Minnesota United’s only home loss of the season was a 1-0 defeat against Atlanta in which the visitors scored, had a man sent off and defended well enough to get three points.
On Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, it was Minnesota’s turn to survive a late onslaught down a man as they successfully protected a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Both Vancouver and Minnesota showed their best moves when playing on the counterattack, so the first half of the game was a wide-open, chippy affair. Minnesota had likely the best chance to score through a loose ball in the six-yard box, but Vancouver played the more cohesive soccer.
While Minnesota chipped around the edges through their midfield attacking trio of Darwin Quintero, Miguel Ibarra, and Alexi Gomez, Vancouver tested Bobby Shuttleworth’s goal whenever they could, with eight shots in the first half and a whopping 19 in the game, seven of them forcing Shuttleworth saves.
The game entered halftime scoreless, but both teams sniffed blood in the water whenever their attackers got free with space to run. Gomez in particular impressed for Minnesota, attacking his defender at every opportunity and forcing corners and mistakes with speed and technique.
Gomez was starting his first game for Minnesota, as was rookie striker Mason Toye, who had the chance to excel with injuries to Christian Ramirez and Abu Danladi opening the door for him.
Instead, Toye will remember this game for the “rookie mistake” that provoked a straight red card just five minutes into the second half.
“I was getting held and grabbed a little bit, but that’s just part of the game,” Toye said of the decision after the game. “I made a bad decision, I threw an elbow, and then I got a red card for it. It’s just a learning experience now for me, and I have to say thank you to the whole team. I put them in a really tough spot and they were able to pull a win out. That’s what we should be talking about at the end of the day.”
A red card with forty-plus minutes left seemed likely to signal an attempt to go for the 0-0 draw. Instead, Minnesota played ten minutes of their best attacking soccer of the day, capped off by the goal that took an unlikely lead.
The interplay between Quintero, Gomez and Ibarra was the part of the offense that had looked the best in the first half, and the three combined to give Minnesota the lead, with Ibarra’s persistence the final key.
“We were able to get it out from there and we switched the field, and I see Alexi go one-on-one,” Ibarra said. “They’ve been telling me since the season started, make sure you get to the back post. I had already done that against Portland which was called back, so my instinct was don’t be offsides on this one. The goalkeeper made a great save on the first one, but I just followed up.”
The goal came at the hour mark, so Minnesota still had half an hour plus stoppage time to keep their lead. Vancouver was not going to let the game go easily, as each of their three subs had chances to even the score.
First, Yordi Reyna hit a shot off the crossbar in the 70th minute. Then Kei Kamara missed an open header in the 75th minute, as the Vancouver pressure ratcheted up even further. The hydration break that came immediately after that chance was well-timed for Minnesota to reset and get two subs of their own on in the form of Collin Martin and Wyatt Omsberg, making his home debut.
Vancouver’s third sub had the best chance of all, thought it was denied in the most spectacular fashion. Brek Shea’s curling shot in the 83rd minute looked destined for the top corner but Shuttleworth was up to the challenge.
“Bobby came up with an incredible save. I’m right behind it and at one stage it’s two or three feet outside the post, so it’s going in top corner,” coach Adrian Heath said. “For him to get his hand on it was an incredible save, and he’s done that the last couple of weeks when we needed him.”
The minutes ticked down, six minutes of stoppage time went on the board. Vancouver never got close, and some heroic evasion by Ibson and Quintero on the far side of the field killed off enough time that the result was finished. United had another home win and, more importantly, their first clean sheet of 2018.
“I thought it was a monumental effort considering how long we played a man down,” Heath said. “The players, every single one of them, put themselves on the line so many times with crosses that would come in the box.”
“I think we did really well. We defended the area fantastic,” captain and defender Francisco Calvo said. “It’s not just the back four. It’s the whole team, and we know that if we have the clean sheet we’re going to get three points.”
Calvo had one of his best games of the season, missing just three passes as recorded by MLSSoccer.com’s box score chalkboard, by far the best mark on the team. His performance was no small factor in United’s best defensive showing of the year.
The implications of Toye’s bad decision are not finished with Saturday’s result. Toye will be suspended for Wednesday night’s trip to Los Angeles FC, currently second in the Western Conference, which means United will likely not have a traditional striker available for the game at all.
“We’ve got an abundance of players in midfield and whether that makes us change one or two things, I would think that we’ll make one or two changes for the game,” Heath said. “Wednesday in LA, we don’t get back until late Thursday, big game again for us here next Saturday.”
“We’ll have a better idea after training tomorrow how everybody feels and where we are, and we’ll probably take every fit player to LA and then we’ll see where we are from there.”
The trip to Los Angeles is Minnesota’s only away fixture in the month of May, with three more home games to follow Wednesday’s game. United are now 3-1-0 at home on the season, and that home form has pushed them up to fourth in the Western Conference after this result.
There is plenty of work to do, but the small platform of the win over Houston has expanded. This season’s Minnesota United are no pushovers, and the signs that this team might be building something new were clear after the hard work of this victory.