Lod Back 4: Padelford, Tapias, Boxall, Taylor GK: St. Clair Bench: Irwin, Valentin, Fragapane, Reynoso, Oluwaseyi, Hlongwane, Bran, Arriaga, Eriksson
MNUFC Starting XI (image courtesy: MNUFC twitter)

The (Black and) Blue Team

The Loons starting lineup was exactly identical to the game in Orlando with the exception of Devin Padelford taking red-carded Rosales’ spot. Recovered from a knee issue, Emanuel Reynoso made his first appearance of 2024 in the game-day 20-player roster. Fragapane, who started the season opener in Austin +but has missed the last two games with a thigh injury, rejoined his fellow Argentine on the bench.

LAFC Starting XIGK: Lloris Back 4: Hollingshead, Murillo, Long, Campos Mid 3: Tillman, Sánchez, Atuesta Front 3: Olivera, Bogusz, Bouanga Substitutes: Segura, Palencia, Dueñas, Ordaz, Martínez
LAFC Starting XI (image courtesy: LAFC twitter)

The Red, er Black and Gold, or Pistachio Green Team

Coach Steve Cherundolo started the exact same 4-3-3 as LAFC did for their previous three matches. 2023 Golden Boot winner Dénis Bouanga scored 20 goals in MLS last year. Without Carlos Vela as striker, Cherundolo has opted to put Polish midfielder Mateusz Bogusz in a false-9 role.

Heath Behind Bars the Mic

Before the match, former MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath spoke about Eric Ramsay’s prospects and gave his prediction for the match with LAFC: a Minnesota win.

MasterChef Eric Ramsay

Minnesota United head coach Eric Ramsay looks on while Sang Bin Jeong runs down the right side. Minnesota United and Los Angeles Football Club played MLS matchday 5 at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday, March 16 2023 (Tim McLaughlin)

On Friday, Eric Ramsay emphasized the importance of focusing on what Minnesota United does more than LAFC: “I’ve made this point repeatedly this week about wanting to be a team that isn’t solely focused on the opposition. If you skew too far that way over the course of the 50 games, you’re going to be 50 different versions of yourselves — where I think we want to be really solid around what we do, our principles. And we want to then have a solid 20 [or] 10% focus on what the opposition do.”

The MNUFC roster image above inferred a 4-3-3, which made sense based on previous lineups under Cameron Knowles. However, on the pitch, Lod moved in the central attacking midfield role behind Pukki and between the wings. For much of the game, MNUFC appeared to be playing a 4-2-3-1. At times, Clark or Lod would move along side Pukki to make it a 4-2-2-2 or 4-4-2.

Also new, instead of the Loons pressing the LAFC back four immediately, they defended in a compact but high 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. The Loons were more selective on when they pressed. Michael Boxall said three of the four days of training were all about defense. He later expounded, “The overarching principles [are] about how compact we want to be, how we want to keep squeezing lines, not giving them the space to play between us. That helps the midfielders because at any point in time when the other team is playing into players in those pockets, those pockets are a lot smaller. They’re not trying to cover 20-30 yards. Whenever the [opposing] player gets the ball within our shape, there should be one of us within five, six yards. And we can squeeze it the way we want to squeeze it.”

MasterChef Junior

Minnesota United defender Devin Padelford (2) tries to stop a ball kicked by Cristian Olivera during an MLS match against Los Angeles Football Club at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday, March 16 2023 (Tim McLaughlin)

Both teams started and subbed younger players. For Minnesota, Medina’s own 20-year-old Caden Clark made his third consecutive start at left wing. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Devin Padelford from Woodbury made his first senior team start at left fullback in place of Rosales who served a red card suspension from the Orlando match. 23-year-old Tani Oluwaseyi came off the bench for the fourth consecutive game. Bongokuhle Hlongwane, also 23, subbed on for his second straight match for the Loons.

For the visitors, Omar Campos started at left fullback and Mateusz Bogusz at center forward. 18-year-old David Martínez and 20-year-old Nathan Ordaz both came off the bench. Omar Campos had to deal with dynamic runs and passes all night, especially with Sang Bin Jeong.

Minnesota United attacker Sang Bin Jeong (11) defended by Omar Campos during an MLS match against Los Angeles Football Club at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday, March 16 2023 (Tim McLaughlin)

LAFC attacked down the right side early and often, forcing Clark and Padelford to prove their defensive acumen. In the 32nd minute Clark would earn a yellow card for poking the ball from Tillman as the LAFC midfielder began to take a free kick.

Despite Padelford for the Loons and Campos for LAFC both being tested by more experienced attackers, both did well to defend their corners of the pitch.

Kitchen Nightmares

The Loons were most susceptible to LAFC counterattacks after Minnesota set pieces near Hugo Lloris’ net. In the 7th minute off a recycled corner kick, Devin Padelford lost the ball to Cristian Olivera who dribbled middle, which created space on the right for Dénis Bouanga. Despite DJ Taylor tracking back toward Bouanga and Dotson tracking back centrally, Dayne St. Clair charged aggressively off his line. Bounga had an empty net as he dribbled right, but the prolific goal scorer sent the ball high into the Wonderwall stands.

