The uncharted territory of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 came at an interesting time for Minnesota United. They had survived the opening portion of the MLS season, and had a week and a half off to lead up to Monday night’s game against Houston Dynamo.

Would Adrian Heath deploy a full-strength lineup and attempt to make a run in this competition? Would he save key players like Darwin Quintero for just a little more time off, as he did in the previous round’s slog of a win over FC Cincinnati?

The answer was something in between. Quintero played, and United’s starting eleven were pretty close to full strength. Collen Warner and Collin Martin received another opportunity in midfield, but Rasmus Schüller returned to the squad and the defense and attack were at full strength, including Quintero’s Open Cup debut.

Jun 18, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo forward Mauro Manotas (9) and Minnesota United midfielder Rasmus Schuller (20) battle for a header during the first half at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

The opponent was a manageable one, too. Houston had already come to Minnesota this season, with the Loons emerging victorious. The away atmosphere did not appear to be particularly threatening, based on the mostly empty stands on display through U.S. Soccer’s stream of the game.

United came out of the gates firing. Quintero looked like far and away the best player on the pitch for either team, a player with two weeks off to freshen up his legs. The creative instincts were a pleasure to watch, as was the willingness to take on all comers.

The challenge, as it has so often been for United with Darwin, is to actually convert the chances that come their way. This was a game with multiple clear-cut chances to score in each half that Minnesota found increasingly ridiculous ways to miss.

Some were more difficult, like passes just an inch too long for Christian Ramirez or Schüller that could have been so much more. United spent the first 20-plus minutes of the game far and away in the ascendancy, but no goals were finished, and Houston played their way into the game, finding hints of the holes that United’s defense allows.

As halftime came, Houston had perhaps their best opportunity yet with an open shot from the top of the 18-yard box and the warning signs were well and truly there for Minnesota. They had not finished their chances, and the punishment was swift after halftime. Martin was slow to respond to a near-post run from Mauro Manotas on a corner kick, and Manotas buried the header to put Houston in front.

Jun 18, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo forward Mauro Manotas (9) and Minnesota United defender Tyrone Mears (4) battle for the ball during the second half at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

The symptoms of a United team forced to chase a deficit in the second half were familiar. Quintero’s dynamism with the ball against one or two defenders was punishing in the first half. When he took the ball into four or five defenders after the goal, the end result was predictable.

Heath’s substitutions, first of Alexi Gomez and Frantz Pangop, then of Mason Toye, were all proactive, but all had flaws that contributed to the Loon demise. Gomez’s erratic decision-making was familiar as ever even as his position in this game shifted to left-back, and Pangop completely mishit several passes late in the match in appetizing positions.

Toye’s mistakes were not of his own making. One of United’s better opportunities to even the score was a corner kick where Houston completely forgot how to defend and three Minnesota players had wide open headers at goal.

The head that hit the ball first was that of Michael Boxall, and his header was weak and off-target. Had Toye, just behind Boxall, been the one to hit the header, one suspects that the contact might have been more true.

Toye’s other incident of note leads to United’s best chance to tie. On another cross, Toye was arguably pulled down from behind and had a very good shout for a penalty, and a minute later simply missed another cross. One chance was his to score, the other two were denied from him perhaps unjustly.

After the shout for a penalty on Toye, the real penalty was only five minutes later in coming. Yet another corner created chaos in the box, and Miguel Ibarra’s run and jump were interrupted by a Houston defender. Ibarra’s fall was hard, and the penalty was an easy call.

Quintero had arguably the easiest chance of his evening at his feet in the 87th minute: a penalty kick. His execution was not what it needed to be.

United threatened a little after the missed penalty, but that was the chance, and it was missed. Houston took the 1-0 win at home and move on to face Sporting Kansas City, and United’s run at the cup is over for another year. Their MLS return comes on Saturday evening at Colorado.

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