Minnesota United traveled south for its first game of the week against Atlanta United in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With some lineup shuffling, the Loons were hoping to sneak a tight victory over the reigning champs and played a tough, hard-nosed game up until stoppage time when they gave away two goals to go with Atlanta's first — scored in the 20th minute — to give the home side a 3-0 victory.
"I thought we executed the plan really well apart from the last two goals," said Head Coach Adrian Heath. "We were still right in the game. We stifled them, they hadn't created an awful lot of chances against us and I thought we looked dangerous in the second half. You look at the scoreline and the scoreline looks 3-0 and like you've been well and truly beaten, but that was far from the case. I thought we were the more likely to get the next goal when they were winning 1-0. Poor goals from us, really bad mistakes and I don't think that we troubled them enough going forward."
Minnesota began the game in a formation unseen since its early season win over New York Red Bulls, the 3-5-2. A combination of missing right back Romain Metanire to yellow card accumulation and playing another dynamic attacking team on the road, led Heath to try to pack the backline. On the other side of the ball, Abu Danladi started over Angelo Rodriguez, giving the Loons a speedy outlet option to hit on the counterattack.
"We put the extra defender in to see if we could stop the little channels that Josef [Martinez] likes to run into, and I thought that worked quite well," said Heath.
At first, Atlanta tried to attack the defense with long shots. Forward Josef Martinez took his first just three minutes in when he lashed it from the top of the box directly into goalkeeper Vito Mannone’s hands. In the eighth minute, midfielder Pity Martinez gave it a go from outside the box as well but to no avail. The Argentine floated out wide to the right, conceding the middle of the park largely to Julian Gressel in the #10 role.
In the 23rd minute, it was Atlanta who struck first. Gressel fired a pass from the left side ahead and into the box, clearly aiming for an onrushing Pity, but Ike Opara was there to break up the pass. Unfortunately for the Loons, the ball trickled off Opara’s foot and directly into the path of defender Franco Escobar, who drilled the ball past Mannone to give the home side a 1-0 lead.
Long balls ahead to Danladi and midfielder Darwin Quintero — playing in a second forward position — came to naught for Minnesota, and so counterattacking turned into forays into the midfield through possession at the feet of midfielder Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso and Rasmus Schuller. But while the ball got farther up the field and the possession built, opportunities were still lacking. Minnesota would close the first half without a single shot on target. Their best opportunity came in the 40th minute when Miguel Ibarra received a long diagonal ball from Alonso, cut it back inside and took a shot from the top of the box that went over the crossbar.
Down the stretch, the visitors often found themselves pressed back into their own end by Atlanta’s high press and the teams would head into the tunnel with question marks about Minnesota’s potential adjustments for the second 45.
The second half began with Minnesota United nearly giving up another goal off a free kick in the 47th minute when Pity sent it onto the head of Josef Martinez, who was a half-step offside. Minutes later it was Mannone instead of the line keeping the visitors in the game when Pity cut the ball back on Alonso and got a good look at goal but Mannone saved it.
The tone of the game began to shift in the 64th minute as Heath started to make adjustments to try to eke some goals out of the game. First he brought in forward Mason Toye for Abu Danladi — a like for like substitution with an eye toward simply getting a different speedy forward out front. Six minutes later, Quintero made way for Angelo Rodriguez, promising more hold-up play followed by passes back to midfielder pushing up and looking for seams to deliver balls into the box.
In the 74th minute, it looked like the strategy was going to pay dividends after a wild scramble in the box led to Boxall getting a boot on a loose ball that was rebuffed by Guzan, then Rodriguez heading it off Guzan, followed by Rodriguez getting a foot on the ball and appearing for all the world to sneak the ball in inside the post. But play continued and the referees made the decision not to look at the replay.
"It's strange because some of the guys thought it was in, some guys thought it was on the line," said Heath. "But I thought it was probably close enough for the referee or somebody to have a look at it, which is a bit strange when it's that tight."
In the 82nd minute, midfielder Ethan Finlay came on for Schuller, completing the shift to a much more attack-minded look at the same time as Atlanta brought on defender Florentin Pogba to go into bunker mode. Although Finlay made an immediate difference with a dangerous cross sent in from the right side that Ibarra couldn’t keep down as he shot it, Minnesota’s desperation to get an equalizer came back to bite them as Josef Martinez scored two counterattacking goals in the game’s closing minute to inflate the score to 3-0 and send the Loons home disappointed.
"You can't legislate for the couple of mistakes that we've made," said Heath. "I have spoke about the last few weeks that we've eradicated a lot of individual errors that have cost us in the past. Tonight, we had a couple of errors and that's what happens. You end up in the back of the net against somebody as clinical as Josef Martinez. But overall, I can't fault the guys for their effort. I'm pleased with the work that they've done and I'm pleased with the shape of the group. I just don't think that we had enough quality in their final third to really take the most of all the little half-chances that we created."
Minnesota United’s next game is its annual Pride Game on Sunday, June 2 against Philadelphia Union. That game gets underway at 3:00 p.m. CT with pregame coverage beginning at 2:30 p.m. on FOX Sports North+, streaming on FOX Sports GO and on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Brent Kallman, Hassani Dotson; M Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso, Miguel Ibarra, Rasmus Schuller (Ethan Finlay 82’), Darwin Quintero (Angelo Rodriguez 70’); F Abu Danladi (Mason Toye 64’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Dayne St. Clair; D Eric Miller, Wyatt Omsberg; M Lawrence Olum
Atlanta United FC Starting XI: GK Brad Guzan; D Franco Escobar, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst (Brek Shea 90’), Miles Robinson; M Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi, Julian Gressel (Jeff Larentowicz 90+3’); F Dion Pereira, Gonzalo Martinez (Florentin Pogba 81’), Josef Martinez
ATL Unused Subs: GK Alec Kann; M Andrew Carleton; F Justin Meram, Romario Williams
23’ – Escobar – ATL
90+1’ – J. Martinez (Gressel)– ATL
90+4’ – J. Martinez – ATL
29’ – Robinson (YC) – ATL
32’ – Opara (YC) – MIN
49’ – Abu Danladi (YC) – MIN
83’ – Escobar (YC) – ATL