Less than ten minutes later, the nightmare at Allianz got worse for LAFC. Sang Bin took a corner from the left. LAFC CB Jesús Murillo tried to clear the ball with his head. However, due to Michael Boxall’s contact in the box, Murillo was off balance and could not get much on his header. Also, Murillo was facing middle instead of outside. The ball fell to Lod’s feet and he did not miss.

“We know set pieces are part of the game, and it’s one thing where you can manage to score goals and win the game,” said Lod. “So it’s a high priority for us, and today it worked. I think it [the ball] came perfectly, so it was kind of easy to score. I mean, if I can’t score from five yards, then I have to think about something else [for a career].”

In the 24th minute, Lod tried to return the favor when he served a right-sided corner kick. Sang Bin jumped and redirected the ball with his back heel toward the far upper corner. Hugo Lloris tracked the ball to make the save.

LAFC goalkeeper Hugo Lloris (1) leaps to make a save with Boxall and Murillo near the ball, MNUFC v LAFC match on Saturday, March 16, 2024 at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

At halftime, the Loons led 1-0 over LAFC on a Lod lash of little length. Would the teams cool off in the second half or turn up the heat?

The F Word

Fouls. This match was close, tense, and physical. Early on, in a battle between defensive midfielders, Ilie Sánchez tackled Wil Trapp later than a Los Angeles city bus. On a Loons corner, Tillman and Lod were jostling for position. Lod overran Hollingshead, Sang Bin overran Bogusz; then Bogusz kicked back at Sang Bin. Hollingshead put his arm around Pukki’s neck as Pukki pushed both out of bounds. Who doesn’t want to hug Pukki? Both teams had two yellow cards a piece, but LAFC did win in one statistical category: 17 fouls committed to the Loons’ 15.

Minnesota United midfielder Emanuel Reynso (10) tries to get to the ball controlled by Omar Campos during an MLS match against Los Angeles Football Club at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday, March 16 2023 (Tim McLaughlin)

Food Substitution Stars

As Cameron Knowles did previously, Ramsay made subs to keep the pace and intensity at a high level. Fans were excited to see the Argentine duo of Fragapane and Reynoso sub on in the 61st minute. Less than ten minutes later Oluwaseyi and Hlongwane entered the game. The Loons kept the 4-2-3-1 with Rey at the #10, Fragapane and Bongi on the wings, and Oluwaseyi up top.

In the 88th minute, Wil Trapp collected an errant pass by LAFC and passed back to Miguel Tapias. Tapias sent a lonnnnnng ball over middle of the field. LAFC center back sub Eddie Segura did not back up and keep the ball in front of him. Rather, he attempted to stick a leg out to impede the ball. The ball missed his leg and fell to an on-running Bongi, who scored. Bongi has now scored in two consecutive matches off the bench.

The Loons won 2-0. Dayne St. Clair got his first clean sheet — and perhaps Bouanga heeded St. Clair’s request that he not play as good as last time.

Minnesota United goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair (97) punches the ball off an LAFC corner kick at the MNUFC v LAFC match on Saturday, March 16, 2024 at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

Coach Ramsay: Uncharted

After the Loons lost 5-1 to LAFC last October 4, Adrian Heath and Mark Watson were let go by the club. The last time Minnesota fans sang “Wonderwall” at Allianz field was three days later against the LA Galaxy.

“Yeah, I mean it’s the best feeling to sing with the fans and it’s been a while when we sing [it] the last time. As you said, last season wasn’t the best at home, so I’m really pleased for the victory today.” — Robin Lod

Supporters in the Wonderwall standing-only section hold up scarves saying
Minnesota United fans celebrate a 2-0 win over Los Angeles Football Club in an MLS match at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday, March 16 2023 (Tim McLaughlin)

Coach Ramsay has his own history with “Wonderwall” going back to his days at Loughborough University. “When we won the British university championship with my team, that [Wonderwall] was also the song that was sung after [wins], and as the night went on, ten more times.” When asked how the song at Allianz compares to his university days, the coach remarked, “It is significantly better I would say.”

MNUFC players celebrate their victory with the fans after the MNUFC v LAFC match on Saturday, March 16, 2024 at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Lake / Lake Photography)

When a Spanish news outlet asked him how the supporters made him feel tonight, Ramsay remarked in Spanish, “It is absolutely phenomenal. It is almost like a dream come true in that sense, mainly because all the supporters talk about the atmosphere here. And for me, it is still so early in my time here to win, so this is huge, absolutely huge.”

The Loons, under Cameron Knowles and Eric Ramsay, are undefeated: 3 wins and 1 draw. They start 2024 with an MLS-era best 10 points and are in first place in the West.

10 Days to Gel and Back

Six Loons leave for International competition: Michael Boxall, Robin Lod, Teemu Pukki, Dayne St. Clair, Joseph Rosales, and Alejandro Bran. They will have a short time to gel with their compatriots in their respective competitions before returning to Minnesota.

The next Minnesota United game is away at Philadelphia Union on March 30. Like LAFC, Philadelphia will be hungry for a win having three draws in three leagues games thus far. What will Chef Eric Ramsay cook up for them? Stay tuned to Northland Soccer Journal and taste what’s next.


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