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Dotson winner over SKC gives Minnesota United first MLS Cup playoff berth

Minnesota United will appear in the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time, thanks to a late score from Hassani Dotson.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hassani Dotson’s fourth MLS goal was the most important of his young career.

In application, the 90th-minute tally was a looping effort struck while Dotson was leaning away from goal that took a deflection before bouncing into the back netting. In effect, it gave Minnesota United sole possession of second place in the Western Conference, two points clear of third-placed Seattle while level on games played.

“I asked for the ball,” Dotson said. “At first I was going to slide [it to] Ethan, but the defender, he changed his movement. So I decided to take it myself.”

Dotson’s goal proved to be the clinching score as Minnesota United defeated Sporting Kansas City 2-1 Wednesday night, securing the franchise’s first berth in the MLS Cup playoffs.

As Dotson has impressed with his his maturity on the field, so too has he in post-game interviews, answering questions about personal achievements with veteran savvy.

“It was a game-winner,” noted Dotson. “But all credit goes to the team and all the effort that everyone in the organization’s put in to get here.”

For many in the organization, 2019 will be their first taste of the MLS postseason. Among them is head coach Adrian Heath.

Promised three years when serving as Orlando City’s first head coach in MLS, the Englishman was fired midway through his second with the Lions. Following a pair of seasons in which the Loons conceded 70-plus goals in each, MNUFC stuck to its now-(in)famous three-year plan and with its manager.

“It means everything to me,” said Heath. “I’m proud of what I’ve done as a player and what I’ve done as a coach, but this is the most important thing because it’s the next thing.

“When I came in, after the first year, I still think getting 10 wins is probably as big an achievement as making the playoffs, for what we had to go through that year. And only people within the club will know that. I’m really, really proud of everybody connected with the club, especially the players, the ownership group. I’m really pleased with our supporters, who have been nothing short of magnificent since we’ve been in this stadium. This is just the start. We have to keep moving on, we have to keep trying to get better and that’s what we’ll do.”

Sep 25, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Sporting Kansas City defender Botond Barath (right) kicks in a goal past forward Daniel Salloi (left) and Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall (middle) in the first half at Allianz Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

One of Heath’s first moves upon landing in Minnesota was to arrange a reunion with Kevin Molino, acquiring the attacking midfielder’s services from his old team. Molino struggled with injuries during Minnesota’s first two MLS seasons as his teammates struggled on the field. But 2019 has seen a notable improvement in form from both Molino and the Loons.

“It’s a massive night for the [Twin] Cities, and not just the Cities: the club, the players who were here and were in the first project who know how difficult that was,” Molino said. “I think we’ve done a tremendous amount of work. All credit to the front office and the players who have come in and made a massive impact. I’m happy for everyone who has come in and been a part of this, and also the coaching staff — I think they’ve done a lot of work to make this possible.”

Novel for so many in the Minnesota locker room, captain Osvaldo Alonso is more than familiar with the MLS Cup playoffs.

When Alonso signed for Minnesota this past winter, the first thing he told Heath was that he had made the playoffs in each of the last 10 years and had no intention of letting that streak end. Alonso did his part on the evening by volleying in a 70th minute equalizer.

“Been amazing,” Alonso said. “Losing one-zero, scored a goal that gives you motivation to keep going to win the game. But for me, it’s a team effort. We fight and fight. Tomorrow, the newspapers are going to be ‘Minnesota in the playoffs’. Doesn’t matter how you did it, but we did it.”

Smiling during his post-game interview, Alonso left the field at halftime shouting at his teammates. A beautiful in-swung cross from Johnny Russell met Botond Baráth before it was redirected into goal in the seventh minute. Whether Baráth had used his shin or hand to send the ball past Mannone went unnoticed by Minnesota. Instead, it was a first half in which MNUFC conceded 13 shots with six ending up on target drawing their collective ire.

Asked what he said to his team at the break, Heath paused, then decided against sharing the specifics.

“At halftime we needed a response,” said goalkeeper Vito Mannone. “We encourage ourselves in a bad way, in a nice way, it doesn’t matter. Whatever needs to be done. It was a fantastic reaction in the second half. We were on top of them on second balls. We were fighting more. We gave it all, even if sometimes we gave chances away, to get the win.”

Mannone’s brilliant double-save in the 27th minute was a fine example of that fight that eventually carried the Loons to a special result.

Heath said that while he counts on his keepers to save the shots he expects them to  deal with, Mannone’s reaction save — the second of the pair — went beyond expectation and kept Minnesota in the game.

Five first-half saves plus two more in the second brought Mannone’s total to 122 on the season — a new team record.

Post-game, the announced crowd of 19,609 fans had not forgotten. After serenading the victorious Loons with Oasis’s Wonderwall, the supporters’ section pivoted to a thunderous, stomping chorus of, “Vito! Vito! Vito!”

Mannone reflected on hearing his name: “It’s a great feeling. You don’t get this many times in your career, but when you get it you need to enjoy it.

“Probably was a nice moment for me. In the past few years, I lost my mom and it’s been difficult for my family. I came over to the States… I’m very proud, when you hear your name, you know? I’m hoping that song goes up to the sky because my mom and my dad are there to listen. And they did many sacrifices for me, and that’s an emotional moment.”

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