Currently on the outside of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs picture looking in, boasting the fourth-lowest goals tally (26) in the Western Conference, the Loons had few anticipating a lopsided victory over their Liga MX opponent – let alone while playing the majority of the match down a man.
But that's exactly what happened in their group-stage opener at Allianz Field, where Michael Boxall's 30th-minute red card was mostly anecdotal as Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Emanuel Reynoso both notched a brace and an assist to inspire a huge statement victory for MNUFC.
"The players were magnificent. Really proud of them," gushed head coach Adrian Heath after the match. "I couldn't be more proud of the way they went about it."
Better than Liga MX?
The performance left the team brimming with confidence for what can be accomplished in Leagues Cup. This was especially true for Hlongwane, who reached 10 goals on the season in all competitions with his brace against Puebla. The attacker didn't mince words when asked to contrast his team with Sunday's international opposition.
"I think MLS is on another level from Liga MX," the South African international stated. "I'm not undermining Liga MX, but today we showed that we are far better than Liga MX."
Heath got a good chuckle from his young player's boldness.
"That's a good sound bite," he laughed.
This level of confidence can only come after such a clinical performance. The Loons took the lead in the 24th minute on Hlongwane's first goal of the night. Even after Boxall's red card, it was the hosts creating chances – including a shot from Reynoso that went off the post shortly before halftime.
Once the second half rolled around it was lights out, with the Argentine playmaker connecting with Bongi (51') before the South African returned the favor in the 59th minute. Reynoso put the game to bed in the 65th minute with a curling free-kick golazo that left no chance for Puebla goalkeeper Jesús Rodríguez.
"He's a special player. I've said it since, you know, we've had him," Heath said of the club's offensive linchpin, who's put his early-season suspension behind him by contributing 4g/1a in his seven league appearances (five starts). Sunday's masterful Leagues Cup performance only solidified his red-hot form.
"He does the hardest thing in football: he scores goals and he makes goals. That's why they all go for the most money," the Englishman added.
All the pieces in their place
Minnesota themselves recently shelled out some money for former Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki, the club's third Designated Player (along with Reynoso and Colombian forward Ménder García) who was in the starting XI against Puebla.
Despite the Finnish international not getting on the scoresheet Sunday, Heath credited his new signing with helping Minnesota reach their true potential – culminating in their biggest win of the season to date in all competitions.
"If you look at the last two or three performances, they've been excellent. I'd like to think this is just the beginning of this group for the second half of the season," said Heath, who's already planning for Thursday's (8:30 pm ET | Apple TV - Free) group stage finale against Chicago Fire FC.
"We feel as though there's goals in this group."