ST. PAUL, Minn. — Wednesday night in Midway was back to business as usual for Minnesota United FC, albeit in a sold-out, state-of-the-art stadium. Denied the chance to sing Wonderwall — the Loons’ victory anthem by Oasis — following a 3-3 draw against New York City FC in Allianz Field’s debut two weekends prior, Wednesday’s sellout crowd poured its energy and support onto the field in anxious want of a victory.
Gone was the celebratory atmosphere that surrounded the Loons’ tilt with NYCFC, undercut by the knowledge that MNUFC’s new home hadn’t yet been christened by victory. Standing in the way of the wishes of Minnesota’s XI on the field and the nearly 20,000 fans in the stands was an opponent that had taken 13 points from five previous meetings with the Loons.
This time, the LA Galaxy took just one more point as the two sides played to a 0-0 draw.
The LA Galaxy (6-1-1, 19 points) held the majority of possession, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest Minnesota (3-3-2, 11 points) produced the game’s better chances. Los Angeles’ talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic was kept quiet by the combined efforts of Ike Opara, Brent Kallman and Osvaldo Alonso. Ibrahimovic, a four-time UEFA Team of the Year honoree, was limited to 50 touches and one shot on target from well outside the 18-yard-box that failed to trouble Loons keeper Vito Mannone.
Corner, after corner, after corner were earned by the hosts, with the home crowd rising to its feet to meet all 13 of those MNUFC corner kicks amid scarves twirling. Adjacent to the press box, each serving a suspension for red cards earned against Toronto FC, sat and stood Francisco Calvo and Jan Gregus — the pair gesturing and trying to will their teammates forward and the ball into the Galaxy’s goal.
But the combined effort of both teams, a thunderous crowd and a pair of Loons in a box weren’t enough to produce a goal on the evening.
“Took us about maybe the first 10 minutes to adjust to the way their shape was,” MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath said. “After we made some adjustments — some minor, little tweaks — I thought we were the most dominant team against a very good team. I thought, ‘It’s two points that we’ve lost tonight.'”
As the game’s intensity peaked with Minnesota chasing a go-ahead goal late and the sky opening up to shower the field, the Galaxy seemed to agree with Heath’s assessment of which side was more likely to take all three points. In the 84th minute, Los Angeles keeper David Bingham received a yellow card for time wasting ahead of a goal kick. So too, in added time, did Galaxy midfielder Servando Carrasco for kicking the ball away after fouling Darwin Quintero.
And while a packed stadium was left wanting, there were positives to be found for Heath.
“It might keep all you lot and everybody else quiet for the week that we’ve kept a clean sheet,” Heath said wryly during his postgame interview.
One Loon understandably satisfied with that clean sheet was Mannone.
“We [were] really in control of the game. We manage the game in the right moments, in the right times, and against a good team despite the big guy up front,” Mannone said, referring to Ibrahimovic. “We’ve done a brilliant job defensively — everyone from top to bottom did his job very, very well.”
Mentioned by both his head coach and teammates for his performance on the evening was Woodbury, Minnesota’s Eric Miller. With Calvo suspended, Miller was called on to make his first league appearance of 2019 with only four days notice. Making things even trickier for the fullback was his assignment of marking 17-year-old Uriel Antuna. The teenager’s quickness and pace got the better of Miller on a few occasions in the first half, but Miller’s confidence in his teammates helped him keep Antuna in check in the second.
“You do your best to try and stay in front of him,” Miller said. “Obviously, in the first half that didn’t go as I planned a couple times. But I think it’s more about the unit. Individual guys can do their jobs, but knowing that Brent [Kallman] has to cover, or Rasmus [Schüller] is coming over or Ozzie [Alonso] is coming over — I think the important thing is always that you’re defending as a unit. Guys aren’t on islands by themselves and they have a system that they’re working in, and they know if they make a mistake that there’s cover there and guys who are going to back him up.”
Heath, on that collective defensive effort, said: “If we go back over the [previous] two games — the seven goals — I can actually think that maybe five or six of them have been individual errors. Obviously, at this level, you get punished for that, like we did with [Alejandro] Pozuelo last week. You know, and tonight we didn’t. We didn’t gift them anything. To earn every little half-chance that they created, they have to earn it, which was pleasing.”
With D.C. United coming to town Sunday, the task now falls to Minnesota to maintain that defensive organization while finding the back of the net. With Kevin Molino, Miguel Ibarra and Abu Danladi all healthy seeing minutes against the Galaxy, along with Ethan Finlay and Romario Ibarra, there is plenty of competition for places among Minnesota’s front five.
On which players had earned another start this weekend, Heath was non-committal, saying the club will have to see how players recover during the short turnaround before the Loons’ next game.