Now that is what soccer is meant to look like. Wow. It’s hard to find the words to do that match justice, but I don’t get paid unless I try. Minnesota United took down the Columbus Crew on penalties after a 3-3 draw in their Leagues Cup Round of 32 showdown, and it was one of the greatest games this stadium has ever seen.
There was no settling-in period during today’s match; it was strictly business from minute one. Both sides displayed a level of technical excellence that any team would be proud of, moving the ball with purpose and pinpoint passing. The first shot came just six minutes in from none other than Superman himself, but Dayne St. Clair refused to let the former Loon get the upper hand.
The midfield battle was captivating throughout, with the efforts of Dotson and Trapp proving just enough to foil the silky play of Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris. The creative sparks provided by Alex Matan and Emanuel Reynoso saw the game spread from end line to end line, leaving the contest balanced on a knife’s edge in the early moments.
The balance broke in the 17th minute, when a clinical counter from the Loons put the visitors up 1-0. Rey’s practically magical turn and cross-field pass to Teemu Pukki allowed the striker to slot a perfect through-ball at the end of Bongi’s perfectly timed run. A tidy finish from the winger gave the advantage to the Black and Blue, but it was still anyone’s game.
There’s no doubt that the Crew play pretty soccer, but their possession proved largely fruitless in the face of an incredibly disciplined MNUFC side. The Loons have a penchant for bending without breaking, and it was on full display in the first 40 minutes.
Unfortunately, they bent a bit too much in the 42nd minute, when a giveaway in the defensive third allowed Columbus to pounce and level the score. The home side never seemed to panic, finishing the half with a flourish and setting up a must-see conclusion to one of the Round of 32’s best matchups.
The top-tier soccer just kept coming in the second half, and it somehow got even better. Alex Matan’s rocket in the 51st minute was a jaw-dropping strike, but the Loons never lost heart. The man of the hour bagged his third brace in a row, as Rosales’ cross in the 54th minute found Bongi at the back post for the brave finish. He took the knock in stride, giving his side the response they needed.
There wasn’t any time to catch your breath during this one, with chances coming thick and fast at both ends. The technical level was absolutely superb, showcasing the full spectrum of what makes this game so dang beautiful. Bongi and Rey were constant thorns in the Crew’s side, but the home side ultimately found the go-ahead goal in the 83rd minute, courtesy of none other than Christian Ramirez. With mere minutes remaining, it appeared as though MNUFC’s Leagues Cup run was at an end, but there wasn’t a single fat lady singing.
Rey pulled off what can only be described as sorcery in the 91st minute, drawing FOUR defenders out of position in the box to free up Hassani Dotson at the top of the 18. Dotson’s shot took a perfect deflection, leveling the score in the nick of time and forcing penalties.
Though Bongi is undoubtedly Mr. Leagues Cup, Dayne St. Clair added his name to the ballot with his shootout performance, saving spot-kicks from Malte Amundsen and Kevin Molino for the come-from-behind-twice victory that the Loons deserved. Let me amend an earlier statement: this wasn’t just the best matchup of the round; it may have been the best game of the tournament.
From start to finish, the Crew was calm and composed in possession. But MNUFC’s compact shape was the perfect counterweight to Columbus’ high-pressure offense, fending off just enough attacks to keep the game even. The Loons proved once again that they are masters at letting the other team have the ball and still coming out on top, and this has got to be the most fun game they’ve played all year.
The legend of Leagues Cup grew leaps and bounds today for Loons fans. Some say this tournament was made for Bongi; others say Bongi was made for this tournament. We may never know which is true, but one thing is certain: this guy is on fire. He’ll be looking to get his fourth brace in a row when the Loons host the winner of Toluca and Sporting Kansas City’s match. Tickets will go on sale at noon CT Saturday; don’t miss out on what’s sure to be another enthralling matchup.
Minnesota United FC v Toluca/Sporting Kansas City
Allianz Field | Saint Paul, Minnesota
08.08.23 | Leagues Cup Round of 16
(Watch on MLS Season Pass)