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Oppo Research: 5 Things about Minnesota United

South African forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane is having a breakout season at Minnesota United
South African forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane is having a breakout season at Minnesota United | Courtesy MLS

In this edition of Oppo Research, Hudson River Blue spoke with Bridget McDowell, co-editor of Northland Soccer Journal, to get the straight dope on Minnesota United, New York City FC’s opponent on Matchday 25 at Citi Field in the beautiful borough of Queens. These two teams have met only four times in their shared history, and we have a lot to learn.

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1. Two steps forward, one step back

Hudson River Blue: Minnesota United danced their way through Leagues Cup matches, advancing through two knockout games on penalty kicks before reaching the semifinals — and getting pummeled 5-0 by Nashville. Now it’s back to MLS, where United are one spot away from making the playoffs. What’s the mood in the North Star State these days?

Bridget McDowell: Minnesota supporters are understandably upset and frustrated about the Loons exiting the Leagues Cup the way they did. The squad was really starting to look like a more cohesive unit through the group stage and were clearly having fun playing for one another as they advanced but showed a complete regression in Nashville. Being so close to the playoff line at this point would normally be enough to smooth that over but, with that line being so deep in the table in 2023, that’s not quite enough. These first two games back in MLS play (away to NYC, then home against Seattle) could set the tone for the rest of the season.

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2. On-field frustrations lead to red cards

HRB: The Loons were shown three red cards in five Leagues Cup games after earning just one red card in the MLS season to date. What happened to Minnesota Nice?

BM: I could explain the alternative definition of Minnesota Nice (passive-aggressive and superficial niceties) but instead… I think the squad’s frustration with results to this point is finally reaching a boiling point. Even a league and international veteran like Michael Boxall will draw the line somewhere. It has been a season of contrasts: Guys playing to the whistle and chasing down every ball so as to not miss out on a sliver of a chance vs arguing a moment too long with the official or being drawn into cheap fouls early in a match. In my opinion, those moments resulting in red cards showed that they know it hasn’t been enough, and DJ Taylor’s ejection from the Nashville quarterfinal might have been enough to stifle that new urge to react in the heat of the moment.

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3. The dangermen: Emanuel Reynoso, Teemu Pukki

HRB: The 23-year-old forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane is having a breakout season, the 33-year-old striker Teemu Pukki was signed from Norwich City in June to a Designated Player contract, and NYCFC favorite Ismael Tajouri-Shradi has one goal and one assist in 64 minutes of play. Who is Minnesota’s dangerman? 

BM: Tajouri-Shradi is still a bit of a mystery as we haven’t seen much of him the last couple of weeks due to a knock; however, that goal and assist so early after his arrival show that he can make an impact off the bench, so seeing his name in the 18 is good security. Ever since his debut goal, Pukki has struggled with his finishing touch (he missed at least two clear opportunities against Nashville that could have turned that game upside down), but his ability to draw defenders has repeatedly created space for Emanuel Reynoso and Bongokuhle Hlongwane to exploit. Nashville kept Bongi from advancing in the Leagues Cup Golden Boot race, but he has looked hungrier in each match while Reynoso continues to grow more confident. If those three can settle in, the trio will be dangerous, and Tajouri-Shradi could keep it going off of the bench.

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4. The X-factor: Bongokuhle Hlongwane

HRB: What’s the X-factor that could decide this game?

BM: If Reynoso and Hlongwane have forgotten about that quarterfinal and play as they did earlier in the tournament, they could be the deciding factor. If they are not running at 100 percent, the Loons will have to rely on the backline to not leak like a sieve when staring down Maxi Moralez and be quick to defend any inevitable counter.

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5. Predicted Minnesota Starting XI

HRB: Prediction time: Starting XI? Final score?

BM: With both NYC and United playing some low-scoring games through the first half of the season, I am expecting a 1-0 result on Sunday, in favor of – *flips coin* – the Loons. 

Alternatively, one defensive lapse by United late in the game, after a poor turnover at the other end, could result in a 1-0 win for NYC.

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