On an evening that saw Minnesota United FC welcome an opponent in possibly the worst form in MLS to Allianz Field, on their first full week of rest in more than a month, with two critical ties against Portland to come, the possibility that they would overlook the Vancouver Whitecaps always existed.
As the game’s minutes trickled through the warm July air and a Vancouver defense that had allowed 17 goals in their previous five games combined stood strong, the fear of two dropped points became more and more real. Through 80 minutes, United had failed to register a single shot on goal, regardless of a couple of very good chances to open the game’s scoring.
Mason Toye and Abu Danladi had been sent on at the hour mark to jumpstart a flailing Minnesota offense that, after so much scoring in early July, appears to have hit a rough patch once again. Ángelo Rodríguez returned from injury to start the game, but could not find his connection with Darwin Quintero that had been so profitable at that time.
For their part, Vancouver took over an hour to really trouble Vito Mannone, but Theo Bair, Yordy Reyna and Fredy Montero grew in threat as the second half ticked away. Mannone was forced into a diving save on a Reyna shot, and the fear grew.
A critical point just after the hour mark didn’t look like much at first glance. Quintero controlled the ball with his arm, and kicked the ball at goal after the whistle. Villareal gave him a yellow, and accumulation will cause him to miss Saturday’s game in the league against Portland.
United called for VAR in the 85th minute after a possible handball in the box, but referee Armando Villareal was unmoved, adding to the boos accompanying his actions. The game’s last chance fell to Quintero, open at the back post, but his shot didn’t have enough power to pass Maxime Crépeau. Ultimately, 0-0 was the final, and points Minnesota still sorely needs were left on the field.
Danladi and Toye failed to impact the game in the desired way. Toye had the game’s best chance, a volley inside the six-yard box that he got horribly wrong with the goal at his mercy. Danladi was unable to connect passes from his wing position replacing Ethan Finlay. Heath held Hassani Dotson out of this game, not choosing to make a third substitution.
Quintero had moments of brilliance as he often does, but too many moments at the game’s death resulted in bad decisions and turnovers when teammates — who admittedly had not converted earlier chances — were more open than he was.
In his role replacing Kevin Molino, Miguel Ibarra was inches away from several half-chances in both halves, with a particularly memorably karate kick try early in the second half. He also was unable to impact the score sheet, and did not have the creative license that Molino can bring.
The message in the locker room was one of disappointment, but not with the effort. Chase Gasper put it as succinctly as anyone: “I thought we deserved three points, but that’s soccer.” The team registered 37 crosses, but just a single shot on goal (Darwin’s attempt with the last kick of the game).
“Really pleased with the effort. Desire. Energy,” said Adrian Heath. “We spoke about it during the week that this was one of those games that I was going to be worried about it, but the things that I was worried about didn’t come to fruition this evening. The energy from the players was terrific. Only thing lacking was our final ball in the final third.”
On the crosses, Heath was slightly incredulous. “Thirty-seven crosses? I can’t remember the last time I was involved with a team that got 37 crosses on, and probably didn’t get on the end of more than two or three.”
“I thought our movement has to be a little better in the box,” Finlay said in the locker room. “We just weren’t quite able to get on the final ball. Very close a couple of times, Miguel came close, Mason on one there. It was just that final touch, and I think just putting more guys in the box. I’d have to look and see how many times we had two or more guys.”
Finlay went on, “I feel like a lot of times you looked up and there was one or two guys, and then we weren’t able to get enough guys in the box. So I think if we’re going to have 37 crosses, we need to be having more bodies in the box. Obviously that’s something we need to work on, with teams coming in here possibly going to bunker in like that.”
Regardless of the available disappointment, the hallmarks of optimism remain. Minnesota registered another clean sheet, with minimal threat to Mannone’s goal, and remain unbeaten in all non-friendly competitions since the June 8 loss to Colorado. The point remains valuable in the chase for playoffs.
“A little bit of disappointment, but we’re keeping this run going,” Mannone said after the game. “We look at the positives. We have to focus on the next two months, because it’s a long way to go, 12 games to go, and it’s important not to lose these kinds of games. You can come out with zero.”
“It definitely feels like two points lost, but at the same time, another big game on Sunday with Portland coming in, and then we have a massive game in the semifinal. We need to stay positive. I thought the effort was there tonight, we gave 100 percent, but we weren’t as bright as usual around the box.”
Minnesota goes into its doubleheader with Portland with momentum slightly stalled but still alive, and the double occasion of a critical league game and the club’s first semi-final appearance in the U.S. Open Cup will be a remarkable opening to an August that will set the table for a tricky close to the season.