ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota United welcomed Aston Villa to Allianz Field for a midweek friendly and played the role of gracious host, as the Villans’ 3-0 victory was every bit as comfortable as the scoreline indicated.
For Villa, it was a successful first friendly after earning a return to the Premier League following last May’s 2-1 win over Derby County in the final of the English Championship Promotion Playoffs.
For Minnesota United, it was a bit of a down evening that left head coach Adrian Heath less than pleased with his team’s play.
“Disappointed,” Heath said. “Know it was a second-string team and some of them haven’t played much football, but they’re better than a lot of them showed this evening. I thought [Lawrence Olum] was maybe the pick of what it was because he did the job that we asked of him, and was brave enough to receive the ball under pressure and play forward.
“They’ll be better for it, because some of them haven’t played for an awful long time, or haven’t played enough, and I think that showed. The moments of lapses of concentration — the ball winds up in the back of the net. We’ve switched off, turned it over cheaply, not been brave enough to play at times and it’s cost us.”
An edge to the Loons’ play wasn’t the only thing missing on the evening. The atmosphere at Allianz Field was a shadow of what it was four days earlier when a goal and a penalty save in the dying minutes of MNUFC’s 1-0 win over FC Dallas brought a deafening thunder the standing-room crowd that left players on both teams unable to hear the referee’s whistle.
On Wednesday, the announced attendance of 18,533 fell a few hundred tickets distributed short of an official sellout. The friendly wasn’t included in season ticket packages, and taking the place of die-hard supporters in large numbers were youth soccer teams in town for the Target USA Cup. The 2019 iteration of the tournament, held in the nearby suburb of Blaine, has drawn over a thousand teams from 22 U.S. states and 20 countries. In Allianz Field’s north end, a team from Iceland held up their nation’s flag in support of their countryman and AVFC defender Birkir Bjarnason, who featured for his country in the 2018 World Cup.
Absent the Wonderwall as its 12th man, MNUFC turned in a decent showing against a strong first XI selected by Aston Villa manager Dean Smith to contest the first half. MNUFC created a few half chances. The Villans squandered a couple real chances. And in the 36th minute, Jack Grealish dipped through the Loons midfield to smack the ball between goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth and the far post from the edge of the penalty area.
At the half, Smith made 10 changes, leaving only goalkeeper Jack Clarke to return for the second half. Heath delayed making changes until the second half was underway, with Miguel Ibarra not exiting until the 72nd minute.
“We just wanted to give [Ibarra] some football, because he only got on at the weekend late,” said Heath. “We’re trying to manage the minutes for everybody so they’re fresh for what’s the most-important thing, which is our game on Saturday.”
The introductions of Ethan Finlay, Kevin Molino, Ján Greguš and 18-year-old Ally Ng’Anzi added a bit of composure and a dash of youthful energy for the Loons, and Minnesota started to combine going forward. Unfortunately, MNUFC also lost focus at the back. In the 82nd minute, Frédéric Guilbert crossed the ball onto the foot of Henri Lansbury to double the Villans’ lead. Four minutes later, Andre Green picked out the head of Bjarnason to make it 3-0 in favor of the visitors.
— Kyle Eliason (@kreliason) July 18, 2019
“Bigger, faster, stronger, more creative, more comfortable,” said Loons forward Mason Toye of Villa on the evening. “That’s just the way the Premier League is. That’s just the way leagues are when you go up a level. We were able to do a pretty good job in the first 65 minutes of the game, and then the game kind of got away from us.”
Shuttleworth, making his playing debut at Allianz Field after dealing with a knee injury earlier this season, added his thoughts on the game. It was a game in which Shuttleworth often found the ball at his feet as Minnesota looked a bit intimidated by the Premier League opposition and took comfort in passing sideways and backwards.
“It’s preseason for them and it’s 98 degrees out here and 100-percent humidity,” Shuttleworth offered. “The pace of the game was obviously not very high and our movements were a little sparse at times. So a lot of guys ended up playing backwards and back to me, and then I just tried to keep it moving.”
On the subject of movement, Shuttleworth was asked directly — having found himself second choice behind Vito Mannone — if he was looking to join another club now that the summer transfer window had opened.
“I like it here in Minnesota, but obviously I want to play games,” Shuttleworth said. “You know, I don’t think I’m at a point in my career where I’m comfortable being a number two, and I’m here to push Vito and Dayne [St. Clair] and try to play. If I’m not going to play here, ultimately I’m going to have to take it somewhere else where I can play. Just not ready in my career yet to take a backseat.”
On a positive note, Heath was complimentary towards Smith and Aston Villa and touched upon his nine league appearances for the Villans as a player.
“It’s been a pleasure having them in our building,” said Heath. “Even though I was only there for a short time, I hope they do really, really well because the Premier League needs a good Aston Villa.
“I just said [to Smith], ‘I hope you got everything out of the trip that you wanted.’ And he said, “Yes we have.’ I hope it’s been a good trip for them and they’re always welcome back. Maybe we can build on this and host them again.”