After the ridiculous nature of Minnesota United’s previous two games, Wednesday’s midweek affair at Allianz Field had a more restrained feel to it from the opening whistle. The weather was warm and turned to a spring shower before the game’s end, and a new-look lineup had the new stadium’s second game under much more control.
The changes that Adrian Heath was forced to make by the suspensions of Francisco Calvo and Jan Greguš bore fruit on the defensive end, as Minnesota registered their first clean sheet in six matches, but the Loons failed to score for the first time this season and the points were split with the Los Angeles Galaxy in a 0-0 draw.
Heath’s changes were almost always going to trend more defensively. Eric Miller was drafted in for Calvo for his first minutes of the season, and Miller is significantly less likely to make the forward runs (and be caught out of position) than Calvo. Similarly, Rasmus Schüller’s shift back to his natural position in central midfield unlocked his defensive prowess in Greguš’s place.
The change in the attacking lineup featured a new alignment around Darwin Quintero and Ángelo Rodríguez, with Abu Danladi on the right and Kevin Molino, making his first start in 13 months, on the left. Ethan Finlay slipped to the bench, and the spotlight would be on Danladi’s role.
For their part, the Los Angeles threat came most clearly in a single name: Zlatan Ibrahomvic. The Galaxy’s legendary Swedish striker did not appear in the first meeting between these teams in 2019, but had been in exceptional form coming into this game, with goals in four straight wins for his club.
As the game began, the Galaxy had the best of the opening play, but the sharpness of Minnesota’s defense in responding to threats and removing them was notable, with Schüller an early standout. Ibrahimovic missed a cross and slipped in the Minnesota box, and his frustration with the Allianz Field grass drew boos, not least because of his loud annoyance with turf fields.
Minnesota grew into the game, and it became obvious that even with a new partner in the attack, Romain Métanire’s work on the right side of the field would create the openings they needed. Métanire and Danladi combined to great effect to nudge and prod at the Galaxy defense, with both finding chances to sling crosses into the box.
Danladi himself had one of the best chances of the first half, sprinting through on goal on a Quintero pass, but his touch failed at the critical moment and was far too heavy, straight into David Bingham’s arms. The United pressure continued, and the drawing of corners provided some of their greatest threat.
On two different occasions, the returning Ike Opara could have opened the scoring, with defenders lucky to deflect his efforts away from goal both times. A short corner idea created new angles to test the Los Angeles defense from, which is a look United had not shown before Wednesday.
The Galaxy had the best chance of the half, however. Ibrahimovic finally escaped the attentions of Opara and Brent Kallman, but his carefully placed header to Vito Mannone’s opposite side just squeezed outside the post. It was a moment of fear, but the only one as the half ended scoreless.
It was also Ibrahimovic’s last contribution of note, as the game shifted further and further into Minnesotan control after the break. Quintero had two different opportunities on counterattacks, freeing Molino to attempt a shot and missing a shot himself, and while Mannone was forced to make one save, the tide was going one way.
The game’s loudest cheer may have come for a substitution as the momentum continued to grow, with Miguel Ibarra making his Allianz Field debut as Molino’s replacement. With half an hour to go, the crosses began to pelt the Galaxy box, and chances for Schüller, Ibarra and Rodríguez would go unfulfilled.
The rain also began to pelt the field at this time, as a brief but heavy shower passed through Saint Paul, dampening an already slick field and creating a few more mistakes on its way through. Minnesota continued to dominate possession as the half-chances continued, to the degree that the Galaxy goalkeeper Bingham received a yellow card for time-wasting in the 84th minute.
However, the final few chances for the Loons were nothing to write home about, and the defense let nothing through as the point was confirmed for both teams, a result that looks good on paper against a team that came in on a five-game winning streak, but very easily could have been more impressive.
“I thought we were the better team,” Heath said afterwards. “I thought we took about the first 10 minutes to adjust to the way their shape was, but after we made one or two little adjustments, one or two little tweaks, I thought we were the most dominant team against a very good team. I thought it’s two points that we’ve lost tonight.”
The change from seven goals allowed in two games to none allowed in this game was a very clear point of improvement, and the credit can be placed partially at the feet of the players who came into the team. Miller struggled with Uriel Antuna’s pace at times in the first half, but was a rock in the second half.
“They had a few chances, but I think we earned the clean sheet,” Miller said after the game. “They didn’t have a lot to show for it, and it kind of shows that when we play together as a unit and everyone chips in and does a job, we can be a good defensive team.”
Opara was also satisfied with the defensive performance. “It felt pretty good. I think there was trust tonight. I got the guys together, and we discussed some of the things we needed to do well tonight, and guys were appreciative and willing to learn and stick together tonight. I think that was important, for all of us to be on the same page and discuss all of the things the Galaxy did well.”
While the team failed to score, there were still positives within their game, with the set-pieces high on the list. “I spoke to some of our staff, and that’s an area we should be better on,” Opara said. “Tonight was one of those moments where we were dangerous on some, if not all of them, so that’s something that we need to continue to build.”
The right side of the attack between Danladi and Métanire shined as well, and Heath was quick to praise both players. “Him [Romain] and Abu had it going as well. If you look at it, a lot of our good stuff is coming down the right, and obviously Romain’s helping that because of his incredible energy levels.”
“I wouldn’t like to be a left-sided player playing against him, because you’re spending half the time in your own half, and if you don’t go with him, he’s good enough and his quality and his delivery into the box is good enough to hurt you. I thought it was another outstanding performance from him.”
The team has just four days before their next game against DC United on Sunday, and Heath did not commit players to whether or not their solid performances would merit further appearances on Sunday.
“We’ll have to see, won’t we,” he said. “It’s a little bit different with the three games in the week. We’ll have to see how people are, like how’s Kevin going to be tomorrow after he hasn’t played for a year and he plays 60-70 minutes in a high intensity game? We’ll see how everybody is tomorrow, then we’ll sort of regroup and get ourselves ready for another difficult task.”
The implied questions will surround Greguš and, more importantly, Calvo’s returns. The defensive contrast between this game and the prior two was notable in both scoreline and appearance, and one wonders if Miller’s performance is enough to keep the Costa Rican captain on the bench. Michael Boxall’s benching in this game was notable after his mistakes on Friday.
On the other hand, Schüller’s best game of the season may not be enough to keep him in the team, as a return to an attacking midfield position that does not fit his best qualities seems even more unlikely with Molino and Ibarra both fit and ready to take those spots. He may compete with Greguš for time and be used as a sub to switch things up, but it seems unlikely that he will replace the Slovakian designated player.
The point and clean sheet are both great results against a team well above Minnesota in the standings, and while the stands of Allianz Field still crave their first Wonderwall, this result felt more like a positive to build upon than any result in recent weeks.