After first goal for Loons, Hlongwane’s celebration talk of team

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When Minnesota United forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane's long-awaited first MLS goal finally came last week in Houston, his inspired celebration flummoxed his coach, his teammates and maybe even himself.

"I can't describe it," he said.

His left-footed strike from just inside the 18-yard box in the 72nd minute Saturday gave the Loons a two-goal lead in a 2-1 victory that stretched their MLS unbeaten streak to six games.

He joined teammate Joseph Rosales arm-in-arm as they strolled together before Hlongwane put his two hands flat together in front of him and pecked out something of a syncopated strut.

"I haven't got a clue what that celebration was," Loons coach Adrian Heath said. "You'll have to ask him."

Hlongwane called it "just a celebration I do in training sometimes." He has had many more opportunities to practice it in training than in matches, considering his first goal came in his 22nd MLS game — and his 11th as a starter.

"He deserved that," Heath said as his team prepared for Saturday's 2 p.m. home game against Portland on Ch. 5. "The one thing about that is not hiding. Not going in them spots for fear of missing because that's when it gets really difficult. But he kept going. He kept getting in the right spots. He's a real good finisher with his left foot."

Teammate Michael Boxall played two seasons in South Africa and saw his share of goal-scoring celebrations there.

"When you see some of them, it's pretty exuberant," he said. "It's always fun to watch. Good energy, big smiles. I was so far away, it took me a while to get to him to celebrate. I was a little late to the party."

That first goal came after so many other scoring chances Hlongwane couldn't convert.

"I've been waiting for that moment, so I was happy," he said. "I feel like there was something going out into my body after that goal I scored, waiting for my first goal — and now I got it."

His teammates joyously gathered around him after he scored that first goal and celebrated it with him.

"They were waiting for my first goal," Hlongwane said. "Even after I scored and in the changing room, everyone was happy for me."

He not only scored what became the winning goal, he assisted on Franco Fragapane's first-half stoppage time goal that opened the game's scoring.

Hlongwane did so with a 35-yard run and a perfectly weighted pass forward with his dominant right foot. Fragapane ran behind the defense just inside the 18-yard box, then stepped around the goalkeeper and scored into an empty goal.

"He's got a bit more to his game," Heath said. "The timing of his pass and the weight of his pass to Fraga was top class. That was a great run, but if the ball is too hard or he plays it too early or too late, Fraga doesn't get the opportunity. It was a classy counterattack."

Hlongwane indicated that scoring with his left foot isn't a plan so much as a reaction.

"Sometimes if I use my right, I want to do something, you know?" Hlongwane said. "But with my left, I just swing. If it scores, it scores. If it goes over the bar, it goes over the bar. I don't care. But with my right, I become disappointed. I've scored a lot of goals with my left, beautiful ones, so I think my left is good."

Heath said he told Hlongwane not to overthink things.

"The moments are very fleeting when you get the opportunity when you have to pull the trigger," Heath said. "If you double-guess that, invariably the moment is gone."

Both Heath and Hlongwane are hopeful more goals will quickly follow.

"I wouldn't say easier now," Hlongwane said. "But they will come."