ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota United FC came into Sunday riding high after a midweek win over Kansas City saw the Loons clinch their first MLS playoff berth.
Ahead of kickoff, the Loons needed two points from their final two games to earn the right to host Allianz Field’s first playoff game. Conversely, Los Angeles Football Club had already wrapped up the Supporters’ Shield and the top seed in the Western Conference.
Playing only for pride, it was LAFC that would score first via golden boot favorite Carlos Vela. Set up by Diego Rossi, Vela took his space at the edge of Minnesota’s penalty area and curled a shot inside the far post to quiet an announced crowd of 19,706 that up to that point had provided a playoff-like atmosphere.
Leftback Wilfried Moimbé-Tahrat, starting in place of Chase Gasper, who was sent off after earning a second yellow against Kansas City midweek, turned in an impressive performance marred by a single moment — when he let Vela shoot with the latter’s prized left foot.
“I always think with people like Vela, if you overcompensate to stop the shot, he’s going to drag it the other way,” MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath said. “But at least then, let’s see if he can score on his right foot, which is not the weapon that his left foot is.”
The sellout crowd would only remain muted for five minutes. Getting a two-yard jump on the LAFC line, Michael Boxall was left free to head a Ján Greguš free kick over LAFC goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega to level the score.
Boxall said Minnesota put in a fair amount of work timing Greguš’ free kicks based off of the midfielder’s arm signals and he wasn’t even sure if the LAFC defensive line had moved at all in response to his run.
“That’s the most open I’ve ever been, and might ever be, in the box,” Boxall noted.
Announcing Boxall’s goal, public address announcer Tony DeLorenzo called out the defender’s first name, with Allianz Field shouting Boxall’s surname in response.
“Oh, I heard that one. That one was very loud and it’s not often it’s my name, so…” the defender said, trailing off laughing.
The draw earned on the strength of Boxall’s header seemed a fair reflection of the run of play, with each team looking more dangerous on opposite sides of halftime.
Heath said after the game that he had wanted his charges to avoid the Black and Gold’s high press, but he saw the Loons attempt to play short out of their own defensive third too often. With forward Mason Toye on a yellow card, Heath opted to replace him with Ángelo Rodríguez at halftime.
It was the Colombian’s first appearance since Sept. 11 when Rodríguez came on for the final half-hour at Houston. The forward was not a part of MNUFC’s 18-man roster during any of its previous three games.
Buoyed by the opportunity and Heath’s halftime instructions to play direct, Rodríguez earned his first scoring chance just two minutes after the restart. A defensive miscue saw Rodríguez in on goal, and only aggressive goalkeeping and Sisniega’s outstretched left leg kept the score level.
In the 56th minute, Rodríguez absorbed a strong shoulder challenge before snapping an off-balance shot on goal using the outside of his foot. Again, Sisniega proved a worthy foil, this time via a quick right arm.
More close calls for Rodríguez were to follow. In the 83rd minute, Rodríguez used a clever touch at the top of the LAFC penalty area to free himself for a shot he drilled directly into Sisniega. When the rebound fell to Rodríguez, his hurried shot rolled wide of the near post.
Unable to notch his first league goal since late June, Rodríguez was demonstrative in his frustration, gesturing whenever teammates tried to find him through long and shot passes that did not connect.
“We were really able to take advantage of the way I play in the second half,” Rodríguez said via an interpreter. “Sometimes the anxiety gets the best of us. While that’s frustrating, it’s great to get a full 45 minutes. At this point, I’m staying calm and just going to continue to train hard.”
Rodríguez revealed that his return to MNUFC’s matchday roster came after a private talk he and Heath had. Rodríguez declined to share many details, but he said the language barrier between himself and Heath had led to some miscommunication, and that following the talk, Rodríguez left with a better understanding of how his manager wants him to play.
“He’s obviously going to be disappointed with the opportunities he’s had — a couple of them he created for himself,” said Heath of Rodríguez’s performance. “But he gave us experience. I think that was the one thing that Mason showed tonight — he’s 20 years of age, he’s still learning the game and he got bullied a little bit by their two centerbacks. And Angelo’s physical presence and knowing where to stand and getting himself in good spots actually changed the game.”
By holding onto a point, Minnesota also held onto second place in the Western Conference. Next Sunday, the Loons will head to Seattle to play the third-place Sounders. A draw will ensure MNUFC hosts a first-round playoff game. A win would give the Loons home-field advantage against any Western Conference team outside of the one they played Sunday night.
Asked whether his Loons could get a win in Seattle next Sunday, Heath replied, “Of course we can.
“We’ve got the players to win anywhere, as we’ve shown. Nobody thought we could go to LAFC and win, and we did. Where’ve we been? The Red Bulls — one of the toughest games? Look at the Atlanta games. Maybe one of the best teams, could have gone either way. We can go [to Seattle] and win for sure. I’m going to go try and win.”
Boxall echoed his coach’s thoughts.
“I think with this group, what we’ve done this season when we’re all fit, healthy and ready to go, I think we’ve gone to tough places and got results. Especially against this top team we played to tonight, we went to their place and won. So I think we need to finish as high as possible. You heard that crowd tonight. We’d love to have that energy in the playoffs as well.”