Minnesota United came into their final game of Phase I of the resumed MLS season replete with bodies both tired and injured. On the road against Sporting Kansas City, Head Coach Adrian Heath was left with little choice but to rest the trio of attacking midfielders who had caused headaches for both Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas at Allianz Field. In rotating the squad, Heath opted for a defensive look with a 3-5-2 that weathered the early storm of SKC chances well, holding a scoreless draw through the first half. Sensing that there might be something in the game, Heath shifted the look to a more traditional 4-3-3 in the second half with a bevy of subs, and while the Loons looked much more dangerous for it, they ultimately could not hold serve against an SKC side that outshot them 21-6. Johnny Russell’s breakaway goal in the 80th minute would stand for the winner in a rugged 1-0 game.
Minnesota’s starting XI saw defender Bakaye Dibassy making his MLS debut in a three-man backline that also featured Michael Boxall and Jose Aja. Flanked by Marlon Hairston and Raheem Edwards as wingbacks, the defense thwarted Sporting KC’s initial assaults. While often forced to defend deep, the Loons nevertheless stood firm in the box with the contributions of James Musa in at defensive mid. This left all the offense in the hands of midfielders Hassani Dotson and Jan Gregus and forwards Mason Toye and Jacori Hayes, who operated in a second striker position.
The result of this formation was an MNUFC side who could bend but refused to break in the first half. With Boxall as captain in Osvaldo Alonso’s stead, the defense put their bodies on the line repeatedly in the box as Sporting Kansas City was forced to go around the glut of midfielders the Loons were throwing at them and look for opportunities down the wings.
Still, the home side managed to set up shop in Minnesota’s defensive final third and rarely let Minnesota get out of their own end. When the Loons did get a chance to push the ball up the field, there were often too few outlet options to allow the attack to develop. Throughout the evening, goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair — making just his third MLS start — looked the part, often stepping aggressively to attackers and making several clutch saves early on good chances from SKC to keep it level.
At the half, perhaps sensing that SKC had thrown its heaviest punches already, Head Coach Adrian Heath came out with a new, more balanced look that aimed to take some of the home side’s momentum and push it back at them. Kevin Molino and Robin Lod came in as wingers and Chase Gasper came in at left back, with Jose Aja, Raheem Edwards and James Musa retiring to the bench.
Immediately, the change paid dividends as Molino and Lod got straight to work. In the 54th minute, Lod evaded a tackle on the right wing and got the ball deep down that side, but his ball into the box couldn’t find a target and the attack stalled. Just four minutes later, Molino got in on the action, sending in a cross that Mason Toye found and sent towards goal, only to be rebuffed by Roberto Puncec.
Sporting Kansas City kept up their attack, though, sending beautiful ball after beautiful ball forward in a vain attempt to open the scoring through the middle of the second half. Long passes down the wing from Felipe Martins and swift counterattacks went begging as the final product could not stand up to the build up for the home side.
EXHALE pic.twitter.com/NWm8D4eYAq— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) September 14, 2020
Ultimately, it was one of the most direct plays that broke it open for SKC. Defender Graham Zusi spied an opportunity in the 80th minute and sent a long pass to Johnny Russell, who split the fullback and center back on the left side before finding himself wide open with the ball. The Scotsman slotted it past St. Clair as the Loons raised their hands for an offside call that would not come.
Down the stretch, Minnesota added Thomas Chacon to the mix, but despite some set piece opportunities, the Loons could not muster a solid challenge in the game’s dying minutes. With the 1-0 win, SKC leaped to the top of the Western Conference standings with Minnesota heading home to get in a much-needed rest and full week of practice before beginning Phase II with a game on the road against Houston.
ADRIAN HEATH ON THE OVERALL PERFORMANCE
"They were obviously the better team first half. We tried to change the shape to see if we could stifle them in the middle of the park, but that didn’t work. I thought the shape in the second half was better. Obviously, when we got the likes of [Robin] Lod and [Kevin] Molino and [Emanuel] Reynoso in, we looked like we got the quality that we know we got. But, apart from that, you know it would have been a very, probably unjust, result had they not won the game when you consider the opportunities they’ve had."
MICHAEL BOXALL ON BAKAYE DIBASSY
"It’s kind of the first bit of action we’ve had with him since he’s been available post-quarantine. We’ve had too many games to actually have a full training with him. To come in and put in the shift that he did with two different formations. He seems so comfortable, he’s pretty composed and sure on the ball. He makes the right decisions and obviously with defending you guys saw for yourself, he steps and loves a challenge – not much really got by him tonight. I think that’s his first game since February or March so to hold up in these conditions, with the travel and all that, it’s outstanding really. So once he finds his legs he’s going to be a very important player for us."
BELL BANK MAN OF THE MATCH
- 80' | Long ball over the top by Graham Zusi finds Johnny Russell splitting Chase Gasper and Bakaye Dibassy before slotting it past Dayne St. Clair to finally break open the scoring. 1-0
HOUSTON DYNAMO vs. MINNESOTA UNITED
BBVA Stadium | Houston, Texas
09.19.2020 | MLS Week No. 12 | MLS Game No. 12
7:00 p.m. CT (FOX Sports North+, FOX Sports GO, MNUFC Radio on SKOR North)