After a 3-0 disappointment in Atlanta midweek, Minnesota United entered their final home game before June’s international break with something to prove. Their offense has been putrid for weeks, and the results have stopped coming. With the Philadelphia Union in town, one of the Eastern Conference’s best, this was an opportunity to change the discussion.
Minnesota succeeded in some ways, breaking scoring droughts by both the full team and by the attacking players, but also failed to clean up at the back, and a late third goal from the Union consigned United to their first defeat at Allianz Field by a final score of 3-2.
The changes from the Atlanta game moved Minnesota to notionally their strongest starting lineup. Romain Métanire returned from suspension, and Ethan Finlay and Ángelo Rodríguez returned to the starting lineup after a game off. Many eyes could be on Darwin Quintero, still goalless since the Toronto game in mid-April, with high expectations.
The Loons started the game like a team that knew goals were necessary and had long been missing. They attacked with vigor and were nearly on the board within 10 minutes of the game’s opening, with Rodríguez and Finlay both having shots blocked within the box.
Chances continued to come in, and Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake was up to the challenge. Blake saved consecutive shots from Rodríguez and Quintero at point-blank range, and a second shot from Rodríguez was blocked out of goal by Jack Elliott. Minnesota was attacking with a fury rarely seen this season.
Unfortunately for the home side, the Union had attacking tools of their own. After Elliott’s block, they broke upfield and Kazper Przybylko’s cross was missed by Sergio Santos, who really should have scored. A couple of minutes later, it was Santos that created Philadelphia’s opening.
Santos got around Brent Kallman to touch a bouncing ball in the box first, and Kallman’s foot got all of Santos. The penalty was called, and while the stadium disagreed, the decision was a relatively clear one.
Kallman admitted his mistake after the game. “I was so confident that I was going to clear it that I actually took a peek to see who I was going to clear it to, and in that half second I slowed down and he got the toe in front,” he said. “And I didn’t make contact, so I think it was the right call.”
After the Union took the lead, the openings shifted heavily in favor of the visitors. Monteiro forced Vito Mannone into a tip over the crossbar, and Santos missed a golden chance one-on-one with Mannone, shooting just wide. Minnesota needed a response, and they got one.
First, Quintero got as good of a hit on the ball as he’s had in six weeks, crushing a ball at goal from outside the box and forcing another quality save from Blake. That wasn’t enough, but when a bouncing ball found Hassani Dotson at the edge of the penalty area, he made no mistakes.
The goal, in Dotson’s words: “The ball came in from a cross and it bounced up, and I could see there was a little opening to the left side of the defender, and I tried to hit it there because I was guessing it was a blind spot for the goalkeeper, and it went in.” The shot beat Blake and kissed off his near post and in, and Allianz erupted.
Dotson, again, is a second-round pick from the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, now starting his fourth consecutive game for Minnesota including last Wednesday’s friendly against Hertha Berlin. He has been solid in defense, and in that moment showed a greater cutting edge than most of his teammates have in the last month.
“I said last week he just gets a good feel for the game, has really good feet,” Adrian Heath said afterward. “Very competitive, which has been one of his strong points. Understands the game. I think he’ll be one of those guys who can play like he’s done today in three or four different spots as well. He can be pleased with his contribution this last seven or eight days.”
Of the goal itself, Heath had quite the compliment for Dotson: “He’s a really good finisher, maybe one of the best finishers in training. It doesn’t surprise me. A couple of times tonight, he’s cut in on his right foot and I wanted him to have a go because he’s a really clean, very good positive striker of the ball.”
As the half wound down, the repeated reunions between Santos, Przybylko and the ground began to frustrate the home crowd. Play was stopped multiple times as a Philadelphia player laid on the ground in assumed agony, only to get up for play to resume. When a foul was called on Santos just outside Minnesota’s box in questionable circumstances, the boos were loud.
They were louder after Haris Medunjanin banged the free kick into the top corner of the goal to restore the Union’s lead two minutes before halftime. Mannone got a finger to the shot but it was as good a free kick as Allianz Field has seen. Minnesota trailed at halftime, and its offensive efforts had not been enough.
