It had been seven weeks since Minnesota United had last stepped onto the pitch at TCF Bank Stadium, and their last moments here were full of the bitter taste of defeat in the 2-1 stoppage-time loss to Seattle. Their five games on the road yielded just two points, and the return home was needed to right the ship if only for the mood of the team and fanbase.
A first half in which Minnesota blew the Portland Timbers nearly out of the stadium was just what everyone needed, and while the Timbers closed a three-goal gap to just one and the specter of late points lost reared its head, United held on for the 3-2 win and secured their first victory since July 22.
Portland entered this game after a stretch of three games in eight days, and their first half performance had echoes of tired legs and minds. The Timbers were prone to more and more ridiculous turnovers, and the fact that the score at halftime was only 3-0 to the home side was flattering.
Minnesota, for their part, had another home performance that caused regular viewers to wonder what the secret to unlocking this team on the road must be. The Loons were dominant, creating chances left and right, with the creative mastery of Darwin Quintero on full display.
Quintero was denied goals at close range twice by Steve Clark, but his assists were central to Romario Ibarra’s brace, with the help of excellent passing out of the midfield from Fernando Bob. The Brazilian duo of Bob and Maximiano had another standout performance, with more stability in defense and relevance to the attack.
Romario had his second goal on a scything pass through midfield from Quintero, but pulled up to grab his hamstring immediately after the ball hit the net. It was a shame to see him exit the game: his speed had unlocked Quintero’s work and while the returning Ángelo Rodríguez was just fine in his place, it was a night that Romario could have had the club’s second hat-trick.
The third goal came from a slightly less likely source, as Michael Boxall scored his second goal of the season on a flawless volley from the top of the eighteen-yard box. Boxall’s celebration was exuberant, finishing with a kneel and point up towards his fiancée, who he had proposed to earlier in the week.
“I’d thought about it, but what are the chances I’m going to score, especially that close to when I did it?” he said after the game. “Obviously blacked out, think I did about three or four different celebrations all within the few seconds after it went in, so yeah.” With two minutes left until halftime, United were rampant and the Timbers were irrelevant.
The concern, as it so often has been with this team, was if the level of intensity would be maintained in the second half with the large lead. Portland brought on Diego Chara to shore up their possession and sheerly through more consistent possession grew into the game. The threats were small early in the half, but an opening rocket set them off.
It was Alvas Powell, scorer of Portland’s first goal in the opening fixture between these teams this season, who gave a fine imitation of Boxall’s goal with a similarly scorched volley that Bobby Shuttleworth had no chance of stopping. Just 10 minutes into the second half, Portland was alive and well.
United continued to show plenty of threat in the open field, with Quintero routinely making his first and second defenders look utterly foolish. Quintero nearly had another chipped goal for his collection, but the attempt came off the corner of the goal. Miguel Ibarra had an attempt foiled at close range by Clark, who was very active throughout the evening.
The fourth goal never came, and Portland’s second with 10 minutes to go was just in time to put the fear into the 24,525 fans in the stadium. Sebastián Blanco was left far too open at the top of the 18-yard box and made no mistakes when the cross came his way.
The fears were made even worse when United were reduced to 10 players in the 90th minute. Both sides had been rather upset with the refereeing performance for much of the second half, with several Portland players and Quintero embellishing fouls to great effect. When Bob’s elbow caught a Portland player at neck and head level, the reach for the straight red was instant and perhaps excessive.
Remarkably, United played some of their most stable defense with 10 men for the six minutes of stoppage time. Collen Warner’s entrance for Quintero at the point of the red card was wise, and Shuttleworth’s management of loose balls in his box to use as much time as possible was expert.
The first word out of Adrian Heath’s mouth in his press conference after the game when asked about his feelings on almost giving up the three-goal lead was “Almost! Almost!” He went on, “Obviously we made it difficult for ourselves. I spoke about it at halftime on the broadcast of not conceding too much space and not letting them sort of dictate the pace of the game, and I thought we did that too much in the second half.”
However, Heath’s confidence in the performance was clear. “I think it would have been a travesty if we hadn’t have won with the chances that we created, especially in the first half,” he said. “We conceivably could have been five or six up at the half.”
Francisco Calvo, who started his second straight game on the outside of a back four, mirrored his coach’s words. “We can’t feel happy about it, because we conceded two goals. That’s not good for us. We should have won that game five, six-zero. That’s my opinion.
“We had a lot of chances. But, it is how it is. Football is like that. We have to see what happened in those two goals and go again on Saturday.”
The work of Calvo, Boxall, Brent Kallman and tonight’s return of Eric Miller did not go entirely in vain.
The bright moments of the growing chemistry between Romario and Darwin were not forgotten in the postgame words of the former. “I think it’s very good,” Ibarra said. “There were a few plays where we had a really good understanding between the two of us. He gave me two assists, so that shows the good chemistry we have on the field. And that’s very important, to have a good understanding with an excellent player like him. It helps me and the team. ”
The three points were sealed, and Heath’s thoughts remain on the maximum possible results from the season’s remaining games. “Let’s keep it going. I said to you last week, if we can keep this going as long as possible, we’ve done that tonight. Now we have to prepare ourselves for another difficult game next week. If we go and get three points, let’s see where that leaves us.
“We’re certainly not giving up on it, we’re going to keep playing. I think somebody said to me during the week, ‘You’ve got nothing to play with.’ Trust me, them players have got everything to play with, especially the ones that want to be here next year.”
The Loons next welcome the Eastern Conference’s third-place team in New York City FC to TCF Bank Stadium. They will be without both Bob (red card suspension) and Maximiano (yellow card accumulation), so the midfield will yet again be reshaped. On Saturday, the sweet sounds of “Wonderwall” were enough to push those cares back just a little bit.