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Minnesota takes its lumps in Los Angeles

Mar 16, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; LA Galaxy defender Daniel Steres (5) controls the ball against the Minnesota United in the first half at Dignity Health Sports Park. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

First-half goals from Jonathan dos Santos and Chris Pontius gave the LA Galaxy a 2-0 halftime lead. During the break, Minnesota United FC assistant coach Mark Watson told his team bluntly that their performance wasn’t good enough, and that being on the wrong end of a 2-0 score after 45 minutes rarely produces a victory.

Watson ― filling in for head coach Adrian Heath while the latter recovered from dental surgery — was correct, on both counts.

Twice in the second half the Loons cut the Galaxy’s lead to a single goal and tease salvaging a draw. An 81st-minute Sebastian Lletget goal proved the difference and gave LA just enough of a cushion to weather 75th- and 87th-minute goals by the visitors.

“I think all the things we didn’t do in the first half, we did in the second half,” Watson said. “We were much more aggressive. I thought our transition play was better. I think the guys showed a lot of fight and character and gave it a good go right until the end.”

Loons grounded by early pressure

Two road victories by the Loons were more than a welcome occurrence in Minnesota following a 2018 campaign that saw MNUFC collect just five away points all season. But LA delivered on the expectation that it would prove a sterner test for Minnesota than had Vancouver and San Jose.

Hopes were raised that MNUFC could grab a result with the absences of forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic and winger Romain Alessandrini to injury. However, Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s front three of Emmanuel Boateng, Uriel Antuna and Pontius proved more than the Loons could handle, especially in the first half.

Pressuring the Loons whenever the visitors were in possession, the Galaxy dictated most of the action in the game’s first 45 minutes. The aforementioned front three pressed high up the field and pinned down MNUFC fullbacks Francisco Calvo and Romain Métanire, preventing the duo from providing width to the Loons’ attack.

The result was a first half in which LA outshot Minnesota 14-5, netting a pair of goals in the process.

“I think we started too slow,” MNUFC midfielder Osvaldo Alonso said. “Giving away two goals in the first half was killing us, but we started to push in the second half. We didn’t win so we have to learn from the mistakes we made and keep going.”

Second-half introductions of Ethan Finaly and Abu Danladi, and a shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 formation allowed Minnesota to pose a threat from the wings, and net a pair of goals. But ultimately did not prove enough to overcome MNUFC’s first-half deficit.

An interesting VAR decision

The first goal in all three of MNUFC’s games this season has come from the penalty spot. But unlike in the Loons’ back-to-back season-opening victories, on Saturday night that penalty kick was awarded to Minnesota’s opponent.

In the 34th minute, Alonso stepped between Antuna and the ball as the later was attempting to shoot. Antuna kicked Alonso as Alonso knew he was positioning his leg in front of Antuna’s. Initially, referee Jair Marrufo blew the whistle and signaled for a penalty kick.

The game was stopped for VAR review. After a short delay, Marrufo’s ruling on the field was confirmed.

The call was one involving some judgement, and could have gone either way. That the penalty wound up being awarded to the Galaxy was the risk Alonso took in stepping into Antuna’s shot.

However, one legitimate complaint from the Loons’ perspective was that Marrufo did not review video of the play. The call ultimately resided with Marrufo, but the referee opted to take the word of VAR official Daniel Radford without a second look himself on a field-level monitor.

Typically, referees will defer to VAR officials on yes-or-no decisions, such as whether or not a ball rolled out of bounds, or if a foul was committed in, or outside, the penalty area. It is rarer to see referees trust a judgement call, such as the one Marrufo made and Radford confirmed, to VAR officials without reviewing video themselves.

Time to regroup

In as much as any loss comes at a good time, the Loons suffering their first defeat of the young season ahead of a week off from MLS play can be viewed as an opportunity.

In Vito Mannone, Ike Opara, Métanire, Alonso and Ján Greguš, MNUFC has used five players added over the winter in all three of its starting XIs this year. From Alonso and Greguš in particular, it was hoped that the Loons would be better at retaining possession of the ball. But last weekend, in the face of aggressive and determined opposition, the Loons managed just 38.4-percent possession.

Such are the growing pains to be expected from Minnesota rebuilding nearly half its starting lineup. With MNUFC losing its first game against a team expected to compete for a playoff berth, it now has a little added time to regroup before a winnable game at New England in two weeks time. If the Loons can manage even a draw against the Revolution, then regardless of how they fare against New York Red Bulls in three weeks time, they’ll have come out of a five-game road trip with a respectable seven points ahead of debuting Allianz Field against NYCFC on April 13.

“We look to get a little better. We’re not the finished article yet,” Watson said. “We had two great wins to start and this kind of gives you some stuff to work on and know where we need to get better. We’ve got two weeks. We’ll regroup and get healthy, and start to work again.”

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