With the team’s Major League Soccer debut a scant three weeks away, Minnesota United fans watched Sunday night’s matchup against the Portland Timbers with an eye for the basics. Did the club need a dominant performance? No way. But it couldn’t be a dumpster fire, either.
It was a balmy 46 degrees at Providence Park in Portland, Ore. as the match got underway. The Timbers presented the kind of preseason match up head coaches dream of as they will share a division with Minnesota and narrowly missed the playoffs in 2016. With a 12-14-8 record last season, the Timbers are strong enough to have risen above three other Western Conference teams.
On the other hand, their narrow miss of postseason soccer means the match is a good look at how United’s burgeoning may fare against mid-table opponents when playing for keeps in the regular season. Brand name clubs like Seattle, the Red Bulls, and LA Galaxy will always be difficult matches, particularly for an expansion team playing its inaugural season in the big league. While still no slouch, Portland is a club with a bit of parity to Minnesota.
Attack First Works
United head coach Adrian Heath has talked about an “attack-first” mindset from the day he was hired in late 2016. Though his tenure at the helm of Orlando City SC was dogged by defensive struggles, the technical director won wide acclaim for successfully developing some of the hottest attacking talents in the league, including Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino.
In a record-tying deal, Molino followed Heath to United this offseason just days before preseason scrimmaging and friendlies began. The explosive midfielder showed a veteran’s polish in Sunday’s match as he consistently created space on the right and turned defenders to stone as he dribbled into the box before crossing the ball to a teammate for a number of excellent chances.
More than almost anyone on the pitch, Molino looked like a bonafide MLS starter ready to help shepherd this young and unproven squad into the next chapter of competitive soccer. That said, midfielder/forward Bashkim Kadrii and midfielder Johan Venegas both showed superb talent and coordination on the pitch. Venegas was responsible for both United goals of the night, notching the two scores in the first half of play. The first came off a deflected shot from Molino while the second was 100 percent Venegas as he booted the ball past Portland keeper Jeff Atinella. Many will remember Atinella’s name from his brief stint with United following the expansion draft last fall before being traded away.
Alvbage is Here to Stay
When United traded Atinella away in exchange for Manny Ibarra’s rights, a huge hole opened at the back of the lineup with no clear fix on the horizon. Sammy Ndjock, the starting keeper from the NASL days, trialed with the club but few wanted to see him as anything more than a serviceable backup or even third string keeper.
Then reports started linking United to Swedish international John Alvbage (pronounced ALV-buh-gay). If true, the club would have found a starting-quality keeper that wouldn’t break the bank.
A deal for Alvbage came to pass and on Sunday he looked like a quality signing. Though the first half of the match was dominated by Minnesota’s two goals, Portland mounted a fierce counter-attack in the second half when they subbed in a nearly complete version of their starting XI around the 60th minute. The mass substitution gave the Timbers fresh legs and a squad including some of the best players on their bench.
Sure, they managed to put two into the back of the net in the second half. Anyone would have preferred to walk away with a 2-0 or 2-1 scoreline. But with the number of quality chances the Timbers created on net in the latter 45 minutes, a great deal of the credit for holding them to a draw goes to Alvbage who successfully punched a number of shots out of the way and gave his defense time to regroup.
Mark Your Calendar
While Sunday’s draw showcased many of the team’s strengths, there is still plenty of fine-tuning to be done before the regular season kicks off in early March.
The team’s next test comes this Wednesday when they will square off against Real Salt Lake, a team that made the playoffs last season with a 12-12-10 record. United will likely be without starting keeper John Alvbage as he returns to Sweden to finish his visa paperwork before coming back stateside. Johan Venegas, who dealt with a groin injury before deciding to play Sunday, may be another player to watch as we near the 7 p.m. match.
All in all, a fantastic showing from a team with everything to prove. Are there areas of concern? Sure. We’re in pretty desperate need of decisive answers to the fullback positions, but what team doesn’t have areas of weakness. Ideally, Coach Heath will find a way to elevate that position, bring in new talent, or cover the weakness before we get too deep in the regular season.
Follow me on Twitter (@GarrettDenney) on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Central as Minnesota United take on conference rival Real Salt Lake.