You could tell the pressure was getting to them.
After the final whistle blew Saturday night, Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath thrust an exaggerated first pump, the type you see after a major win. In the tunnel, players could be heard yelling expletives in excitement.
United have maintained a playoff position for much of the campaign, but in the inaugural season of Allianz Field the Loons have dropped more points than they’d like on home turf. Couple that with an abrupt trade of the team’s captain followed by one of the ugliest losses of the season and suddenly the mood around United had grown tense.
The Loons calmed everything down with 1-0 win Saturday against the Columbus Crew. Though three of the games were draws, the victory keeps Minnesota unbeaten at its new stadium. Heath agreed there were some additional nerves, but proclaimed everyone should remain patient.
“I said to the press this week, when I was looking at the league table, you would think we were bottom of the league, not above the line. I don’t know what’s wrong with people,” Heath said. “Just calm down, and see where we are in a few weeks’ time. When we’ve evened the season up, when we’ve played seven at home like we’ve done away from home.”
The schedule is precisely why this run-of-the-mill game held such prominence. United have another difficult stretch upcoming as their next three matches see them face teams which all sit high on the table, including defending MLS champions Atlanta United, while the Crew have been on a poor run of form.
“We knew they were struggling, we knew they were conceding goals, so it was a good opportunity for us to make sure we get three points,” Minnesota United midfielder Miguel Ibarra said. “We knew Dallas lost as well, so we wanted to get three points to keep going up.”
Heath made a bold call by handing a first-ever start to Ibarra at left back. Ibarra’s work rate is an ideal attribute for the outside back position, but still it felt an odd move considering Eric Miller’s recent performances and Ibarra’s usual positioning on the wing. But the reason for the change could be key to the way United plays the rest of the campaign.
Right back Romain Metanire has been one of United’s standout performers this season by a country mile. But Heath said while watching film the coaching staff noticed teams were beginning to shade more and more attention to the right side to thwart Metanire’s bullish runs forward.
“Romain [Metanire] is a problem for teams. And I just felt that we needed the same thing on the left, but more of a threat down the left so they couldn’t keep funneling it down that side,” Heath said. “Now, with Miggy [Ibarra] out there, we have another threat as well. Obviously, you worry about defensively, but I thought he was terrific.”
On this day the move paid immediate dividends. Metanire was arguably United’s best solo performer and it was his cross which eventually led to the game’s only goal. Meanwhile, despite inserting a winger into the back four, Minnesota earned a clean sheet. A win-win.
“We can either go right or we can go to the left side,” Ibarra said. “I knew they were going to try to expose me because they probably saw that I hadn’t played left back, but I knew deep inside that I could play that position, so I was ready for it.”
What Ibarra knew deep inside was that moving to outside back was actually a reunion for him as he played there almost exclusively during his one year and change in Mexico’s first division.
The most discussed reunion heading into the game, though, was midfielder Ethan Finlay facing his former team. Fitting then, that it was the Duluth native who smashed in the winning goal. However, it must be said that it was defender Brent Kallman, Finlay’s college teammate at Creighton University, who made the key play by risking life and limb to head it back across frame.
“I couldn’t have written it any better,” Kallman said. “Former team, coming off an ACL, first goal. He works crazy hard too, so he got the reward for it… really happy for him.”
Coach Rating Out of 10
8 — Showed the audacity to start a seemingly out-and-out winger in Ibarra at left back. The move could have destabilized a defensive unit that’s been relatively solid over the last handful of games. Instead, though, Heath was duly rewarded as he team earned yet another clean sheet at home and all three points.
Select Player Ratings (1-10 | 10 = Best)
RB Romain Metanire, 8.5 — The dude is unreal. He puts in a seemingly marathon-level of running in each match and never looks worse for the wear. It honestly feels at times as if Metanire is pulling the entire Minnesota XI up and down the field. It’s no surprise that it was his cross which eventually led to United’s game-winning goal.
CB Michael Boxall, 7.5 — Quite the performance from the New Zealander considering the context: in the past few weeks he had maybe the most embarrassing moment of his professional career in a devastating loss and subsequently lost his long-held starting position at centerback. You could imagine the pressure would have been high on Boxall, who was inserted in place of an injured Ike Opara, but he looked unshaken and provided a resolute performance which was key to the shutout.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Heath said. “I thought the two center backs were terrific.”
CB Brent Kallman, 8 — It was a solid performance from the entirety of the new-look back four, but Kallman continues to stand out for his consistency and class. On the night, though, it was his assist that was truly special. His stretching header that sent the ball back across goal was the play of the game.
RM Ethan Finlay, 7 — I’ve been harsh on Finlay in this space as his performances this season have underwhelming. But maybe that should be expected as he’s coming off major surgery (ACL). Tonight showed that maybe he’s close to putting the injury rust behind him with a solid game when it came to passing and take-ons. Oh, and the all important winning goal.