Minnesota United FC entered their home opener on Saturday in an interesting position.
They entered the game fresh off a 2-1 win away at Orlando City FC, but also fresh off a season-ending knee injury to Kevin Molino.
This game against Chicago Fire presented many opportunities. Chicago was missing multiple players, including star designated player Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose wife is expecting a child. The opportunity for the team was also the opportunity for longtime Loon Miguel Ibarra, who stepped into the hole in midfield created by Molino’s injury.
Ibarra, as he had done in previous substitute appearances, was a key piece of a vibrant Minnesota United attack, which had Chicago under pressure for large swaths of the game and was the key to a 2-1 win to open TCF Bank Stadium’s final MLS season, with Allianz Field due to open in 2019.
The first half was a largely uneventful preview of the action of the second half, and one of the first moves of the game showed the key to Minnesota’s threat: Sam Nicholson running into open space on the side of the field and threatening a cross.
Nicholson, Ibarra and Ethan Finlay were constant threats as the game moved forward, and Chicago seemed unlikely to score outside of a mistake from the Minnesota defense. Those mistakes were still there: a bad pass out of defense, a missed clearance here and there, but they weren’t punished and the game went into halftime scoreless.
The second half opened with Minnesota turning the screws even further. For all their pressure on the sides, United had only two shots at halftime and had forced no corners. By the halfway point of the second half, they had five, and one of those led to their opening goal.
Ibson’s follow-up after his own shot from Ibarra’s cross came following ten minutes of concentrated pressure, a target of head coach Adrian Heath after halftime.
“We tried to get the ball forward a little bit more, and maybe play in their half,” Heath said after the game. “At the beginning, it’s like a boxing match, sort of sparring with each other and working each other out, but second half, I thought tactically we tried to move the team up the field a little more, get our wide guys closer to their fullbacks so they’re under a bit more pressure.”
The traditional question for a Minnesota United team, especially after taking a lead, was if or when a defensive error would come. In this game, it took Chicago only three minutes to equalize after some horrific miscommunication tracking back between Ibson and Michael Boxall.
“It seemed like a simple clearance to me,” goalkeeper Matt Lampson said. “All of a sudden, the ball pops out to Nikolic and I just come out and I stay big, I have to make the first save.” Lampson’s first save was good, but the rebound was right there for Elliot Collier to bury.
Despite all United’s pressure, the game was tied. Their response was just to crank it even higher, continuing to put the Fire defense and goalkeeper under pressure. The trio of Ibarra, Finlay and Nicholson were ready and took their opportunity in the 65th minute.
“It was kind of a quick counterattack play, Miguel plays a quick ball out, Sam’s just there right in the spot at the back post and a great finish by him,” Finlay said.
“[Finlay]’s got that ability, and it was just a matter of if I could do something with it,” Nicholson said. “Luckily I could.”
Minnesota had opportunities to extend their lead, with Christian Ramirez barely missing a chance from a tight angle and his substitute Mason Toye getting caught offside on a late breakaway and picking up the team’s only yellow card of the night for finishing the play and wasting some late time.
While Chicago had a couple of headed opportunities on Lampson’s goal, they were simple saves, and Minnesota’s win was never really in question after the second goal. This was a game they deserved to win on the balance of play.
Lampson spoke confidently about the defense that was so questioned coming into the season and out of the season opener after the game.
“I came in at halftime actually this game and I said, ‘Listen, this team isn’t going to get anything off of us the way that we’re playing defensively unless we give it to them,’ ” he said. “Sure enough, we gave it to them in the second half, but that was really the only opportunity they really had.”
“I think these past two games have been some of the best defensive team efforts that I’ve seen in the league, in the teams that I’ve been on,” he said later, which is not a quote very many fans, media or analysts would have expected after the game in San Jose.
A comfortable, deserved win in the home opener to make it six points from three games and a strong start to the season is a good base for United to push forward and not be stuck on the bottom of the table as they were last season.
For all the similarities, this is a different team, and by Saturday’s result, a better one.