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Recap: MNUFC hang tough but fall to Toronto 3-2

Toronto FC extended their winning streak to six games with today’s victory over the Loons

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota United played a well-rounded game on the road against Eastern Conference-leading Toronto FC today but emerged without a single point. The Loons played a defensively responsible game, marked well, and had a great shape but they ultimately came undone due to a few errors and lapses in concentration. The Loons still have not won a road game this season, and they will certainly be lamenting this loss as it could have easily been a hard-fought win on another day.

Manager Adrian Heath chose to field the same starting eleven that were responsible for the team’s surprising 2-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City just six days ago. At this point in the season, it seems as though Heath has the team playing the brand of football that he likes, as he’s changed the lineup minimally over the past couple of weeks and has deployed the same 4-2-3-1 formation each game. The consistency in lineup selection continues to inspire confidence with each passing game and the increased familiarity between those starting should continue to strengthen the bonds between players and help bolster the team’s attacking movements.

As is often the case with the Loons, it took them a bit of time to settle into the game. Toronto FC dominated possession in the first 15 minutes, out-possessing the Loons by a margin of 61-39 in the opening quarter-hour. Minnesota United looked up to the task defensively and was able to suffocate the Toronto attack early thanks to their defensive shape and their ability to get multiple guys behind the ball and into passing lanes.

All of the team’s early defensive work came undone in the 18th minute when Abu Danladi clattered Raheem Edwards in the box and the referee didn’t hesitate as he pointed to the spot for a penalty kick. Danladi’s challenge was reckless and unnecessary and Toronto made Minnesota pay for their indiscretion immediately as Sebastian Giovinco converted the penalty to put TFC up by one in the 20th minute. Bobby Shuttleworth had definitely done his homework on Giovinco’s penalty kick tendencies but the Italian switched things up and shot it down the middle, which beat Shuttleworth as he dove to his right.

The number one overall draft pick had an opportunity to atone for his penalty in the 26th minute when Miguel Ibarra played a gorgeous pass into space which put Danladi through on net. Danladi had just the goalkeeper to beat but he ended up steering the ball wide on what should have been an easy goal. This miss was particularly frustrating as it was the perfect opportunity to get back into the game and answer back immediately but it was not meant to be.

The Loons finally started to settle into the flow of the game in the final fifteen minutes of the half as they were able to possess the ball in Toronto’s end for an extended period of time. They were able to put pressure on the Toronto backline even after turning the ball over, which led to a nice spell of possession. Toronto seemed up to the task defensively as they were able to get plenty of players behind the ball and deny Minnesota from getting into the box and dangerous scoring areas. Eventually, Minnesota was able to get a dangerous scoring chance as Miguel Ibarra got a shot off from just outside the box which forced a fingertip save out of Alex Bono. Nothing came of the ensuing Loons corner and the team went into the half down by one. Ibarra’s late effort was the only shot on target for either team in the first half.

Minnesota United played a solid first half outside of the one mistake that resulted in a penalty but they still faced an uphill climb in the second half as Toronto played fantastic defensively after scoring in the first half.

One interesting thing happened just before the half as Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney ended up making a substitution in the 44th minute when he opted to substitute Sebastian Giovinco off and brought on Jozy Altidore. The talented Italian is still getting over a heel/foot injury which may have flared up on him, causing him to come off. Giovinco is clearly one of the best players in the league but being able to replace him with Jozy Altidore certainly blunted the blow of his day ending early. Vanney was also forced to substitute Jason Hernandez at the half as he was feeling ill. Eriq Zavaleta came on, which left Toronto with just one sub left for the rest of the game.

Toronto nearly went up by two early in the second half as they had two bites of the apple off of an attacking free kick. Michael Bradley’s ball found Chris Mavinga at the back post who headed the ball across the goal mouth. United defender Brent Kallman tried to clear the ball out of danger but his header went straight to Nick Hagglund who had a fantastic chance to put the home team up by two. Hagglund’s header somehow ended up outside of the net and the Loons surely dodged a bullet on that chance.

Toronto’s near-miss seemed to light a fire under the visiting team as Minnesota marched down the field and scored just nine minutes later. Ibson played an inch-perfect ball out of the midfield that found Danladi with a bit of space. Danladi chipped a ball into the box which found Kevin Molino, who hit a great shot near post that Alex Bono had no chance at stopping. Molino has struggled recently, and his goal from open play is surely encouraging for his form moving forward.

Things really started to open up after Minnesota equalized in the 52nd minute. Just three minutes later Toronto was able to get an attacking free kick on the left side of the Minnesota box. Michael Bradley put in another dangerous free kick to the back post. Mavinga was being marked by Christian Ramirez at the back post and it appeared as though the Toronto man pulled Ramirez down and the ball ended up going off of Ramirez and in for an own goal. Upon further review, Mavinga almost certainly should have gotten called for a foul but the Loons still did not defend the kick particularly well. Toronto took a one-goal lead for the second time but this lead lasted for less than ten minutes.

Minnesota dusted themselves off and continued to attack the Toronto backline, eventually winning a corner in the 61st minute. In the ensuing play, Francisco Calvo headed the ball down directly into Raheem Edwards’ arm, and the referee awarded the Loons with a penalty kick. Kevin Molino stepped up to take the kick and his penalty was not taken well and was saved by Bono. Bono was unable to corral the original shot, which left Molino wide open on the doorstep for a rebound tap-in which equalized the game.

The pendulum swung back in Toronto’s direction in the 77th minute when Jozy Altidore got on the end of a blocked pass and hit a fantastic left-footed cross into the box. Minnesota was unable to properly mark Tosaint Ricketts who steered the ball into a wide-open net. From this point forward Minnesota had no option but to chase the game as Toronto hunkered down defensively and counter-attacked sporadically.

Johan Venegas eventually came on at around the 80th-minute mark for Miguel Ibarra but he ultimately put in a frustrating shift. The displaced Costa Rican international did himself no favors if he is looking to return to the starting lineup soon as he misplayed quite a few passes and looked all-around lethargic. Venegas had a fantastic chance to equalize in the 85th minute when he slipped his marker and had a wide open header but he was unable to put it on net and the Loons were unable to get another solid scoring opportunity.

This loss is a particularly frustrating one for Minnesota, as they went toe-to-toe against one of the best teams in the league, only to lose due to a few miscues. There are plenty of lessons to be learned as the team has to realize that it cannot afford to slip-up against top-tier opponents as these teams will make you pay for your mistakes.

Altogether, both the attacking and defensive units played a solid game. The defense held Toronto to just three shots on target and conceded just one goal from open play. Despite getting down early, the offense was able to unlock the Toronto defense and score two goals in the second half, with a couple of other good scoring chances sprinkled in as well.

This loss, despite leaving a bitter taste in your mouth, represents a dramatic improvement from the beginning of the season. Over the past two games against Sporting Kansas City and Toronto, the Loons have proven that they belong at the MLS level and have the ability to hang with any team when they bring their “A game”. Next up for the Loons is a home tilt against a slumping Los Angeles Galaxy team that has just eight points in nine games so far in 2017.