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Minnesota United has come to rely on Hlongwane’s good vibes

Minnesota United midfielder Bongokuhle Hlongwane moonlighted as a goalkeeper late in Thursday's training session.

"They tried to kill me," said Hlongwane, who goes by Bongi.

To paraphrase Heath Ledger's "Joker" character, teammates don't want to kill Bongi. What would they do without their top scorer?

The 22-year-old South African leads the Loons with five goals through 16 games this season, including four tallies this month.

Goals have come of late. But the second-year player has provided a joyful presence all season. The good vibes have proved contagious.

"He's a great human being," said coach Adrian Heath, whose team will be home against Real Salt Lake on Saturday. "He's a great kid to be around. Always has a smile on his face. He had never been out of Africa, but the way he's come into Minnesota, he's acclimatized really well."

Hlongwane (pronounced Hluh-ONG-wah-ney) takes pride in bringing the right mentality to the field.

"I feel like everyone in life has got their own problems," Hlongwane said. "But when you come to training, I feel like for me, it's where I can express my feelings through playing, through being around the guys, doing things with the ball and doing what I like."

Those practice habits have paid off in recent games. Hlongwane, a second-half substitute, cashed in with two goals and an assist in a U.S. Open Cup tournament victory May 9 against Philadelphia.

Eight days later, he scored the lone goal to beat Houston 1-0 for United's first Major League Soccer home victory at Allianz Field this season.

Same story May 20 at Portland. Minnesota escaped with a 1-0 victory as Bongi buried a shot in second-half stoppage time. For his efforts, he earned a spot on the MLS Team of the Matchday for two consecutive games.

"Scoring goals is nice, I won't lie," Hlongwane said. "It's nice when you see your teammates being happy, to see the coaches being happy as well as the fans."

Hlongwane's smile disappears when reflecting on a missed opportunity Tuesday at Houston. Alone on the Dynamo doorstep in the 25th minute, his right-foot stab could not beat the sliding goalkeeper. The game remained scoreless but later spiraled into a 4-0 Loons loss.

"I was like thinking throughout the game that if I scored, the game was going to change," Hlongwane said. "Because then we would have had something in our hands. But we didn't have anything. You don't know in games when you will get a chance, so when you do, you have to use it."

Hlongwane got his chance through the league's under-22 initiative. MLS teams can sign as many as three players age 22 and under to lucrative contracts at a much-reduced budget charge, good until the season they turn 25.

Hlongwane was the first Loon signed under the initiative, doing so in January 2022 for $580,000. Minnesota signed another U-22 player this spring in Sang Bin Jeong. Helping the young South Korean acclimate to a new environment more quickly is Hlongwane's focus.

"When we went to Portland, we spent most of our time together," Hlongwane said. "We go out for coffee or dinner. We talk about football; we talk about everything."

Already a team veteran at age 22, Hlongwane can do it all for Minnesota. Well, almost everything.

"Looking at him [at keeper], there were a lot of goals going in," Heath joked Thursday. "So we won't be using him as a goalkeeper anytime soon."

Incumbent goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair said such a move wouldn't come cheap for Hlongwane.

"We can trade," St. Martin said. "But I get his goal bonus money."

Offense plus

In addition to leading Minnesota United in scoring with five goals, Bongokuhle Hlongwane ranks among MLS leaders in these categories:

Blocks: first, 32

Fouls drawn: sixth, 29

Successful dribbles: 14th, 25