MNUFC’s Home Opener: A Soccer Wars Story

Much of soccer or journalism or life is about celebrating tradition and starting new traditions. As I approached Allianz Field from the parking lot of the storefront formerly known as Apollo Locksmith, I stumbled into my first interview of the day: Northland Soccer photographer Tim McLaughlin. He was finishing some Culver’s frozen custard — some caramel and chocolate, maybe turtle deliciousness. He explained it was the “Flavor of the Day.” He explained that he always gets the Flavor of the Day frozen custard on MNUFC home game days. It’s tradition.

On Saturday, March 2, 2024, Minnesota United competed in their eighth home opener of their MLS existence. The team has come a long way from that 1-6 loss to Atlanta United in 2017 at then TCF Bank Stadium. Allianz Field has been the Loons’ home for the last five seasons. While the stadium is familiar, the club has rebuilt their sporting side with a new Sporting Director, a promoted interim head coach, and new head coach on the way. There were a lot of story lines of old and new, past and present. Was the game itself an epic worthy of space opera narratives? Maybe; maybe not. As a primarily lower league soccer writer, I felt like a lost farm boy who took his first step into a larger world.

Caravan of Courage: A Starting Lineup Adventure

As the caravan of referees and players entered the field, I was struggling to access the press box wifi. There was another journalist in my seat because someone was in his seat. I had no time to grab bratwurst, chicken ‘n’ waffles, or fresh fruit — even if I did have time, I had no space to put it. I was in a new-to-me press box, but something felt old and familiar. Home openers are bigger, busier, buzzier.

Starting Lineups for Minnesota United and Columbus Crew for the 2024 Home Opener — courtesy of MLS

MNUFC Starting XI

Like last week, Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Emanuel Reynoso (knee) were out. Unlike last week, Robin Lod (leg) and Fragapane (thigh) were not available.  Kervin Arriaga was on the bench, back from a knee injury that kept him out of the season opener in Austin.

Coach Cameron Knowles kept the 4-3-3 formation. After subbing into the game last week, Caden Clark and Alejandro Bran make their first starts for the Loons. Clark filled in at left wing for Fragapane. On Tuesday, the native of Medina, MN anticipated this would be his first time at Allianz playing as a Loon:

“Yeah, it’s gonna be a special day for me. I have a lot of family friends coming out to the game. I’m just going to embrace it, probably get a little emotional.”

Minnesota United midfielder Caden Clark (37) during an MLS match against the Columbus Crew at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday, March 2nd, 2024 (Tim McLaughlin)

While the central midfield was fluid, Dotson was mostly in the right mid spot that Lod occupied last week. Bran was mostly on the left. Knowles said this about Clark and Bran subbing last week and starting this week: “They were great. We are missing a couple of guys, and the mentality of just ‘next man up.’ Those guys came into the last game and did well, and I thought they were great to start the game.”

Wil Trapp anchoring the center midfield, Dayne St. Clair in net, and a returning back four in between them provided consistency at the back. After the game, St. Clair reflected on that chemistry:

“Joe’s [Joseph Rosales] played there [left fullback] a little bit in the past, but I think he’s adapted very well to the position, and we had a lot of comfort from the other guys that played there. We played a lot of games together last year, so we have that connection of knowing each other, and I think Joe’s done brilliantly. I think the connection between Micky [Miguel Tapias] and Joe being able to speak Spanish to each other obviously helps. Wil’s rotations, his leadership and just staying in there and being in the right spot to help the back line. And I think Boxy [Michael Boxall], especially today, did a great job of stepping in and winning a lot of those balls because their [Columbus Crew] 10’s [attacking midfielders] were really dropping. And we said that we’re going to go and press them. So winning those balls in the midfield really helped put the pressure on the guys in front of them.”

Columbus Crew Starting XI

Coach Wilfried Nancy kept the 3-4-2-1 formation from last week’s 1-0 win against Atlanta United in Columbus’ home opener. 2024 MLS Cup MVP Cucho Hernández started up top while dynamic attacker Diego Rossi moved to the left wing.

Two changes from last week: Max Arfsten started at right midfield/wingback, and Alexandru Mățan started at right wing.

MNUFC GK Dayne St. Clair praised their playing style: “I think the way they [Columbus Crew] play their front three is so fluid. They put [our] backline in uncomfortable situations because their front three are so narrow. They are willing to send their wingbacks forward very early sometimes.…That’s why we have to pin them back and play a little bit more direct than what we wanted to but that’s what the game needed in the moment.”

“You look absolutely beautiful. You truly belong here with us among the clouds.”

Matthe Eide, head of the East Coast Dark Clouds twitter account came up with the concept for this tifo, using a quote from Vincent Van Gogh and new Minnesota state flag but with a Minnesota United six-point star. The supporters that make up The Wonderwall put a lot of volunteer hours on this tifo.

