“We never started the first half, never got out of a jog,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “[I] thought we were second best in every aspect of the game. For me, it’s a sharp reminder that we still have to get better. As I said at the end of the game, we have one of these 45 minutes still in us, and we can’t carry on doing it. If we want to be where we want to be with the level of talent that we have, we can’t have a 45 minutes where we basically go two down and then I come in and go crazy at halftime and then we get a response and then we look like we might get something out of it.”
With Darwin Quintero missing due to injury, Adrian Heath chose to deploy a 4-3-3 rather than the 4-2-3-1 he has commonly used throughout this season. Taking the place of the missing Quintero, Hassani Dotson came into the MNUFC midfield alongside Jan Gregus and Osvaldo Alonso. The trio of Dotson, Gregus and Mason Toye had all seen international action just days prior but all made the turnaround to face the Houston Dynamo.
In what was a slow and methodical first half, the game presented few opportunities for either side. While MNUFC controlled much of the game throughout the first 20 minutes, it was the Houston Dynamo who had the first clear-cut chance of the game. In the 21st minute, former Loon Christian Ramirez played a give-and-go with Houston’s Mauro Manotas that sent him through on Vito Mannone’s net. Recovering just in time was Romain Metanire, who did just enough to put off Ramirez as the striker’s snap shot flew tamely into the hands of Mannone.
After Ramirez’s early chance, both sides began to sit back and take turns in possession, content to save their legs with the temperature reaching the mid-80s. The Loons looked to get the ball out wide to their fullbacks and swing crosses in. Ethan Finlay and Mason Toye made multiple darting runs to get onto the end of Metanire and Gasper’s service but came up just short each time. Houston – who were without speedy wingers Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto – sent probing direct balls over the top of the Minnesota defense looking for the runs of Manotas and Ramirez.
It was Mauro Manotas, one of Houston’s most dangerous player in the first half, who ultimately struck first for the home side in the 37th minute. When a Tomas Martinez cross flew all the way over the Minnesota penalty area, Houston’s DaMarcus Beasley made a trailing run to catch up to the ball. Shifting onto his favored left foot, Beasley whipped in a low cross that was fired home first-time with authority by Manotas to give Houston a 1-0 lead.
Minnesota’s best chance of the half came through Thomás Chacón in the 43rd minute – who made his first MLS start for the Loons. Making a bursting run forward, Chase Gasper pulled the ball back for Chacón on the edge of the penalty area. Without hesitation, Chacón cut onto his right foot and sent a curling shot that flew directly at Houston’s goalkeeper Joe Willis.
Brimming with confidence after their first goal, the Dynamo doubled their lead just before halftime, this time through Ramirez. Looking dangerous again, Manotas played provider this time as he slid a pass through the legs of Ike Opara in the 45th minute, sending Ramirez away on goal. Making no mistake, Ramirez deftly lifted the ball over the outstretched arms of Vito Mannone to get on the scoresheet against his former club.
Heading to the locker room down two goals and not creating many opportunities, Adrian Heath brought on Robin Lod and Abu Danladi for Mason Toye and Hassani Dotson. Heath opted to switch to MNUFC’s favored 4-2-3-1 as Thomas Chacon slid to more of a central role just behind Abu Danladi as Robin Lod took his place out wide.
The change in formation helped the Loons to regain a foothold in the game as they looked more dangerous in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Ike Opara will have felt hard done as he felt he was dragged down in Houston’s penalty area as the defender went to challenge for a header from a Jan Gregus corner kick in the 59th minute. Denied a penalty kick, MNUFC almost responded seconds later when Chase Gasper sent a lovely cross that found an unmarked Ethan Finlay at the Houston back post. Taking the cross first time, Finlay’s side-footed volley was denied by a quick reaction save from Joe Willis.
While Opara’s protests were denied by the referee, Adrian Heath wasn’t interested in the calls that didn’t go his side’s way. “We created opportunities that I know we’re capable of,” said Heath. “But it’s with people making forward runs, with people actually being positive and trying to make things out rather than just sitting and waiting for things to happen. That’s what we were in the first half. Everything was reactive, not proactive.”
Driven by finally getting a good look at goal, MNUFC controlled swaths of possession as the second half progressed and Houston began to sit back, holding on to its 2-0 lead. Abu Danladi was the second Loon to come close to grabbing a Minnesotan goal, this time in the 68th minute. Breaking through the pressure of Houston’s midfield, Chase Gasper sent a through ball that found the run of Abu Danladi. Yards clear past Houston’s defense, Danladi took his time but fired his shot directly at Willis only to be ruled offside moments later.
The final 20 minutes of the game spelled more irritation for Minnesota United as chance after chance was repelled by the Houston defense. Ethan Finlay looked the most threatening for the visitors as his hard running and work ethic kept the Minnesota offense going throughout the night. Finlay was unfortunate not to score more than one goal through two late chances for the industrious midfielder.
In the 81st minute, second half substitute Angelo Rodriguez won the ball as he pressured a Houston back pass. Quickly shifting his body, Rodriguez lofted a cross that found the head of Finlay who steered his effort directly on target. If it wasn’t for a last-ditch goal line clearance by Houston’s Alejandro Fuenmayor, the ball would’ve trickled into the net to give the Loons a late lifeline.
Finlay did find the back of the net in the 89th minute during the waning moments of the game but his strike was ruled out upon further review. After the Dynamo failed to effectively clear a Romain Metanire cross, the ball fell to the feet of Finlay who rocketed a well-placed volley past Joe Willis in what looked like a goal that would set the game up for a dramatic finish. After review, it was ruled that Angelo Rodriguez – who was in an offside position – obstructed the view of Houston’s goalkeeper, Joe Willis canceling out Finlay’s strike. On a tough night in which the Loons were unable to get on the scoresheet in the muggy heat of Houston, the final whistle ended in a 2-0 loss for Minnesota United.
“It’s a real disappointment,” said Heath. “But I know that what we put in at LA — hard work, discipline, willingness to fight, willing to have the individual battle against your guy. And we were second best in nearly all of them the first half. When you’re losing individual battles, collectively you lose as well. The pressure starts at the first whistle and you have to be ready to play. Tonight we weren’t. It’s another sharp reminder that we’re not where we want to be and we’re not good enough.”
Minnesota United are back at Allianz Field in its first MLS home game in almost a month as it takes on Real Salt Lake on Sunday, September 15 in a Western Conference showdown of two teams separated by mere points. Kickoff for that game is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.