The house was packed Minnesota United faced the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first round of the 2019 Audi MLS Playoffs for the first-ever playoff game at Allianz Field, presented by Cub, Taylor Communications and Minnesota Lottery. The crowd of 19,939 — the largest sellout crowd so far at the stadium — thrilled to a taut first half between the clubs, but a Galaxy goal in the 71st minute broke things open for the visitors and the Loons couldn’t claw their way back in. A Jan Gregus strike in the 87th minute would make the final score 2-1 as the Galaxy advance to the Western Conference Semifinals against LAFC.
“Disappointed," said Head Coach Adrian Heath of his reaction to the game. "We were the better team for large periods of the game. We had the best chances all evening and I can’t remember Vito [Mannone] having to do anything until, maybe, the goal. The amount of times that we attacked down the right-hand side and we got good balls into the box, I can think of two or three clear-cut chances. As I said to you in the week, at this level it’s going to be really small margins and we didn’t have the quality at the end when we should have done so. Robin [Lod] has had a great chance first half. Angelo [Rodriguez] has had an unbelievable chance with the header and there were a couple really, really good opportunities when we didn’t pick anybody out with the final ball. Overall, I was pleased with our performance and pleased with the commitment. I couldn’t ask for anymore. We just came up short because we didn’t have the final ball, nearly all evening.”
The game’s opening minutes found the teams evenly matched, in terms of offensive opportunities, defensive solidity and a bit of nerves on both sides. Each side found themselves mishandling some easy balls, including in the seventh minute when midfielder Osvaldo Alonso hit a long through ball to defender Chase Gasper on the left that split the Galaxy’s defense wide open. Gasper sent a curling ball in to forward but Angelo Rodriguez couldn’t get his touch together and it trickled harmlessly wide.
The Galaxy would answer with some offensive pressure of their own after working the ball to forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who struggled to make an impact on the game throughout the night, whiffing on a few shots and dribbling the ball out of bounds early. Minnesota’s centerback duo of Ike Opara and Michael Boxall were a big part of the reason for this, consistently getting a body on the big man and muscling him into dropping deeper for the ball. Gasper also put in a sterling shift standing up to the likes of midfielder Cristian Pavon and even going toe-to-toe with Ibrahimovic a few times.
Throughout the first half, the majority of the Loons’ opportunities came down the right wing and through the interchange between defender Romain Metanire and midfielders Kevin Molino and Ethan Finlay. Time and again, Alonso and his midfielder partner, Jan Gregus, found diagonal balls out to the wing there, but despite a decent number of opportunities, Minnesota could not find the final ball. Boxall got his head on a few efforts, including on a long Gregus free kick on the right side and another just before the half but nothing would come of either.
“I said at halftime, with Kevin [Molino] down that [right] side as well, we didn’t use the numbers up as well as we could have done and I thought we were a little bit rushed in our play," said Heath. "At times, we had more time to compose ourselves and maybe pick a better pass. I don’t know how many crosses we put in from the right-hand side tonight and we knew we would have that numerical advantage down that side because that’s the way they play. That’s the disappointment for me.”
The second half brought more of the same, with Minnesota defending well and the Galaxy defending just well enough to keep the Loons off the board. In the 56th minute, the home side got their first best opportunity when Metanire sent a beautiful ball from the right wing through the six and directly onto Rodriguez’s head, but the forward sent it just wide of the far post.
Minutes later, Heath went to his bench to try to wring something out of the attacking game, subbing in midfielder Darwin Quintero for Finlay in the 60th minute and then putting in forward Mason Toye for Rodriguez in the 67th minute. The moves gave the Loons a different look on the field, but in the 71st minute, it would be the Galaxy who would open the scoring.
A cross from the right wing found Ibrahimovic in the box, but his strike hit Boxall’s foot, popping up and landing directly in the path of an onrushing Sebastian Lletget who drilled it past Mannone to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. The goal put Minnesota on the back foot and as they scrambled to regroup and push forward, the Galaxy struck again. In the 75th minute, Jonathan dos Santos found himself with space at the top of the box and unleashed a rocket that zipped past Mannone and into the net.
"We turned the ball over too cheaply," said Heath. "I know what it’s like in them situations when you lose a goal. Then everybody starts running around and you stop doing what’s got you the success so far. We started to clear our lines too quickly so they just played. Playing through the middle, getting it out wide, getting numbers up out wide and starting to get quality in the box. You get desperate, I get it, it’s human nature but we were all over the place when they scored the second goal and there was still time to actually do something about it. At 1-0 you’re always in the game as we proved. We got a goal but you can’t go chasing the ball and running all over the place when there’s still 18 minutes left to play.”
Heath used his final sub of the night to bring in forward Abu Danladi for midfielder Robin Lod in the 77th minute. In the 87th, Minnesota got a glimmer of hope after a throw-in deep in LA’s territory got Quintero into the box. He cut it back a hair and then ripped a low cross to Gregus outside the box, who lined it up and beat Bingham with a low, driven shot into the bottom right corner of the goal to make it 2-1.
Ultimately, it was too little, too late for a Loons side that had relied all season on its defense to pull it through fallow spells on offense. The final whistle found the visitors victorious and headed for a matchup against LAFC in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“We have to get better," said Heath of the view towards next season. "We have to bring quality in. We did last year and we have to do the same again. If we do, this group will be a match for anybody. But, we can’t stand still, not in this league, not in the Western Conference because trust me, if we stand still, we lean backwards. We have to bring quality players in and that will make some big decisions. We have some big decisions to make over the next few weeks before we decide what we do.”
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Romain Metanire, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Chase Gasper; M Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso, Ethan Finlay (Darwin Quintero 60’), Robin Lod (Abu Danladi 77’), Kevin Molino; F Angelo Rodriguez (Mason Toye 67’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Dayne St. Clair; M Lawrence Olum, Hassani Dotson, Miguel Ibarra
LA Galaxy Starting XI: GK David Bingham; D Daniel Steres, Dave Romney, Diego Polenta, Giancarlo Gonzalez; M Cristian Pavon, Jonathan dos Santos, Perry Kitchen, Sebastian Lletget (Servando Carrasco 90+4’), Uriel Antuna (Romain Alessandrini 73’ ); F Zlatan Ibrahimovic
LA Unused Subs: GK Matt Lampson; D Julian Araujo, Rolf Feltscher; M Chris Pontius, Fabio Alvarez
71’ – Lletget – LA
75’ – dos Santos (Alessandrini) – LA
87’ – Gregus (Quintero) – MIN
33’ – Polenta (YC) – LA
44’ – Gonzalez (YC) – LA
80’ – Alonso (YC) – MIN
90+1’ – Alessandrini – LA