Minnesota United FC had an opportunity to better their one-and-done performance in last year’s edition of the US Open Cup and they did so in stunning fashion on Tuesday night against Philadelphia Union at St Paul, Minnesota’s Allianz Field. The fact that it took a full 68 minutes before either team found a goal was not a surprise. However, one Philadelphia player snatching a win away from Minnesota in the last minute of play, twice, was a surprise. Still, the Loons outlasted their visitors to advance to the Round of 16, winning 7-6 in a penalty kick shootout after a 3-3 draw. This sets the stage for the first round of ‘Wonderwall’ of the 2023 season.
Head coaches Adrian Heath and Jim Curtin had every excuse to roll out heavily rotated squads, with Heath’s side struggling in league play and Curtin’s seeing so much play over the last couple of weeks, but held close to their favored lineups while keeping things fresh. Clint Irwin started in goal for the home side following a clean performance at Detroit City FC in the last round. Ahead of him was a 5-3-2 capitalizing on Minnesota’s defensive depth and the attacking energy of Sang Bin Jeong and Mender García. Mikael Uhre and Chris Donovan started up top for the Union and Andre Blake remained in goal. Defender Damian Lowe (of NASL-era fame in Minnesota) got his second consecutive start.
The match started with a probing shot or two from each side in the opening minutes, all high or wide and no real threat. The biggest threats came from the chippy one-v-ones between centerback Michael Boxall and Uhre, Mickey Tapias and Joaquin Torres. It was a physical match with no real scoring threat. In fact, neither team registered a single shot on goal in the first half. The second half was a different story.
“They left a few out on Saturday, didn’t they? And then they brought them back in tonight, so weren’t totally surprised by their team,” Heath said. ΅You look at the team that they had on the field at the end, they were all on there. Gazdag and Wagner had come on, and Flach had come on. As I’ve said, theyŕe a good team, and they never give in. It didn’t surprise me that it went as long as it did this evening.”
Substitute Bongokuhle Hlongwane scored the first goal in the 68’, heading in a cross from rightback DJ Taylor. Hlongwane notched an assist six minutes later, cutting a ball across the box to Joseph Rosales in the 74’ for a one-time finish.
“It means a lot, it helped my confidence because I haven’t scored in six games,” Hlongwane reflected. “I was talking to my mom today and said ‘today we play and hopefully we can score because it’s been a while.’ And she said, ‘that’s your job’, you have to, so people in Minnesota who give us their love, we can show our appreciation for them by scoring goals. So I am happy.”
Donovan put Union on the board minutes later, given far too much space in the box in the 78th minute. While that goal propelled Philadelphia’s attack, Minnesota held on and were one late whistle away from a win when another substitute made his mark. Kai Wagner, who entered the match in the 87th minute, stunned Allianz in the 94th minute with an equalizer in the final seconds of stoppage time.
Extra time was a mirror of the teams’ late game efforts with Minnesota scoring first – a fantastic brace by Hlongwane in the 103rd minute – and Wagner extending the game for Philadelphia in the 120′, the final breaths of OT.
In the Modern Era of the US Open Cup, only five matches have been stretched to PKs by goals scored in the final minute, the last in 2014 when NTX Rayados beat the Austin Aztec in Round 2.
The keepers in Tuesday’s match each had only one PK shootout in their USOC careers and neither was on the winning side. It took eight rounds, but a diving stop by Irwin finally secured the win for MNUFC. And he gave the rest of the squad the credit.
“From guys who came on, really put on a shift. Guys at the beginning put on a shift. I think Bongi was absolutely electric when he came on and just put pressure on their back-line and ran with the space and had some incredible finishes,” Irwin said. “Yes, I made a couple saves, but at the same time, all these guys who made their penalties, put us in that position to have that opportunity to keep the game going, to keep the pressure on Philly and then you just have to come up with one in sudden death. I think it was a total performance from everyone.”
The final score, 7-6 after a 3-3 draw, is a rare example of the score sheet reflecting the tone and energy of the game. Minnesota will need to harness that momentum as they enter the Rpund of 16.