Minnesota United had not taken the field for an MLS game in 18 days. Between suspensions for Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo, international duty for Calvo, Rasmus Schüller and Romario Ibarra, and the departure of Tyrone Mears, the team that took the field against D.C. United on Wednesday had a very different look to the one that fell in Kansas City.
Despite a valiant effort, United fell 2-1 in a match they led in the second half.
The theme across the board was a lack of experience, and one which did not give tremendous confidence to the neutral viewer. Maximiano and the newly-signed Fernando Bob held down the center of midfield, with Brent Kallman the only returning member of the defense.
Starts were given to Marc Burch, who had not appeared in an MLS game since April 14, and Jérôme Thiesson, only just returning from a four-month injury layoff against Kansas City. Abu Danladi started, but on the right side of midfield rather than at his preferred striker position. Wyatt Omsberg was recalled from his loan at Tulsa to start his third MLS game alongside Kallman.
All of that aside, Adrian Heath could take solace in the return of his talisman. Darwin Quintero was back in the lineup after four weeks out through injury, and with Ángelo Rodriguez alongside him, there could be plenty of optimism about the Minnesota attack, even with the extreme inexperience of the defense.
The game began with Minnesota on the front foot, likely the brightest they had started a road game for the entire season. Quintero was heavily involved and his threat and intent reminded both D.C. and fans of the Loons just how much he had been missed in the losses at Seattle and at Kansas City.
There was a limit to the positivity, as D.C. took control of the balance of play, with Minnesota settling into the familiar pattern of frantic defense and no possession. Then the Minnesotan defense was forced to become even less experienced. Thiesson injured his foot in an accidental collision with a teammate, and he left after just 14 minutes of his first start since May.
Enter Carter Manley, himself only just recalled from his loan in Las Vegas for this game. Manley’s MLS experiences this season have been a mixed bag, and he was thrown directly into the fire against the potent D.C. attacking combination of Luciano Acosta and English legend Wayne Rooney.
Minnesota bent, but did not break. D.C. had the great majority of possession, but Quintero’s threat on the counter needs no introduction at this point. Quintero forced Bill Hamid into one spectacular save in each half, and gave Minnesota the outlet they had sorely lacked without him.
Rodríguez too was involved whenever the ball got forward to him. Whether through passes back to Quintero or Miguel Ibarra or shot attempts of his own, Rodríguez’s strength and control were clear, and he forced plenty of attention from the home defense.
It was Ángelo who broke the scoreless deadlock within two minutes of the halftime restart, finally recording his first Minnesota goal after plenty of scrutiny given the man he has replaced, Christian Ramirez. Rodríguez was set free on the left side of the box by Quintero, and while his first shot was blocked by Kofi Opare, his second was perfect and Minnesota had their first goal in a month.
The two D.C. goals that followed had elements of the lack of cohesion between the new-look backline and the lack of experience of some of its pieces that one could have feared before the game’s opening whistle.
Ulises Segura create the tie, but it was a shot that should never have happened. Rooney completely mishit a pass along the top of the box and multiple Minnesotan defenders could have cleared it away, but Segura maintained possession and his weak shot wriggled through a sea of legs and rolled right past Bobby Shuttleworth.
Four minutes later, the fault was much more obvious. Acosta hit a long ball over the top towards Joseph Mora, and Manley was badly beaten on his attempt to intercept, leaving Mora with acres of space to send a cross in for Darren Mattocks to finish.
However, Minnesota maintained pressure for the game’s closing 20 minutes, creating multiple half-chances through Quintero, Rodríguez and even nibbles from Manley and substitute Frantz Pangop. There was no dramatic breakthrough, however, and D.C. finished with the three points they required to continue their late playoff push in the Eastern Conference.
From a Minnesota perspective, sure, it was yet another loss on the road, and this one even from a winning position. However, the teamwork and cohesion displayed by a defense which had played little to no minutes together all season was outstanding, especially in the first half.
The positive vibes can be further enjoyed if one considers that many of the pieces deployed in this game will likely be even more significant parts of Minnesota’s season next year. Omsberg and Manley will both improve the more they play. Bob and Maximiano showed moments of great promise and appeared to work very well together.
Combine that with an attack featuring Quintero, Rodríguez and Ibarra, and this game was a relative success. The playoff race is over for Minnesota, so evaluation of the players they have remains the key to the season’s close. There were mistakes, and there was another loss, but the minutes played and the lessons learned take value far beyond Wednesday night.