As Minnesota United entered Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, the death of their offense threatened to put a damper on their season. In MLS play, they have only scored more than one goal in a single game once in their last seven matches (the 5-3 loss to FC Dallas last weekend).
With Orlando coming to Allianz Field for Minnesota’s last home game until Sept. 15 and with the Western Conference standings rapidly condensing behind United, this was a game in which three points seemed essential. Adrian Heath’s former club are in a playoff race of their own, but their 35 goals this season are the second-lowest of any team outside of the league’s three worst.
The offensive frustrations were magnified by a game which the Loons completely dominated, but could not find the back of the net. It took a 92nd minute equalizer from Abu Danladi to rescue a 1-1 draw from the jaws of what would have been a remarkably bad loss.
United entered the game at nearly full strength, missing only their captain Ozzie Alonso to injury. Hassani Dotson was called into defensive midfield to fill in, and the attack had its best pieces available (other than Mason Toye, serving the second game of his suspension for spitting at another player in the Dallas game).
Minnesota opened the game looking like they had something to prove. Within ten minutes, they had one certain goal and one near goal ruled off for offside calls, with Ethan Finlay rattling the crossbar on the latter. Orlando barely got a sniff of the ball as United looked to have solved their problems.
As so often has happened in these last six weeks, however, the play into the final third was quality, but the final ball was lacking. Orlando began to get a foothold, and the scoreboard still showed a zero for Minnesota. The game took another turn when it looked like Ángelo Rodríguez had a breakaway opportunity.
Rodríguez broke away from the halfway line, potentially with just one defender to beat, but pulled up and gave the ball away before he’d run more than a few yards, immediately grabbing his right hamstring. Danladi came on with an hour to take an opportunity that may not come again when Toye is available.
Just after Danladi’s entrance, Minnesota had their best chance of the half. Darwin Quintero stole a ball inside Orlando’s half and sprinted for goal, passing it wide to Jan Greguš and receiving the return just 12 yards from goal. He was open and the shot was good, but goalkeeper Brian Rowe’s diving save was better.
As the halftime whistle came, Minnesota had outshot Orlando 15-3. The balance of play had not been particularly close, but the breakthrough had been lacking. The danger came the longer the game stayed equal, and Orlando left halftime looking much fresher.
A few minutes of Orlando relevance faded without incident, and Rowe once again denied Minnesota’s best chances. First a long shot from Greguš was easily collected, then a deflected pass fell to Robin Lod just inside the box, and Rowe again was able to deflect the shot.
Rowe’s deflection of the Lod shot was the insult, and the injury was the breakaway that followed just two minutes later. Nani caught both Ike Opara and Chase Gasper out of position, and while Opara caught up and prevented a shot on goal, the referee deemed that he had done so illegally and immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Opara (and the rest of the United team) were incensed by the decision.
“I still want to see it again,” Opara said after the game. “I think live, the ref’s in a tough position. If he lets it go, he can review it. I’m not really sure. I’m frustrated with myself because I thought I got to a good angle, and I actually wanted him to shoot the ball, because I liked our chances there, and he was pretty clever with what he did. He went down really soft. Even if it was a penalty, he sold it and he earned it in a very soft way.”
Orlando’s Portuguese Designated Player made no mistake from the spot, and Minnesota’s wastefulness in front of goal now put them in danger of dropping all three points rather than just two. Heath had already put Lod on for Kevin Molino, and would soon put Miguel Ibarra on for Finlay in his final roll of the dice.
For the game’s final twenty minutes, United’s offensive strategy fell into its weakest point: crosses with no real direction or purpose, easily dealt with by Orlando’s defenders. There was none of the movement and passing that had created their earlier chances. It seemed the game would be beyond their reach, until a lucky break fell their way.
Among Romain Métanire’s many skills is a long throw, which he has deployed on occasion this season. Minnesota had a throw-in near Orlando’s box, and Métanire threw the ball all the way to Opara’s head. The deflection fell to Danladi amongst a sea of legs, and he stabbed it into the net to trigger euphoria and relief for the 19,738 present in Saint Paul.
This was Danladi’s first goal since April 6, in only the fourth game all season in which he played more than 60 minutes. A goal the club desperately needed at the time, and a goal that he personally has needed for some time. The constant injury struggles that have plagued Danladi’s three years in MLS cannot have been easy to deal with.
“It was great, a very great feeling, but also it was tight trying to get it back and score again, really wanted to get the three points,” Danladi said afterwards. “At the same time, you’re just happy you scored but at the same time you want to get a win the team wants you to get back and go again. It was a good feeling, and my first goal in the new stadium, too, that was very exciting.”
“I think the goal will give him a bit of confidence,” Heath said of Danladi. “It’s one thing he’s been lacking a little bit of late so that’ll probably help.” As Danladi said, the goal was in but two minutes of stoppage time remained, and there would be one further twist.
Orlando attacked down the left, and an attempted shot after the cross ran straight into Chase Gasper’s hand. Once again, Jair Marrufo pointed to the spot, and this time there seemed even less chance that the decision would be changed. Just as the stadium prepared to release its nervous energy, Marrufo signaled first for VAR, then that there was no penalty. An Orlando attacker had been offside before the handball.
After the rollercoaster of the last seven minutes, the draw seemed almost a fair result, contrary to what the numbers would show. Minnesota had significant edges in nearly every relevant statistical category. Orlando did not attack enough to earn a single corner kick in this game. The message from Heath and others followed that train of thought, two points dropped rather than one earned.
“It’s two dropped,” Heath said. “My God, I don’t know how many chances we’ve had, how many final third entries, how many opportunities we’ve had to pick a pass? Two dropped.” He went on: “Final third. Gotta do better, just told the players. Can’t keep getting our football between both boxes, tonight at times has been outstanding. Just not enough quality in the final third.”
“I think we all see it as two points lost,” Dotson said. “I mean, they’re a good team, we all know that. We’re a good team, and we expected the three points, we’re at home. It’s a little disappointing, but it’s time to bounce back and take care of business on Thursday.”
The point won holds its value, as results on Saturday night fell kindly and kept Minnesota in second place in the West with eight games to go. They now go on the road for four straight games, the second of which is the U.S. Open Cup final in Atlanta, and the first of which is Sporting Kansas City on Thursday night. The season has entered its defining stretch.