The metaphorical mirror on the wall of Minnesota United’s offices might not reveal a club that looks much different from where it was after its first MLS season, no matter the discussion of improvement and progress that has been the club’s message as its second season finished.
A final loss of the season, 3-2 on the road against the Columbus Crew, provided the perfect framing for some of the manners in which so little has changed from 2017 to 2018. The weather and the other games of the MLS’s final day may have affected some of the game’s play, but the familiar story of another road loss provided the season’s most consistent thread for Minnesota.
To no one’s surprise, Adrian Heath continued to pick as strong of a lineup as he could manage and avoided playing any of the club’s youth prospects in a starting role, even with the team well and truly eliminated from postseason contention. There were roles off the bench for Abu Danladi and Wyatt Omsberg, but even those were provoked first by injury.
The game’s early flow had a rather significant hitch in it, as lightning at MAPFRE Stadium forced a suspension of play in the tenth minute, before anything of note had occurred. With the MLS’s 11 kickoffs synced up for the season’s final day, both Minnesota and Columbus were stuck in the locker room as the playoff race broke around them.
Within two minutes of the restart, Columbus had the breakthrough and the lead they needed to secure the Eastern Conference’s final playoff berth. Gyasi Zardes was left entirely too open after a cross from a short corner kick, and easily headed in the game’s opening goal. The Crew had what they needed.
Some of the play following Columbus’s goal was truly awful. Minnesota could not string more than two or three passes together, and while the strong winds and slick ground were not assisting, the home side did just fine in the conditions. It took until past the half-hour mark for any significant threat to come from the team in white and grey.
The significance, however, should have been more than it was. In the 35th minute, a Minnesotan shot hit a Columbus arm in the penalty box, and while nearly every attacking Loon screamed to the referee to award the penalty kick, there was not even a move to review the play with VAR. Replays showed that the review would likely not have taken long, and would have resulted in a penalty to United.
United grew into the game in the half’s final minutes, with Ángelo Rodríguez escaping into the box twice only to have shot attempts denied by the defense. The second opportunity was the end of his afternoon and season, as his collision with Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen left both players grounded for a couple of minutes. Rodríguez was withdrawn for Danladi, and Steffen played on with a massive bump on his head.
As the first half ended, the Columbus public address announcer told the stadium what some fans may already have known: Montreal had lost against New England, and Columbus’s role in the postseason was confirmed no matter the result of this game. The second half could have been a non-event and no one would have been surprised.
Instead, it became a goalscoring competition between a forward and a left back. Zardes scored Columbus’s second after Matt Lampson failed to hold a free kick that hit him in the chest, with the striker quick to smash the rebound in and double the Crew’s lead.
The game drifted, but United continued to sniff around and see if there was an opportunity to be had. Darwin Quintero was once again not the star that the summer showed him to be, but other members of the attack and midfield made the effort, and then it was the captain’s turn to make the breakthrough.
Francisco Calvo has taken more chances to move forward from his position at the left of the back four as the season waned, and after several chances in weeks past, Calvo took his chance. A free kick found Calvo in the penalty box, and he chested down and volleyed home a perfect finish that gave Steffen no chance. It was not the first time that Calvo has shown a striker’s touch.
His second was even more of a striker’s goal, as opportunistic positioning punished a lack of control on a loose ball. Calvo was the furthest player up the field in white, playing off the defense’s back shoulder as a loose ball dribbled through the box and he tapped it past Steffen at the first opportunity. Abruptly, the game was tied and Minnesota’s captain had joined Zardes at the door of a hat trick with his first two goals of the season.
It was Zardes that would finish the job to give Columbus a win and their fans plenty to cheer, with the final noise of the night the chant of “We’re not done yet.” Michael Boxall was on the wrong side of Zardes as he met a cross at the near post, redirecting a well-hit cross just inside the edge of the goal and putting the final touch on the season’s dubious numbers for Minnesota.
The math is simple. In 2017, much was made of Minnesota setting MLS’s all-time record for defensive futility with 70 goals allowed. Zardes’s 83rd-minute goal was the 71st allowed in the 2018 season, and while Orlando City had already broken and surpassed both 70 and 71, the fact that United has actually gotten worse statistically from an MLS-record worst debut season stands.
Minnesota finishes the season with 36 points, identical to its 2017 total. It had four chances to surpass it, and lost each of its last four matches, including the previous two at home. They scored two more goals than in 2017 with Calvo’s brace, but on the most basic numbers, the “improvement” from 2017 to 2018 is minimal to nonexistent.
The club enters the offseason with a new stadium to anticipate and questions at almost every position outside of Quintero. Heath and Manny Lagos have their work cut out for them, because should they get this offseason wrong, one expects that a regime change will come sooner than later in 2019.