It’s hard to win on the road in the MLS, everyone knows that. Possible factors that contribute to league-wide road woes include: field conditions, unfriendly referees, inclement weather, long flights, sleeping away from home, and voodoo hexes. Which of these factors is most to blame remains unclear, but of the eight MLS games played on Saturday only two featured the away team coming away with points, and only Real Salt Lake came away with a win. Minnesota United were one of the six road teams that came up empty.
For fans, attending away games can present its own set of challenges. When I decided to travel to Texas to watch the Loons take on FC Dallas, I was hoping to bear witness to a rare road point, or at the very least get the chance to experience road woes first hand. Following is my account:
Upon waking at my base camp in Austin on Saturday morning, I realized that both Head coach Adrian Heath and I had difficult decisions to make. Minnesota had three starters to replace – with Francisco Calvo and Collen Warner serving suspensions and Darwin Quintero on the shelf with a calf strain. Heath had to decide whether or not to try a new formation to accommodate new personnel, and then decide which players were most likely to help his team earn points in Texas.
As for me, I had gear decisions to consider. While my Jerome Thiesson Loons replica jersey is my default game day outfit at TCF Bank Stadium, the predicted kick off temperature of 96 degrees gave me pause and forced me to consider wearing my lighter, more breathable cotton Loons logo tee instead. Flustered, I decided bring both outfits in the car so I could make the important decision closer to game time.
Upon our arrival, we exited the safety of our air-conditioned vehicle to walk across a furnace posing as a parking lot toward the stadium. I scrolled through my Twitter feed as I walked in order examine the starting lineup. Imagine my surprise when I saw the announced 4-3-3 with Frantz Pangop on the left wing. While I would have expected Abu Danladi or Romario Ibarra to fill that vacant spot in the front four, I was intrigued to see what Pangop could bring to the team. Clearly, he must be impressing in training.
After wandering about Toyota Stadium a bit, we made our way down to field level. The teams were not on the field, which was odd, and I noticed what appeared to be a pleasant bank of clouds hovering over the stadium that cooled the air temperature down to a tolerable level. I was starting to regret not wearing my replica jersey when an announcement came over the loud speaker informing us that lightning had been spotted in the area and that the players were hunkered down in their locker rooms waiting for safer conditions.
What I had taken to be benign shade clouds were instead clouds of menace, their ultimate goal being to delay the game by several hours. A few minutes later I watched form the concourse as people began leaving their seats in waves and heading for shelter as water began to fall rapidly from the sky.
It rained . . . a lot.
Some sensible folk left the stadium altogether and called it a night. The more stubborn of us stayed congregated near the concessions stands to wait things out. Meanwhile, down in the locker room, the fellas did what they could to keep themselves entertained.
As for the brave supporters, we did not have access to art supplies, or walls, and were being pelted by a special edition Texas rain that fell in horizontal sheets. It was possible to find occasional refuge in the bathrooms, but the amped up Texas air conditioning was liable to cause hypothermia, so it was safest to huddle, hope, and suffer with the masses. I was beginning to fear that I would never get a chance to see what a 4-3-3 with Pangop on the left would look like.
Even biblical storms that last 40 days, however, have an end. And this onerous rain event began to peter out around around 9:00, at which point we were delighted to see the teams take the field for warm ups.
With a light rain falling, the prospect of actually getting see a game, a handful of paper towels to dry off my seat, and a spirited group of Loons supporters at my back, it was suddenly hard not to feel an unwarranted sense of optimism about the upcoming match.
Perhaps I should have known something was askew with the universe, however, when this only earned three likes.
I mean, come on, I flew across the country, drove three hours, waited 154 minutes in a driving rain, gathered all the Loons faithful into one corner of the stadium, and cajoled an FC Dallas fan to take our picture to get this tweet.
Anyway, the first ten minutes served to partially fuel my naive hopes. While the Loons hardly dominated the game, there was enough action down at our end by the Dallas goal to make it seem as if we were giving the home team some trouble. Angelo Rodriguez leapt on a 50-50 ball that came his way, fended off a formidable challenge from behind, then darted and slashed his way towards the goal looking nearly invincible. A Dallas defender finally got flustered and hauled him down about 30 yards from goal. The foul had Rodriguez and all nine away supporters howling for an early yellow card, but the referee was more inclined towards a stern talking to with authoritative hand gestures. Tyrone Mears sent the resulting direct kick over the crossbar.
