The matchup between Minnesota United FC and Los Angeles FC has been one for the Loons to relish since the latter entered the league in 2018. Minnesota has dealt LAFC two of their worst losses in franchise history, the second of those being LAFC’s first home defeat of this league season. This night would not end in another loss for the Black and Gold, but United would take their fourth point of the year in a 1-1 draw.
With the visitors coming to Allianz Field on Sunday night having clinched the Supporters’ Shield, one wondered whether or not they would play a full-strength lineup on a field that continues to deteriorate in quality. That answer was not long in coming. Entering on a stretch in which they had won just one game in six, the visitors played a full-strength attacking lineup featuring likely MLS MVP Carlos Vela up front. Vela had missed the meeting at Banc of California stadium four weeks ago, and entered the match within one goal of Josef Martinez’s single-season goalscoring record.
For the Loons’ part, Adrian Heath rotated his team, but not by very much. Chase Gasper was suspended due to his late red card against Kansas City on Wednesday, with Wilfried Moimbé-Tahrat entering the team in his place. Ozzie Alonso and Kevin Molino were rested, with Hassani Dotson and Lawrence Olum completing a defensive-looking 4-3-3. The rest of the lineup was just the same as it had been on Sunday and on Wednesday, another test of United’s fitness.
Minnesota took the field to fireworks and drizzle, with the smoke from the fireworks lasting to create an eerie fall atmosphere shattered by the Wonderwall’s noise. On Fan Appreciation night, the stadium was at peak volume, and the traveling LAFC fans in the stadium’s northeast corner contributed to the pandemonium.
The visitors, predictably for one of the best teams in MLS regular season history, started on the front foot. Vela, Diego Rossi and teenager Brian Rodríguez combined to test the United defense, with early signs of Minnesota stepping up to the task. The Loons were unable to put much together moving up the field, with LAFC’s ball pressure pinning them back. Mason Toye and Darwin Quintero struggled to get into the game, with Robin Lod finding some of the best early moments from the front three as well as the game’s first shot on target, easily saved by Pablo Sisniega.
Ike Opara got his head onto a corner kick, but again could not keep it down just before the half-hour mark. Rodríguez had the game’s best chance, with a lob that had Vito Mannone beat but also had just a little too much air on it. The shot kissed off the crossbar and was eventually cleared by Moimbé-Tahrat, but the danger continued. LAFC had a comfortable 62.9% possession in the half, and the Loons did not register a shot of any kind after Opara’s 28th minute miss until halftime.
Just before halftime, Toye received a questionable yellow card for a foul in midfield, and Heath was clearly ready to make a change even before that. Toye had been unable to make any kind of real impact on the game, and even before his card, Ángelo Rodríguez was seen warming up on the sideline for his first appearance since Sept. 11. Halftime came, and Toye was duly subbed off at the second half’s beginning.
Ángelo’s impact was immediate. Within two minutes of the halftime whistle, he beat Eddie Segura to a bouncing ball and found himself one-on-one with Sisniega. The LAFC keeper was up to the task, and saved the Colombian striker’s shot with his feet. As the half developed, it became clear that Rodríguez’s ability to win balls in the air and play with his back to goal was exactly what Minnesota needed to break the pressure they had been under.
Ten minutes later, it happened again. A long pass from Opara found Ángelo open in the box once again, and again Sisniega was ready to save. Rodríguez pounded the ground in frustration, and perhaps should have squared the ball to a charging Quintero rather than shooting. The Loons continued to cede possession, but had now created two of the game’s three best chances.
A Rodríguez cross somehow found Quintero’s head between two centerbacks, but Sisniega was there. The Loons were pressing, and the crowd was restless. They had weathered the storm, and sensed opportunity. Ethan Finlay prepared to come on for Lod, but then the ever-present danger of Vela struck.
Vela had drifted to the right side of the field after an LAFC breakaway fell apart, and Moimbé-Tahrat gave him just too much space. He shifted the ball to his favored left foot, and his shot gave Mannone absolutely no chance. His 31st goal of the year tied the league record, and the LAFC corner was raucous.
The goal came somewhat against the run of play, and while the crowd was deflated, it took just four minutes for the stadium to explode. Jan Greguš was fouled about 35 yards from goal, and set up to take his free kick. As the kick left his foot, Michael Boxall’s run had beaten everyone. The New Zealand defender was wide open, and the ball glanced off of his spinning head over Sisniega and into the net. The Loons were level, and the offside flag stayed down.
Boxall said that the timing was a perfectly practiced plan. “It’s something that we work on in training. And, just, we know the timing off Jan with his run up, and when he puts his hand up and down. I mean, I’m not sure if they even moved. So, I think that’s the most open I’ve ever been and might ever be in the box.”
As both teams traded substitutions, the Loons found one more gilt-edged chance, and once more it came from Rodríguez’s boot. Again, he beat his defenders, and again Sisniega saved. This time, the rebound came right back to him, but his second attempt flew wide of the far post. The striker had made quite the impact on the game’s play, but just could not finish his chances.
Los Angeles dominated the final minutes of possession, but ultimately found no chances from a long series of passes around the Minnesota box in stoppage time. The whistle came, and Minnesota’s wait to determine the location of their first playoff game in franchise history will continue until the season’s final day in Seattle.
Heath’s satisfaction with part of the game was clear from his opening remarks to press afterwards. “Second half, we played to the game plan, stuck to the plan that we spoke about all week and it actually looked like we might get something out of the game,” he said. “We kept playing into their own hands in the first half, trying to play short, play intricate passes out and that’s what they want.
“Anything that goes square, that goes back, they press and they’re very good at it. But what they do, do, they leave themselves really exposed. In the second half, Ángelo was in really good spots. We got it into him and we had what? Three of the best chances of the night? That was the plan in the first half.”
Rodríguez, whose impact on the game was clear, spoke afterwards as well. “I think that we knew how to take advantage of it [how he plays] but sometimes anxiety gets the best of us, I think tonight’s game was one of those,” he said afterwards through a translator. “I’m staying calm, and after so much time I had the chance to play 45 minutes and I have to keep going and keep working hard in training and we’ll see what happens.”
Boxall received man-of-the-match honors from the fan vote on Twitter for his goal and defensive performance, and spoke with confidence about the club’s direction heading into the playoffs and into Seattle next weekend. “I think with this group, what we’ve done this season, when we’re fit, healthy and ready to go, we’ve gone to tough places and we’ve got results, especially against this top team that we played tonight,” he said. “We went to their place and won. We need to finish as high as possible. We’d love to. I mean, you heard that tonight. We’d love to have that energy in the playoffs as well.”
The club could still clinch a home playoff game even with a loss in Seattle next week and other results going their way, but a draw guarantees them one such game, and a win would give them the second overall seed in the Western Conference and the potential to host at least two home playoff games with positive results going forward. Heath believes in the club’s ability to get the result they need.
“Of course we can,” he said of the Loons’ ability to win next Sunday. “We’ve got the players to win anywhere as we’ve shown. Nobody thought we would go to LAFC and win but we did. Where have we been? Red Bulls, one of the toughest games. I look at the Atlanta games, maybe one of the best teams at home, could’ve gone either way. We can go there and win for sure. We are going to go and try to win.”