Eight goals, nine yellow cards, and just one point apiece. Saturday’s MLS Game of the Week was chock-full of action and intrigue, leaving players, coaches, and fans exhausted from what proved to be a whirlwind of excitement. After several lead changes and close calls, Minnesota United ended up scoring in the 69th minute to level the score at four, earning a draw with the visiting Portland Timbers. Loons Head Coach Adrian Heath had mixed feelings about the result.
“It’s a disappointment because we put ourselves in a great spot to win the game,” Heath said. “Seven games ago, I would have said, ‘We’ll take five wins and two draws.’ Yes, I would have and I would have been delighted with it.”
Right from kickoff, Portland appeared to be a bit sharper than the home side, scoring an early goal and setting the tone right away. While the Loons were able to come together and respond, their slow starts may have cost them the win.
“I thought we started both halves really poor,” Heath said. “We got a goal down, after what was it, 30 seconds, because everybody is on the back foot and expected somebody else to do something. The last thing I said before they went out in the second half, ‘Do not start the second half the way you did the first. Do not give them something to believe in.’ And then for fifteen minutes in the second half, I don’t think we won the first ball that went into our half of the field. Late to every challenge.”
Minnesota United’s captain on the night, defender Michael Boxall, was likewise disappointed by the team’s start. When asked about the early goal, he described the team mentality that fueled their response.
“We’ve got a lot of time,” Boxall said.” We’re not too worried. Obviously, it’s less than ideal but it’s not the end of the world because you’ve got 89 minutes to get it back. You see the response from the guys was incredible. The crowd was behind us the whole 100 minutes, whatever it was tonight. I think the response was good and that’s the kind of attacking football we want to play. I think we were just a little bit sloppy in the second half. Little bit more careless with it and that kind of led to the transition opportunities where we were a little bit slow to get back.”
The early goal was scored by the last player MNUFC fans wanted to see, none other than Sebastian Blanco. Blanco’s two goals in the playoffs last season ended the Loons title hopes, and his play on Saturday showed his quality. Adrian Heath was complimentary of his opponent’s skill.
“He's a quality player,” Heath said. “Give him time, give him space, he picks a pass, makes something happen, gets in the box. Times when they broke and you see him in a big hole you think please don’t give it to him. A couple times they did and then he creates something or he makes something happen. It’s like Rey [Emanuel Reynoso]. You give him time and space and they’ll show you what good players they are."
Among the game’s silver linings were the performances of both Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Luis Amarilla. Hlongwane’s tireless energy made the Loons dangerous on the counter, while Amarilla’s positioning and clinical finishing added an exclamation point to the end of several impressive buildups.
“He’s coming back isn’t he,” Heath said about Amarilla. “Looking more like the Luis [Amarilla] we know we’ve got. His ball retention has been so much better in the last few weeks and he’s now looking like a goal threat. The chance he had with the header late on that’s Luis [Amarilla] at his best. Getting across people, attacking the ball in the box. That's a good sign for us. I feel as though he’s just coming back towards his best.”
Amarilla contributed two goals and one assist on the day, bringing him up to seven goals and three assists this season. His performance was good enough to earn MLS TOTW honors for Week 23.
Meanwhile, Bongi recorded a goal as well, just his second in MLS. This is his second game in a row with a goal, and it appears as though the fan favorite may have figured something out.
“I thought Bongi [Bongokuhle Hlongwane] was maybe our man of the match tonight,” Heath said. “Incredible energy levels, gets himself another goal. Gets a header on the back stick to get the equalizer at four-four. He’s been terrific.”
Moving forward, the Loons will be headed out to Colorado for their next game. This will be their third meeting in all competitions this season, but MNUFC will be missing a few familiar faces. Due to yellow card accumulation, Emanuel Reynoso, Robin Lod, and Michael Boxall will all be forced to watch the match against the Rapids from the sidelines. Despite the absences, Boxall is confident that his team will find a way to manage.
“It gives some other guys an opportunity,” he said. “We’ve dealt with getting a few healthy bodies back so it gives the guys other opportunities to step up. It’s similar to the Houston [Dynamo] game. These are the times in the middle of the season that everyone in the squad has to be ready for. We’ve seen Nabi [Kibunguchy] step up in a big way, so we’re going to need him and a couple of others to really step up again.”
Despite the bitter aftertaste, both Minnesota United and Portland left this game with their unbeaten runs intact. MNUFC will be taking their seven-game streak to Commerce City, Colorado this Saturday as they look to keep their goal-scoring form going against the Rapids.
Colorado Rapids v. Minnesota United FC
Dick’s Sporting Goods Park | Commerce City, Colorado
08.06.22 | MLS Game 24
8:00 pm CT (MLS LIVE on ESPN+, Bally Sports North EXTRA, The CW - Twin Cities, 1500 ESPN)