Supporters in the Wonderwall hoist up a tifo before the match between Minnesota United and Columbus Crew at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, March 2, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

I had chance to talk to long-time Minnesota soccer fan Justin Paul who now lives in Columbus, OH. He recounted going to the James Griffen Stadium (St. Paul Central HS) to watch the Minnesota Thunder and Best Western’s Sweetwater Bar afterward. Justin Paul moved to Columbus after owner Anthony Precourt left to start Austin FC, but said, “The remnants of the ‘Save the Crew’ movement where there.” He further explained that posters and stickers that said “Save the Crew” were “still in shops.” He also mentioned the “Respect your Roots” mural on Hudson St. Scroll down to see it here. He said it was fun to watch Columbus win it all last year, but today, “I wanted to see Wonderwall here for the first time.”

Attack of the High Press

The up-tempo, high press of Minnesota created three attacking chances in the opening ten minutes. This included a ball won by DJ Taylor, who passed to Sang Bin Jeong. The Korean attacker threaded the needle through several Columbus defenders to hit Teemu Pukki. However, Patrick Schulte was there to make the save for the Crew.

“It started last week, it instills belief in the players, that it can be effective, we can create chances from it. Then it just starts to snowball. The test this week, today, is they [Columbus Crew] are so good at playing out of the back. They average 57 percent possession coming into this. They like to play; they like to take risks with the ball. I’m really proud of the group [Minnesota United], they stuck with it. They stuck with the plan. They are brave. You see how high some of those defenders are stepping to get pressure and to take your runners and to win challenges and just make it difficult for Columbus to play, it was fantastic.” — Cameron Knowles

In the 33rd minute, Columbus created attacks doing Columbus things: working the ball from their midfielders out wide to their outside midfielders/backs and back into the box. In the 33rd minute, Rossi passed forward to an overlapping Moreira, who crossed to Cucho. Cucho found space between DJ Taylor and Boxall to head the ball, but St. Clair made an incredible save.

“Cucho obviously makes a good run [while] DJ is trying to call Boxy [Michael Boxall] late on but because DJ calls Boxy, I’m able to check my shoulder and know where he’s [Cucho] at. I think I get to a good spot when the ball is about to be hit and then try to make myself as big as possible and it [the ball] just goes off my knee.” — Dayne St. Clair

Moments later, Cucho hit a long pass to Max Arfsten, which required another save from Minnesota goalkeeper. Ten minutes later, Rossi got a shot off, but did not get a lot on it. St. Clair saved it easily.

After training on Friday, I had the chance to interview the MNUFC Academy Goalkeeper Coach Cristiano Costa who has been the interim goalkeeper coach. He remarked, “Working with St. Clair has been very good because he’s a very good guy, a guy that likes to work. He wants to put the work into it. And I think the reward is whenever he plays, you can see those big saves. [The] amazing saves that he makes is because he put the work into it.”


Matthew Johnson of Northland Soccer Journal interviews Minnesota United goalkeeper coach Cristiano Costa after a training session at the National Sports Complex in Blaine, Minn., on Friday, March 1, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

The Phantom Menace

Long time Minnesota soccer supporter Bruce McGuire said, “They came out with a little Heath flatness to start the 2nd half.”

Coach Knowles had this to say on the possible dip during the second halves of both games this year: “It’s hard what these guys are doing. They’re putting so much energy into the way they play, and it is early in the season. We’re seven, eight weeks into playing like this? So one, their fitness will continue to build that resiliency to minutes. I think you see across the league in these first couple of games, there’s general fatigue. Even Columbus [Crew] showed a little bit [of fatigue] … towards the end of the first half. It’s difficult, and the guys are working hard. I am just really pleased that they keep putting that effort in every day and every week.”

Early in the second half, former loon Christian Ramirez hit a cross to Cucho who sent in another header. Again, St. Clair made the save, this time with his mitts. Max Arfsten’s put the rebound in the net, but was called for being offside.

In the 59th minute, Arfsten switched the field over to Yeboah, who had a jumping, left-insole one-touch to Cucho who was wide open again. Cucho used his feet this time and scored from just outside the 18-yard box, MNUFC 0 – 1 Columbus Crew.

Return of the Ramirez

Columbus Crew forward Christian Ramirez (17) during an MLS at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Saturday, March 2nd, 2024 (Tim McLaughlin)

Former Columbus player Wil Trapp wasn’t the only one playing his old club on Saturday. Former Loons striker Christian Ramirez returned to Minnesota. When he subbed on at the start of the second half, the home crowd cheered and clapped. Many of us in Minnesota remember his attacking play over the years, which included 50 goals in NASL and 21 in MLS for Minnesota United. Various reasons including trades, the MLS Schedule, injury, the pandemic, and playing in Scotland meant this was the first time Christian Ramirez played in Allianz Field.

