Atlanta, MLS elites still a tier above Minnesota
Winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday night could have served as a crowning achievement for Minnesota United and its much vaunted “three-year plan.” Though Atlanta United’s 2-1 win in the final of the U.S.’s premier professional cup competition scrapped that narrative for the Loons, it gave way to a different, albeit less sexy one.
Minnesota’s successful charting of a path to the final of a major competition demonstrated how far the expansion franchise has come. But the Loons’ loss also illuminates the gap that still remains between Minnesota and Major League Soccer’s elites.
Collectively the Loons were up for the match, and the close scoreline is accurate in suggesting they could have potentially come away with the trophy themselves had a few bounces gone differently. Still, one can look no further than Mason Toye’s performance on the night as an unfortunate metaphor for why Minnesota came up short.
The young striker has shown a few glimpses of promise in recent weeks, but it was clear that the grandiose nature of the occasion overwhelmed him. During many stretches, Minnesota showed its ability to go punch for punch with Atlanta. But on numerous occasions Toye’s decision making let himself and the team down. This is why calls for him being included into the U.S. men’s national team fold were entirely premature as there are clearly myriad of aspects to his game that remain unpolished.
The fault surely should not rest solely on the 20-year-old, but it was evident that the team could likely have greatly benefitted from the veteran striking presence of Angelo Rodriguez. Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath wasn’t left much of a choice as it would seem evident that Rodriguez had little chance of playing with his recent hamstring pull.
“You can’t come to a place like this and go two-nil down, but their response after that was terrific,” Heath told the Pioneer Press after the match. “I think it shows you how far we’ve come in the last year or so. That we’ve come here and feel really disappointed that we didn’t take something from the game.”
Heath had a couple of big calls to make on the night, which we will get to in short order, but as it related to the striking position, his hands were tied firmly behind his back. You do feel, though, had the Columbian been available the result could have been different, but such is always the case with games as close as this.
Another one of Heath’s biggest decisions regarded his captain Ozzie Alonso. Alonso hasn’t been fully fit for some weeks now and his appearance in this match felt just as questionable as Rodriguez’s. So it was a bit of surprise to see the 33-year-old not only partake, but to do so from the start. You can wholly understand Heath’s eagerness to start the Cuban has he’s largely been the fulcrum for the club since joining this offseason. Not to mention the absurd fact that, having appeared in this final, Alonso has now featured in a record seven U.S. Open Cup Finals in total.
But Alonso, sporting a heavily taped quad, clearly appeared to be less than 100 percent. His performance was in no way abysmal, but the Minnesota’s midfield was definitely less mobile as a result. In this case, too, it’s quite possible Heath felt he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. You wonder if he’ll look back and second-guess himself on this.
(Heath’s interviews with media had not yet been fully released publicly at the time of publishing.)
Speaking of second guessing. It’s likely the entire state of Minnesota was adamantly questioning Heath’s decision to leave his star man Darwin Quintero on the bench to start this cup final. Talk about bold moves. Not only is Quintero the Loon’s leading scorer on the season with eight goals, he’s also the Open Cup’s top scorer with six goals throughout the entire tournament.
In almost zero cases does it makes sense to leave the leading scorer of a tournament out of the final of said tournament. But that’s exactly what Heath did.
Now, the counter point could be that Minnesota came out buzzing in the second-half, scored a goal immediately and looked plenty likely to go on and tie the game thereafter. Kevin Molino, who put in a near masterclass performance, came the closest to leveling things midway through the second half. Quintero entered a short while later in the 74th minute.
Still, giving your star player, your leading scorer, your highest paid player just 20 minutes of game time in the biggest match in the franchise’s history seems utterly confounding.
Heath told Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press that the move was nothing personal against the Columbian.
One could point to the fact that it was Quintero’s sloppy turnover on Thursday night against Sporting Kansas City that led directly to the match-losing goal for the Loon’s as some sliver of a reason. Even that, though, would appear to come up short of a full rationalization. This massive move from Heath adds fuel — i.e. pure gasoline — to the rumors that there may be unrest between United and Quintero’s camps.
Despite all of this, the United squad, including standouts Molino, Hassani Dotson and Ike Opara, held their own on the night. Especially considering a tumultuous start. Vito Mannone was superb in every involvement in this match apart from the opening goal, where it certainly appeared he could have done better.
Everything could have panned out differently if in the final moments centerback Michael Boxall could have converted from within five yards after a glorious knock down header from Opara. United would have entered extra time with a man advantage and a swell of momentum. But Boxall’s golden chance soared high above the crossbar.
“We should still be playing,” Boxall told the StarTribune. “The boys played their hearts out second half. It just hurts.”