It was always going to be a tall task to replace all that Kevin Molino offers, but Miguel Ibarra showed he may have just what it takes as he led Minnesota United in their 2-1 victory Saturday against the Chicago Fire.
A sold-out crowd at TCF Bank Stadium witnessed a flowing offensive performance from the Loons, who only seemed to become more and more threatening going forward as the game wore on. United showed flashes of a top tier offense last season, but couldn’t always maintain it. Even with Molino out for the year, Heath’s men, at least today, proved more than capable going forward.
Rasmus Schuller and Ibson once again came to the party and provided United stability in the midfield. Yet it was the attacking midfield trio of Miguel Ibarra, Ethan Finlay and Sam Nicholson who should take the primary plaudits.
The energy levels of those three were brilliant and relentless — it’d be shocking if there is any player on the squad with better fitness than any one guy in that group. Those three created everything in the final third for United.
Ibarra assisted Ibson’s goal and later Finlay supplied an absolute peach of the ball directly to the forehead of Nicholson for the game-winning goal.
The defense still looked shaky at times, but for whatever reason, Chicago never looked up for the game Saturday.
Still, late on they were able to create a couple dicey opportunities. The Loons’ ability to possess early and often proved to be there best defense, as the Fire just simply didn’t have enough of the ball. Had the defense been tested more aggressively, there’s a good chance it would have faltered.
Coach rating out of 10
8 — After the game, Heath was asked why his team has more composure as a unit compared to last season.
“Great coaching,” he replied.
Heath’s reply was tongue-in-cheek, looking to get a laugh from the gathered press. But this game pointed to that having some real validity. With two wins in two weeks, Heath is demonstrating that he knows his squad well.
More importantly, he’s showing that he knows how to build a squad and what player acquisitions are needed. Tyrone Mears, Michael Boxall, Ethan Finlay and Sam Nicholson are all guys he’s added dating back to about the halfway point of last season. These players are now proving to be crucial pieces to the Loons’ early season success.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Matt Lampson, 7 — Wasn’t called on to much of anything. Made the few saves he needed to, but none of the efforts from Chicago were all that threatening.
RB Tyrone Mears, 7 — His role as the team’s set-piece specialist has become clear, as the Englishman serves in nearly every dead ball. His experience continues to show as he provides calm on the righthand side and defensively.
CB Michael Boxall, 6 — Solid performance from the New Zealand international. He will be missed when on international duty next week.
CB Francisco Calvo, 7 — Not much was asked of either centerback on the day, but Calvo did his duty whenever called on. He, too, will be gone on international duty with Costa Rica next week.
LB Jerome Thiesson, 8 — “Jerry” is a standard of consistency and was at it once again Saturday. He didn’t get forward as much as usual, but kept things neat and tidy whenever the ball found him.
CM Ibson, 8 — The no-show performance from the first game of the season is very much in the rearview mirror now. The Brazilian has found his form again, and with it, so has the team. His hand is firmly on the controls of United’s passing and their flowing as a result.
CM Rasmus Schuller, 7 — Solid performance in consecutive weeks now for the Fin. He’s showing a grittiness in midfield that we haven’t seen from him before and it improves his effectiveness two-fold. Heath’s magnanimous in his praise of Schuller afterward. If he can continue to win possession back with his tackling he will be hard to take out of the starting XI.
RW Ethan Finlay, 8 — His energy never wavered, whether in possession or harassing Chicago on defense. The Duluth native also provided the assist of the season thus far with his pinpoint cross to his winger counterpart Nicholson for the game-winning goal. That’s two weeks in a row Finlay’s been involved in a late, game-deciding goal.
LW Sam Nicholson, 8 — Last season the Loons struggled mightily to have wingers he could consistently affect the game off the dribble. Nicholson is carving his name into the starting lineup with his recent performances where he shows a lightning-quick first step and the ability to consistently beat his first defender. If he adds goals, like he did today, United could be potent going forward.
CAM Miguel Ibarra, 8 — The man of the match. He had to fill the very big boots normally occupied by Kevin Molino, and he did so in emphatic fashion. Like the Energizer Bunny, Ibarra could be found running into pockets all over the pitch. He made himself readily available for his teammates, which in turn allowed the Loons to dominate possession to great effect. Ibarra has been a star man before — namely in the NASL where he won MVP honors with the Loons — and for the first time is showing he may be able to do so in MLS.
ST Christian Ramirez, 6 — Still has yet to really get going this campaign. It’s clear that being with a part of the U.S. men’s national team camp has stunted his normal preparations for the season. Heath said after the game he’s not worried whatsoever and knows Ramirez will come good soon.
ST Mason Toye, N/A — Came on for Ramirez in the ’82. When involved he looked fast and his touch, clean. He’s an intriguing prospect.
LB Marc Burch, N/A — Came on for Mears in the ’83.
CB Brent Kallman, N/A — Came on for Ibarra in the ‘90+4.