ST. PAUL, Minn. — The culmination of Minnesota United’s famous three-year plan was its first berth into the MLS Cup playoffs, complete with a home game to put a cherry on the top of Allianz Field’s debut season. The evening proved bittersweet, however, as a pair of second-half goals from the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy ended the Loons’ 2019 campaign with a 2-1 loss.
An 87th-minute rocket from Ján Greguš cut the Galaxy’s lead in half and brought the crowd to a fever pitch for the game’s final minutes. To the frustration of that standing-room-only crowd, however, no equalizer was to be found.
“As I said to you in the week,” MNUFC head coach Adrian Heath said after the match, “at this level, it’s going to be really small margins. And we didn’t have the quality at the end when we should have.
“Overall, I was pleased with our performance, pleased with the commitment. Couldn’t have asked for any more. But we just came up short because we didn’t have the final ball nearly all evening.”
Missed chances from inside the Galaxy’s penalty area from Robin Lod, Kevin Molino, Ethan Finlay and Ángelo Rodríguez weighed on Heath’s mind.
For the Galaxy, the victory was just the reboot needed after an up-and-down regular season that produced a fifth-place finish and a negative goal differential. None of which now matters after advancing to face local rival LAFC in a Western Conference semifinal.
Sebastian Lletget opened scoring in the 71st minute, slotting home the rebound of a Zlatan Ibrahimović shot that was blocked by Michael Boxall. Four minutes later, a Loons turnover was converted into a Galaxy goal via a curling effort from Jonathan dos Santos. Those five minutes proved enough to carry Los Angeles to victory.
While it took over an hour for the game to produce its first goal, eyebrows were raised by both managers before the opening kickoff.
Heath opted to begin the game with star playmaker Darwin Qunitero on the bench. The Colombian took MLS by storm in 2018, recording 11 goals and 15 assists in 27 league games, but tallied just 10 goals and five assists in 2019. Four of those goals came from the penalty spot.
Postgame, Heath said Quintero was under the weather and the decision to bring him off the bench was to remove any risk the team would need to burn a substitution early had he started and fatigue been an issue.
The front four selected by Heath in Quintero’s absence — forward Rodríguez and attacking midfielders Finlay, Molino and Lod — had combined for 666 minutes over the Loons’ previous four games, failing to record either a goal or an assist during that time.
Where the Galaxy’s front four boasted the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Cristian Pavón, LA coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto took his own chances in midfield. Perry Kitchen, who started alongside Jonathan dos Santos, was making his first appearance for Los Angeles since Aug. 11.
The Loons took the run of play in the first half and received brilliant one-on-one defending from their back line. Chase Gasper, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall and Romain Métanire combined to record four successful tackles, four interceptions, 11 clearances and a blocked shot. And it was Boxall, via header in the 19th minute, who provided the half’s only shot on target.
“Thought we were the better team for large periods of the game. Best chances all evening. Can’t remember [goalkeeper] Vito [Mannone] having anything to do until maybe the goal,” Heath said.
Heath’s recollection was correct in that Lletget’s goal was the Galaxy’s first shot on target. The strike that provided dos Santos’ goal was Los Angeles’ third.
“When you’re just one down you’ve still got a chance, because that goal was fairly lucky,” Boxall said of the Galaxy’s opening score. “And then for the second one to come so quickly, that was definitely a punch in the gut. So that one was hard to recover. Obviously, we still had a lot of time to get a goal to get ourselves in the game. Then we did. And we just couldn’t find that second one to equalize.”
Before the 2019 season began, it was playoffs or bust for MNUFC. Having achieved that goal, but then bowing out in the first round at home, a common question posted to Heath and players in the immediate aftermath of the loss was whether or not the season could be considered a success.
For Osvaldo Alonso, Mannone and Greguš, the combination of playing in a U.S. Open Cup final and reaching the postseason were enough to consider it one.
“Right now, no,” the defender answered. “I think anytime you’re knocked out it sucks, especially when you outplay a team at home. To create the chances we did and then they score — they had maybe three or four chances and they score two of them. That’s just disappointing.”
For Heath, it was a mix of emotions.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I know that people will say it’s been a good year, and it has. It’s been a good year from where we were,” Heath said. “But we were better in the attacking half than we have been this evening. And if we want to get to where we want to be — to where everybody wants to be — then we have to get better in the final third.”
Heath returned to a familiar topic: the need to bring in more quality players. This time, though, it was not in pursuit of a competitive team, but out of a desire to keep that already competitive team progressing.
One important piece of that team may or may not be back in Minnesota come 2020, with Mannone’s loan from Reading Football Club set to expire and the Royals and Loons yet to reach an agreement on a permanent transfer for the Italian keeper’s service.
Like several of his teammates, Mannone stayed on the field after the final whistle to thank supporters. In the locker room, as his teammates finished the last of the postgame interviews, he packed into his bag scarves bearing the names of MNUFC supoorters’ groups, given to him by fans.
“I’m a fan, myself, when I’m out there,” said Mannone. “I know what it means. They pay their money, they love the club and they want us to do as well as possible. And that’s what I’m trying to do every time. So I do it for my family, but also for the fans who were always there to support me. And I think for this club especially, they’ve been amazing this season. And we couldn’t have done many things without them.
“It’s been an incredible place to play at, and this has to be a solid base for this club going forward. This core of players, we’ve got a big possibility in the future ahead of us. It’s important we keep going and keep the fans pushing us, and keep them happy and give them 100 percent. As long as we do that, is a bright future ahead.”