Shortly thereafter, when the Loons earned a corner kick, the Loons supporters stood and twirled our scarves as if we were back home. We felt useful, and the Loons were threatening, even if the corner kick didn’t produce a shot on goal. A few minutes later, Pangop received the ball out on the left flank, dipped his shoulder to create some daylight, and delivered a cross that just missed Rodriquez streaking into the box. The Loons were finding ways to be dangerous, and it looked like it might be a long night for the Dallas back four.
Before too long we became desperate for someone, anyone, to make a foray back down into our end of the field, and I began to develop a serious neck cramp from staring down at the far end, trying to make sense of our attempts to slow down the Dallas attack as it gained momentum. I didn’t have the best view of the proceedings, but it was clear that Dallas new number 10, Chilean Pablo Aranguiz, was finding space, Dallas was getting a bit too much time on the ball in the offensive third, and an orange-clad Bobby Shuttleworth was engaged in the all too familiar business of bailing out his teammates in a time of need.
The Loons failed to develop any sustained pressure that might relieve my cramping neck, but the glue nearly held together long enough to get the fellas back to the dry, comfortable confines of their locker room and its inspirational art work with the game all knotted up at half time. This was not be, however, because Dallas benefited from a dangerous set piece in the 43rd minute that forced Shuttleworth into a reaction save which left the ball at the feet of Maynor Figueroa, who poked the it over the line. The yellow flag waved by the linesman stood as a talisman of hope for the Loon faithful, but a VAR session ruled that the goal was actually onside because it had last hit a Minnesota player before Shuttleworth made the save.
The second half allowed the supporters section an up close and personal view of the inner workings of the Loons defense in its continued attempts to relieve pressure and transition to something resembling an attack. Dallas was taking the game to its opponent rather than sitting on its lead, and at times that looked like one of those offense versus defense drills that coaches use to train the back four. The Loons defense was getting plenty of practice.
Minnesota looked mostly up to the task for a while, but the home team gradually carved out more time on the ball and probed deeper. In the 56th minute, what appeared to be a miscommunication between center back Michael Boxall and Pangop left Michael Barrios with enough time on the ball at the edge of the box to stand there for a moment and survey the scene with the ball on his favored right foot; he took advantage of the opportunity by burying a curling shot into the far side panel. Orange Bobby could only throw up his hands in dismay and fish the ball out of the back of the net.
From there, the game mostly fizzled. Dallas became less intent on attacking, but the Loons never really found their legs. Collin Martin’s strike from 25 yards out late in the second half forced Jimmy Maurer into his only save of the game, and subs Romario Ibarra and Mason Toye failed to inject any genuine life into the attack.
As the clock wound down, I was left puzzled by Danladi’s absence. Danladi’s offensive tear at the end of 2017 was instrumental in helping the Loons earn impressive road victories at Chicago, Montreal, and Atlanta, and his game-tying assist last week against the Galaxy combined with the Christian Ramirez trade and Darwin Quintero’s absence had me convinced that the speedy Ghanaian would be inserted into the starting lineup Saturday or at least feature off the bench early. Danladi’s number was never called, however, even as the Loons attack withered on the vine.
Danladi’s lack of progress is becoming a real head scratcher for me. If he was held out of the lineup because of another – God help us – hamstring pull, then, well, maybe it’s time to rush that kid down the Mayo Clinic for a hamstring transplant or something. When you think back to the shear havoc Danladi was wreaking last year at this time, it’s hard not to be frustrated and a little bit desperate for answers. Good grief!
The life lesson here is that life on the road isn’t easy. I may not have much in common with Loons players when it comes to athletic prowess, but all of us – orange-clad Bobby, newly-minted Frantz, worn out Boxall, and I – probably faced the same empty feeling as we crawled into bed two and half hours later than we had originally hoped. Come Sunday, we would all wake up tired, pack our Loons gear into a suitcase, face a day of airplane travel, and go back home. Eventually we can begin looking towards the next road trip to Kansas City, where we will hope for more likes on Ttwitter, more goals, and less rain.