United had 15 shots in the first half, with five on goal. Those are numbers they’ve failed to match in over half of their complete games this season. The regret in Philadelphia’s nine blocked shots was already strong, and it only grew stronger as the second half began.
Where the first half had been wide open, end-to-end stuff, the Union took some control of possession after halftime and began to work on breaking Minnesota down further. Mannone was forced into his finest save in a United uniform, on a near point-blank header from Auston Trusty, and the Loons’ counterattacks found little to finish.
When a Quintero shot from eight yards out failed to beat Kai Wagner, let alone Blake, it seemed like Quintero personally had a lid on his goal. He departed just after that with Finlay as Abu Danladi and Kevin Molino came on, an eighth consecutive appearance with neither goal nor assist.
Molino and Danladi were Heath’s only two attacking players on the bench, and were tasked with getting the game back to even footing. After a couple of early crosses from Danladi were dealt with, the two combined and did exactly that. Danladi, rather than crossing high, cut a low pass back to Molino, who made no mistakes finishing to Blake’s far post.
Molino was reflective after the game. “The last couple games, I get injured, hamstring, it has been a tough time for me. That is who I am, what I go through in life, that is who I am. I’m going to keep going no matter what are the circumstances, and keep fighting for the team.”
This was Molino’s first goal since Minnesota’s 2018 season opener, and it could not have come at a better time in the game. Minnesota finally had the game back to even footing, and with 15 minutes to go had a real chance to win.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia took its chances better. A cross from the substitute Ilsinho wrong-footed Kallman as it flew over Przybylko’s head, and neither Kallman’s diving header nor Mannone’s hands could keep a shot from Trusty out of the back of the net. The silence in the stadium was noticeable, and the deflation for the team on the field was obvious.
“Looking around, we didn’t have any numbers at the back post, so I stayed in the spot,” Kallman said of the moment. “Ball came in, and I kind of got frozen because [Przybylko] jumped and it looked like he could have nodded it on, so I was kind of stuck in case he got something on it and I was going to have to react, so when it barely went over his head and I went to get my head on it, Trusty cut in front of me last second and scored. Obviously, it’s one I’d like to have back. If I keep my feet moving, then I can attack it, it’s not a problem.”
Minnesota’s late attacks found no cutting edge, and for the first time in Allianz Field’s three months in business, the road team left with all three points. The win restored Philadelphia to the top spot in the East, and its quality was obvious, as was the ability to frustrate its opposition.
“One thing I will say is I thought they were very, very good, shall we say ‘professional’, at knowing when to stay down,” Heath said afterward. “I thought it broke the flow of the game up. We had the energy of the crowd going, and suddenly every time the ball went in the box, somebody was down.”
Minnesota finished the game with a whopping 29 total shots, and Philadelphia finished with a similarly ridiculous 15 blocked shots. United had plenty of opportunities to get shots away, and the attack made its best showing by both eye test and numbers in weeks. Heath was quick to defend the showing of his players, regardless of the lack of points.
“Proud of the players, thought we were magnificent,” Heath said to open his remarks. “Thought some of our play was outstanding. We’ve been talking about taking our opportunities when they come. Somebody’s just said it’s the most shots in 10 years in the MLS? A little bit of a percentage of that and we would have been clear.” (It was later clarified that it was the most blocked shots in 10 years, not the most total shots.)
“I’m not going to let that mask what was an outstanding performance on the back of the shift that the guys did Wednesday in Atlanta. I thought there were some fantastic performances. I thought Hassani was fantastic again, I thought Ike was good, I thought the two center midfield players were excellent.
Heath went on: “There’s been a lot of positives tonight, and it doesn’t seem like many for me at this minute but I’m sure that when I watch the game by this evening, tomorrow, no doubt, there will be a lot of stuff that I can be really, really pleased about.”
Heath’s praise for his squad is in some ways deserved, but the results need to be there. United drop to sixth in the West, with three clubs chasing within three points of them. Their goal difference dropped below zero.
Failure to achieve a result in Colorado on Saturday before the Gold Cup break would put the results of the team’s opening half-season in a significantly more dire light. In a matchup that Minnesota lost both legs of in increasingly calamitous fashion in 2018, there could be as much danger as Heath has faced within his three-year plan.