By: Bridget McDowell // @BCMcDowell
Imagine spending more than two years searching for and fitting together all the edge and corner pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Halfway through that third year you still need one or two more pieces, but the frame is coming together. More and more people have been asking you what the final picture is, but you either can’t or won’t tell them, saying only that the little pictures change the game. You’re gathering little clusters here and there, snapshots you can piece together and show off at big gatherings. You’ve given them glimpses, little hints about the final product, especially one particular section.
Then one night, with everyone watching and waiting anxiously to see a completed section of your puzzle – the part they have been eyeing for the better part of a year – you approach the table, hesitate for a moment with your hands over that beautifully progressing section and… You shove it to the side and start fumbling with loose pieces in the opposite corner while a whole party of of supporters and skeptics looks on.
That is what Adrian Heath did with his United squad on Tuesday.
An Open Cup Final berth was billed as a cornerstone to Heath’s Three Year Plan from the outset in 2017. Open Cup and playoffs, Open Cup and playoffs, Open Cup and playoffs: The buzz words used by Heath & Co as they settled into each MLS season. The third time was the charm for an Open Cup berth and fans – even the most fervent pessimists – could not be faulted for going into the final in Atlanta expecting to see a lineup and formation akin to those laid out for the preceding matches.
Heath has stuck to his favored 4-2-3-1 to start nearly every match in 2019, reverting to a 4-3-3 only when absences dictated it and even then, only for short periods of time. He also held back his favored starters for two important league matches, presumably resting them for the final. So when MNUFC posted a 4-3-3 and a Starting XI that was largely untested in that shape, well – The only thing we know to expect is a surprise and this was no different.
Rookies Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson have performed well for the last couple months, often appearing mature beyond their years, especially when played alongside veterans like Michael Boxall, Ike Opara and Ozzie Alonso. Mason Toye, despite disciplinary issues, has reaped the rewards of having a USL affiliate nearby, finally breaking out of his second-year rookie slump; and newcomer Robin Lod has shown promise in his very short time here, when slotted in for short periods with perennial starters who needed someone to light a fire under their feet.
Despite all of that, expecting these players to hold off and break down a hot-running Atlanta side, in an unfriendly environment (Say what you will about the NFL, but they got one thing right in setting single-elimination style finals at neutral sites.), was incredibly unfair, especially given the blood, sweat and tears they gave to get there.
Midfield turnovers and final-third panic were, per usual, the Loons’ downfall in Atlanta. Opening the scoring with an own goal didn’t do much to settle the nerves of the defense (In all fairness to Gasper, that ball took an odd bounce and Minnesota veterans have been credited with even uglier own goals off of even poorer decisions.), but completing their own scoring opportunities could have wiped that moment clean from the Loons’ collective conscience. Had Minnesota managed to level the score and bounce back for the win, there is a good chance Man of the Match honors would still have gone to a player on the backline.
While Opara and Boxall (especially Boxall) took flack on Twitter for whiffing on some sitters that could have won the game, the defenders played their roles well in the second half, holding Atlanta goalless on one counter attack after another. Vito Mannone also came up huge, giving up only one goal to Atlanta (and one, of course, to Gasper) despite seeing too much of Josef Martinez.
What a juxtaposition this night was to the two teams’ first meeting back in 2017. On that bitterly cold and snowy afternoon, Minnesota’s defense couldn’t buy a break, losing their home opener 6-1. On Tuesday night, Minnesota lived and died by its defense, holding Atlanta to one goal and then having the best opportunities to score at the other end of the pitch.
While Heath shuffles the midfield and attack – a carousel of MLS rookies and veterans, internationals and hometown favorites – he would do well to leave the back four intact. And not let them beat themselves up for not doing the job on the other end of the pitch, too.
Featured image: MNUFC
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