The final game of Minnesota United’s five-game road trip was an opportunity to finally break the road voodoo that has followed the team since the start of the season. It would take a remarkable journey under the warm Utah sun, but United were once again left craving more as Real Salt Lake held them to a 1-1 draw.
The phrasing of Real holding United does not bear out the entire game’s story, but nothing does. The first and second halves were in near-complete opposition, and even Minnesota’s second-half improvement had failed to yield a goal even as late as the 80th minute.
The game began with yet another new-look lineup from Adrian Heath, another attempt to figure out the correct finish to the puzzle of the ten players of his outfield squad. Heath’s move to three center-backs lit a fire under the team in June. Would a fourth center-back turn the team into the best in MLS?
It was an unlikely stretch at best, but a lineup featuring all four of the returning Francisco Calvo and Michael Boxall with Brent Kallman and Wyatt Omsberg was the recipe for Saturday evening. There were changes at the top as well, with Abu Danladi starting next to Darwin Quintero and Ángelo Rodríguez rested.
Fifteen minutes into the game, everything had fallen apart. Damir Kreilach had scored the game’s opening goal, given entirely too much space at the top of the 18-yard box and readily firing a shot through Omsberg’s legs and past Bobby Shuttleworth. It was another simple, early goal conceded on the road and the script was set.
The next act was another scripted, sad event. Danladi’s struggle with injury have been his crutch since his entry into MLS as the league’s top draft pick in 2017, and when he pulled up and reached for his hamstring in the game’s first quarter-hour, it felt sadly routine.
Danladi left in favor of Rasmus Schüller, with Romario Ibarra shifted up into the vacant striker position given the lack of both Rodríguez and Mason Toye, who one expects will be recalled from his loan in Colorado Springs this week. The Minnesota broadcast reported that Danladi felt a “pop” in his hamstring, which does not bode well for his return with five weeks remaining in the season.
Just like that, Heath’s gameplan was gone, his players were shifted around, and the deficit was established. Minnesota looked out of sync, passes disjointed and possession lacking as Salt Lake had the run of play. At halftime, Heath repeated the word “passive” about every facet of the team’s play and it was impossible to disagree.
Even as the second half progressed and chances started to appear for United through the usual outlet of Quintero, the team still didn’t feel like it had everything together. A cross from Maximiano in the 65th minute skimmed mere feet from the goal line, begging to be pushed in. No player in white even made a run towards the ball.
Still, Real had taken their foot off the gas and United continued to find gaps and chances through the speed of Romario and Quintero, with the assistance of phenomenal long passes from Calvo, who seemed to make something positive happen whenever he was given a chance on the ball. The chances came, but the lack of finishing touch was glaring as the game’s final 10 minutes began.
Enter the caped crusader himself, Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra had been one of the only players in white who continued to work all night, chasing every loose ball and creating fragments of chances through his effort. His reward came in the 84th minute, as Brooks Lennon kept him onside but wide open for a Quintero pass, finished with a chip over Nick Rimando.
Suddenly, every narrative about the game had been turned on its head. A game that had the air of a comfortable home victory for Salt Lake against a toothless Minnesota team on the road was tied up, and it took only three minutes for the Loons to amp up the punishment with a second goal from Ibarra.
The goal was a beautiful team effort, from a header won by Brent Kallman in midfield to a flicked-on header by Maximiano to a ridiculous bicycle kick pass by Quintero to a shot smashed into the roof of the net by Ibarra from a tight angle. Rimando was helpless and United were on track to finally break the losing run.
Then the referees started talking. There was no clarity for either team’s players, but as the referees continued to listen to their earpieces, it became clear that this game might be decided by the video assistant referee’s camera angles rather than the play on the field.
The ruling did not become clear until several minutes after Minnesota’s goal had been ruled out, and contrary to the original communication that the play was under review for a foul in the buildup to the goal, it was for a minuscule, technical bit of offsides.
The flick-on attempt by Maximiano may not have touched his head, and at the time of Kallman’s initial header, Quintero was in an offside position. Whether or not the ball touched Maximiano’s head seemed to be the question, and the ruling did not seem to be in any kind of position to be “clear and obvious”.
Minnesota was left frustrated. Its outstanding momentum of the game’s decisive three minutes was completely gone after the four-minute review process, and the game fizzled out without further intrigue. Neither Salt Lake nor Minnesota would be satisfied with a point in this game, and yet both are stuck with that result.
For Minnesota to register a draw on the road brings some degree of satisfaction on a wider scale, as this was only its fifth point of the season away from home. However, even with the atrocious, disjointed play of the first half, this was a game that it should have won. To miss out on that in the manner that it did feels disappointing.
However, the bottom line is simple: the five-game road trip that would define the close of this season for Minnesota yielded just two points. United are resoundingly out of the playoff picture, and a return home to TCF Bank Stadium to face Portland comes with a need to focus on who and what will remain in 2019.
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