For more on Christian Ramirez, read Andy Greder’s feature in the Pioneer Press.

The Rise of Substitutes

Minnesota United midfielder Moses Nyman (44) kicks the ball during the match against the Columbus Crew at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, March 2, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

Around the 61st minute, Tani Oluwaseyi and Loïc Mesanvi subbed into the game for the second week in a row. In the 71st minute, Kervin Arriaga relieved Trapp, and Moses Nyeman made his Loons debut.

In the 78th minute, Nyeman would hit Sang Bin on the outside. Columbus defensive midfielder and captain Darlington Nagbe interrupted Sang Bin’s run, but Nyeman took the ball and crossed to Oluwaseyi. Oluwaseyi headed the ball over to Mesanvi who one-timed a shot. Schulte closed the blast door faster than stormtroopers on the Death Star.

In 83rd minute, Knowles would make his last substitution. The 23-year-old Nigerian-English American forward Jordan Adebayo Smith made his Loons debut, too.

The Loons Strike Back

In the 95th minute, Joseph Rosales sent a long throw-in toward the left side of the 18-yard box. Loïc Mesanvi impressively out-leapt his mark, but Columbus defender Moreira headed it forward. Arriaga headed back toward the 6-yard box. Tapias got a head on it. The ball deflected off Columbus left back Amundsen and drifted right. After the ball hit five different heads, Tani Oluwaseyi collected it, spun to improve his angle slightly and scored in the far corner of the net. Allianz Field erupted with all the emotions. Final whistle blew shortly after, and the match ended in a 1-1 draw.

Tani related what was going through his mind during the throw-in: “I’m looking at it as Joe is going, and it’s just ticked down to 94 [minutes], and I keep looking at the ref to make sure he’s not moving the whistle to his lips. When I saw that wasn’t happening, then I said, okay we’re going to get one more [chance], and I just tried to be in a position where either I could hit the ball first time off a clearance or in that case take a touch and go for goal.”

Supporters celebrate after Minnesota United forward Tani Oluwaseyi (14) scores a goal in the final seconds of the match to draw 1-1 with the Columbus Crew at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, March 2, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

“I knew I’d beat him [GK Patrick Schulte] to the ball. The next decision in my head was whether or not he would stay behind or if he would run back to his net. As soon as he ran back in the net, the only thing in my mind was to get a shot off and kind of live with the results.” — Tani Oluwaseyi

Coach Knowles said of Tani scoring and the importance of playing to the whistle: “You have to [play until the final whistle]. I think one of the guidelines from the referees this year was that they are going to play all the time and that the time was going to be shown in the stadium. They are going to add time, and expect stoppage time to be longer. So for our guys to keep going until that final whistle, to keep believing, ‘One more chance, one more chance,’ was great.”

A New Hope: Youth and Substitutions

“But ultimately [what I want is] alignment from top to bottom, from owners all the way to the academy. If you would walk in, I just tore tore down a wall that was  separating Academy to the first team. That one is gone.” — Khaled El-Ahmad

Tani Oluwaseyi spoke to the youth subbing into the last two games: “So far so good. The first game the three subs combined for a goal. And in this game I come off the bench, and I get a goal. I think that every guy that has come on has been locked in on what the goal is for us, and we’ve done a good job of coming on and contributing on both sides of the ball. And it’s worked out so far, so hopefully, it just continues to go well for the guys coming off the bench.”

Minnesota United interim head coach Cameron Knowles has a laugh during the post match press conference after drawing with Columbus Crew 1-1 at Allianz Field in Saint Paul, Minn., on Saturday, March 2, 2024.
(Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography)

Cameron Knowles said, “Again, subs came in and changed the game for us. [They] brought energy, brought life to the game, forcing turnovers in dangerous areas. The boys got rewarded with a point in the end. It’s fantastic for them and fantastic for the supporters who stuck with us as well.”

Coming Soon …

The Heath Wars

On Saturday, March 9, Minnesota United will travel to Orlando to compete in the now Heath-less Derby. It will be the first time since 2007 that Heath is not the manager of either franchise. Not counting preseason friendlies, MNUFC have 2 wins, 2 loses, and 1 draw against Orlando City SC.

The Spring Awakens

Minnesota United returns to Allianz Field on March 16 to host LAFC followed by a Wednesday friendly against St. Patrick’s Athletic, who compete in the top Irish division. What old traditions will continue? What new traditions will begin? Northland Soccer is here for the soccer storylines, epic or otherwise.