Goals, as we all know now, change games. So does officiating.
After a disappointing showing against D.C. United midweek, “we need a reaction” against FC Dallas, head coach Adrian Heath said in training on Friday. “Normally we do react after we put a bad performance in. But we need to be better than we were.” Minnesota United also needed to be more organized. Against DC United, playing in a new formation and without Emanuel Reynoso, the team looked confused in the loss as they also lost ground in the playoff race. With their prefered XI healthy and returning to the more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, rarely used on the road, Saturday night’s game against a struggling FC Dallas set-up to be both a statement of intent, going after 3 points on the road, something that is very difficult to do in MLS, and a chance to gain some confidence heading into next weekend’s game against third place Colorado Rapids.
The game, though, did not start off well. Within 90 seconds, Dallas midfielder Brandon Servania found himself with a leisurely amount of space and time just outside the box, and only an exceptional save from Tyler Miller kept the Toros off the board. “Too many times we have started off slow,” Miller said post-game. “We have given up a goal early and those have been daggers and you don’t need those, especially on the road. To be able to come up big for our team, but our team collectively came up really big. Made some really big plays, big tackles, big clearances all throughout the ninety minutes.”
That first sequence set a precedent for the entire opening half as Minnesota looked as confused on defense as they did on Wednesday night. While the problem on Wednesday was the spacing between the t3 center backs and the two outside backs, last night the problem was in the midfield as Wil Trapp and Ozzie Alonso were unable to establish their spacing, leaving too many gaps for FC Dallas’ offense to play into. While Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy kept the Toro’s young phenom Ricardo Pepi quiet most of the night, the rest of Dallas’ offense was able to run at will, requiring another stellar performance from Miller in goal.
With their preferred four of Franco Fragapane, Ethan Finlay, Robin Lod, and Emanuel Reynoso back in front, Minnesota’s offense looked better than it did mid-week. But even as Fragapane, Lod, and Reynoso showed the excitement and creativity they can produce together, the offense was unable to create chances in the first half. “We got enough of the ball in the final third,” Heath said after the game. “We just didn’t have enough quality in the final ball. Didn’t have enough people to get in the box. At the end of the day, you’ve got to get people in the box. You gotta try and get people in the danger area and make people defend. I thought we made it too easy for them. We were trying to find the perfect goal. We couldn’t get too much. It’s all combination play around the 18-yard box without actually looking threatening.” At the end of the half it was also clear that even with the movement of an inverted winger and a false-9, Minnesota remains a counter-attacking team, unable on their own to break down a defense that is willing to sit just outside their box absorbing pressure.
If the first half of the game belonged to Miller, the second half belonged to FC Dallas’ keeper Phelipe Megiolaro. While Dallas came out of the half looking surprisingly content and complacent, more worried about dropping points than going for a win, Minnesota came out more direct, pushing higher up the field. As Heath said, “I thought second half was more like us. That’s when we were at our best.”
The effort almost paid off in the 55th minute as Dibassay was able to make a lumbering, center-back quality run deep into the Toro’s half. Lofting a cross from the left corner that barely cleared Megiolara, who had gotten his feet a bit wrong, the ball made its way to Reynoso on the far post. With an incredibly deft touch off the outside of his left foot Reynoso redirected Dibassy’s offering to the near corner, only to have the chance saved off an incredible recovery from Megiolara.
In a moment of defensive breakdown in the 60th minute all that effort almost went for naught. Off a slowly developing counter-attack that was barely that - Minnesota had plenty of men back, setting up 7 against 5 - Ema Twumasi was able to offer in an awkwardly placed cross drawing from Boxall an equally awkward clearance. The clearance went straight into Ryan Hollingshead, hitting him in the hand before dropping at his feet for an easy put in. Following a VAR review, the goal was called back, a properly strict if wildly unfair interpretation of the rule and the play.
After that disallowed goal and an Dallas substitution that didn’t work - Andrés Ricaurte for Paxton Pomykal, pushing Jesús Ferreira out wide - Minnesota was able to regain control of the game. In the 71st minute Megliora was called on again, making a stunning double save. Lod, off an incredible turn in the box, was able to get off a scorcher of a toe poke to the far post that Megliora was able to deflect but not clear. Fragapane was the first to react and tried to go across his body to the far post, but Megliora was able to recover, redirecting the shot out for a corner kick.
The most important moment in the game, though, came in the 89th minute when Reynoso was shown a red card after another VAR review. With both players lunging for a loose ball Reynoso heavily stepped on Szabolcs Schön’s ankle. Although there seems to have been no intent in the play, it was a hard foul that was sloppy and unnecessary following a poor touch from Reynoso. But given the stakes of the decision, it seems especially harsh for the Loons who will now mostly likely face the Colorado Rapids without their primary offensive playmaker in addition to being without Boxall, Lod, Romain Métanire, and Jukka Raitala, who were all already scheduled to be out on international duty. Heath suggested that, after their own review, the club might contest the call, but it seems unlikely to be reversed.