Playing perhaps their best soccer since their inception, Minnesota United is beginning to eye a playoff spot in the MLS’s Western Conference.
A 2-1 win Wednesday night over the New England Revolution only bolstered their hopes.
When the lineup for Wednesday’s midweek match was released, Loons supporters could already see some confidence. No matter the late struggles in games against Toronto FC and Real Salt Lake, Adrian Heath had kept the same lineup to finish those two games with wins once again.
Heath’s wrath after United struggled to close out the Salt Lake game was well publicized, so to see the same lineup open the game was a small surprise. New signing Romario Ibarra was not ready to make his debut at striker, and Christian Ramirez had another opportunity to make an impact.
Ramirez was an obvious talking point, and the striker delivered a silencer to his critics less than five minutes into this game. With a mistake from a New England defender setting him free running towards goal, Ramirez took a trick from Darwin Quintero and perfectly chipped Matt Turner to set Minnesota off to a hot start.
Ramirez had gone over 300 minutes since his past goal, and his celebration was simply to sit on the pitch, a thoughtful expression on his face until his teammates arrived to congratulate him.
“I was called a sitting duck somewhere, so I thought I’d let them know I saw it,” Ramirez said when asked about the celebration. “One of my teammates passed that along to me.” Ramirez’s position with a new striker on the team looks vulnerable, but the long-time Minnesota veteran isn’t giving up his spot without a fight.
The Loons had nearly the best possible start, but New England quickly made it clear that they were not going to go out of this game quietly. The Revolution were threatening with corners and shots quickly after the goal, with Bobby Shuttleworth forced to work his magic as early as the 19th minute with two critical saves, aided by a pivotal clearance by Brent Kallman.
The United defense at times appeared to be chasing the play, but they chased it well. The 3-5-2 system has appeared to solidify their defense in previous games, and in this third game with its full complement of starting central defenders, the benefits were very clear, even as the New England pressure increased.
A more reassuring fact was that while the Revolution were consistently able to get corner kicks, Minnesota’s set piece defense was more sound than in previous games where corners were a recipe for away goals at critical moments.
As the halftime whistle drew near, New England enjoyed their most dominant spell of possession of the half with over 75 percent of the ball after the 40th minute. However, Minnesota’s offense is at its finest on the counterattack, and the home side would get their second goal from their most usual source at the end of stoppage time.
The breakaway was Miguel Ibarra’s, down the right side of the field after Michael Boxall intervened in a passing lane. Ibarra squared a pass to Ramirez, whose shot was blocked, but the danger man was ready. Quintero stole the ball from the feet of two New England defenders, dribbled around three more in tight quarters and finished a low, driving shot past everyone to double the Minnesota lead.
Quintero ran to the corner flag to receive his accolades and the crowd of nearly 28,000 gave them eagerly. Darwin is in incredible form in these past three home games with five goals and two assists, and United were well on their way to their third straight home win.
The second half’s moments of panic came early rather than late, and they came from an individual moment of foolishness. A New England free kick was punched clear to the right side of the goal, and Alexi Gómez was responsible for its clearance. The ball was clear of danger and almost clear of the box, but Gómez got all of Kelyn Rowe and none of the ball, and VAR showed that he was inside the box.
Diego Fagundez made no mistake from the penalty spot, and the familiar return of the uncomfortable one-goal lead came with a large chunk of the second half to be played. New England were up for the challenge, and the pressure of the first half came up another degree.
The United defense was well-organized even at their most frantic moments, and the confidence of their goalkeeper behind them would stabilize even New England’s most potent chances.
The Revolution would finish the game with eight crosses and seven shots on target, but only Fagundez’s penalty would beat Shuttleworth on the day, as an exceptional reaction save on a redirection by Scott Caldwell in the 80th minute was as close as New England would get to the goal.
The game’s final act had a pleasing cameo for Mason Toye, whose two minutes on the field were exactly what Minnesota needed. Toye entered in stoppage time, his substitution almost explicitly to waste some of the added four minutes (and to give Quintero his bow for the crowd).
His immediate play was to chase a clearance that he had no business getting, win a header from Jalil Anibaba and annoy Anibaba into allowing not one, but two Minnesota throw-ins in New England’s corner. Almost half of stoppage time was spent between Toye and Ibson, and New England could not summon a threat.
“I thought we got a lot of reward for what we put in over the last few weeks,” Heath said to open his comments after the game. “Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve in a game, and Brad (Friedel) probably feels that this evening.
“Bobby’s come up with a couple huge saves when we needed him, and we’ve rode our luck a little bit, but we did the right thing trying to defend the ball the way we did.”
Shuttleworth was happy with the team’s growth in their response to the goal. “For us this year, we’ve had a bunch of games where we’ve given up goals back-to-back within five, 10 minutes of each other. For us to give up a goal there and kind of ride it out in the second half and still give away a couple of chances, I thought it was good.”
United (8-11-1) have the opportunity to wrap up their three-game homestand with the maximum nine points on Sunday with Los Angeles FC, their most difficult opponent of the three, ready to spoil the party.
Los Angeles fits the profile of the few visiting teams that have found success at TCF Bank Stadium in 2018. Outside of the inexplicable loss to the dead-last San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota has dropped points to Atlanta (first in the Eastern Conference), Dallas (first in the West) and Kansas City (third in the West).
However, Minnesota’s home form is nothing to simply write off. There are only six teams in the MLS with seven or more home wins in 2018: both New York teams, Montreal, Dallas, Salt Lake and now Minnesota. The other five teams all hold playoff positions in their respective conferences, and the Loons are only three points behind the LA Galaxy for the final Western spot (with an extra game played).
If Heath is bold enough to play this exact lineup for a third game this week and trust his players’ stamina to pull through, the 3-5-2’s toughest test will be a good final exam before United are forced to take their show on the road once again. An opportunity awaits on Sunday, but three points were well earned on Wednesday night.