Minnesota United’s second match of the Carolina Challenge Cup was a drier although still slippery affair against Atlanta United that showed off much better energy from the squad than last weekend’s tilt against the Charleston Battery. There wasn’t much between the teams on the night with Atlanta pressuring the ball heavily and the Loons fending off attacks and working to spring the counterattack in a 1-1 draw that Head Coach Adrian Heath began in an unusual place: the stands.
“I just wanted to see the shape in and out of position,” he said. “We’ve been working on positions on the field for certain individuals. I thought I would get a better view in the first half upstairs. You don’t get as much information, but it does give you a different perspective of the game because the one thing when you’re at ground level, you lose the gauge of where everybody is, the depth of the play.”
Right off the whistle, Atlanta came out putting a lot of pressure on the ball, especially in Minnesota’s half. As a result, the Loons had to settle back into defensive mode but, to their credit, held their shape and stayed compact. In the opening minutes, Atlanta spent a lot of time deep in its left wing, forcing throw-ins and earning its first corner kick in the ninth minute.
Atlanta’s new addition, Ezequiel Barco, took corners from the left side while Miguel Almiron took those on the right and they had plenty of chance to practice as the team rang up 11 corner kicks in the first half overall.
Highlights for Minnesota included 34-year-old defender Tyrone Mears keeping pace with the spry 18-year-old Barco all the way down the left wing before wrangling the ball away from him. New goalkeeper Matt Lampson also stood tall in net, sending back several strong shots from Almiron and one in the 18th minute from forward Josef Martinez that looked for a moment like it went in but was actually turned away by Lampson for a corner.
“It gives me an opportunity to say we’ve got two really good goalkeepers,” said Heath. “That’s what I know now. We’ve seen enough of Matt in preseason to know that he’s really good. It doesn’t change any of my opinion from tonight because I already knew we had a good keeper.”
While chasing down a long ball in Atlanta’s half in the 24th minute, forward Abu Danladi collided with Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan and stayed down, clutching his left ribs. He eventually got back up and soldiered on, finishing the half before being replaced by Christian Ramirez in the 62nd minute.
Although MNUFC couldn’t dial up many chances, the team was solid in defense and managed some counterattacking play but couldn’t find the final ball. The natural grass surface led to some slips on both sides that broke up promising play and the teams headed into the half knotted at 0-0.
The strong defensive effort continued in the second half with Lampson turning away shots and defender and captain Francisco Calvo turning a pair away at the goalline himself in the 53rd and 63rd minutes. Before coming off, Danladi made some big runs into the final third and showed a measure of improved poise in holding up his runs to stay onside. Unfortunately, his touch looked heavy on the night and he had trouble controlling the ball well enough to take strong shots.
It was a defensive miscue that led to Minnesota’s first goal in the 52nd minute. A poor clearance out of Atlanta’s box was corralled by midfielder Ethan Finlay about 30 yards out and quickly sent back in to midfielder Rasmus Schuller who cut quickly into the box and was taken down by an Atlanta defender to earn the penalty. Midfielder Kevin Molino calmly stood over the ball and drilled it slightly right of center and over the top of a diving Guzan to give MNUFC a 1-0 lead.
Late in the match, both teams made moves with Minnesota brining in Sam Nicholson and Miguel Ibarra for Finlay and Molino. The subs kept the energy going and the match was a scrappy, edgy affair down the stretch, most noticeably from Ibson, who at 34 displayed the drive of a player in his prime as he caromed all over the pitch tracking down loose balls and turning the tide back in Minnesota’s favor whenever he could.
“The one thing that people never ever notice, when we have a cheap turnover — I think it was in the 82nd minute — if you look at [Ibson’s] desire to get back to defend the goal, it’s incredible,” said Heath. “I will for sure show that to the players when we go through the video. Incredible desire for a preseason game for a man of his age, for a guy who’s achieved what he has. That’s why he’s the player he is. Doesn’t matter whether he’s playing a friendly or a preseason game — he approaches it in the same way. He’s a great role model for aspiring footballers.”
Atlanta ultimately drew level in the 85th minute off the first MLS goal for Barco, who pushed the ball down the left wing and then went left to right to get around Nicholson and get the ball onto his good foot for a strong strike past Lampson. Although Atlanta piled on the pressure in search of the match-winner, Minnesota held them off and the teams had to settle for a point each in the 1-1 draw.
“There was tons more energy tonight,” said Heath. “I thought their shape and their play [were better]. Although Matt Lampson’s had to make some big saves, I was a bit disappointed we didn’t hang on and win because I thought we let them out of jail a few times on the counterattack when our final ball wasn’t good enough or we made the wrong choice, but we’re playing against the most expensively assembled team in MLS — we have to try and keep it tight. We can’t have an open expansive game against a team like this. I thought that the gameplan worked very, very well for us.”
MNUFC wraps up its stint at the Carolina Challenge Cup with a match against Columbus Crew SC on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. CT. Stream the match at MNUFC.COM or catch the broadcast on BeIN Sports.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Matt Lampson; D Tyrone Mears, Michael Boxall, Francisco Calvo, Jerome Thiesson; M Collin Martin (Collen Warner 46’), Ethan Finlay (Miguel Ibarra 76’), Ibson, Rasmus Schuller, Kevin Molino (Sam Nicholson 76’); F Abu Danladi (Christian Ramirez 62’)
Atlanta United FC Starting XI: GK Brad Guzan; D Sal Zizzo (Franco Escobar 65’), Jeff Larentowicz, Leonardo Gonzalez Pirez, Greg Garza (Mikey Ambrose 65’); M Darlington Nagbe, Chris McCann (Kevin Kratz 84’), Julian Gressel (Hector Villalba 65’), Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco; F Josef Martinez (Romario Williams 65’)
52’ – Molino (PK) – MIN
85’ – Barco – ATL
31’ – Martin (YC) – MIN
45’ – Garza (YC) – ATL
58’ – McCann (YC) – ATL
83’ – Williams (YC) – ATL