The vitality of Minnesota United’s play at home over the last two years has rarely been in question. They have defeated top teams in the league, and on some occasions in 2018 made them look very silly. With the Houston Dynamo in town, the new-look, defensively focused Loons had another opportunity to prove they belong among the West’s elite.
In what has become a Minnesotan trademark over the past five weeks, defensive focus was the best part of their game, and a fortunate first-half goal from Romain Métanire paved the way for a 1-0 win to maintain their undefeated start at Allianz Field.
This game was another test of the depth of Adrian Heath’s squad. With this the first of three games in eight days against teams in the top three of their conferences, he could be forgiven for having half an eye on the future, in this case keeping Ike Opara on the bench to get him some rest and giving the start at left-back to rookie Hassani Dotson.
Dotson, who was the third of Minnesota’s picks in the 2019 SuperDraft, impressed in Wednesday’s friendly against Hertha Berlin and was chosen to start his first career game in the high-pressure environment of this important league game. He is the first second-round pick to ever start an MLS game for Minnesota.
“I was a little nervous but it helped that I got to play with the team against Hertha,” Dotson said after the game. I just want to thank the coaching staff, the athletic training staff and my teammates for helping me get through this. They’ve been really supportive this whole time, making sure I don’t have too many nerves before the game.”
Houston entered the game as one of three teams in the West receiving more than two points per game through their first eleven games. However, their schedule has been heavily home-favored, and they were without attacker Alberth Elis for Saturday’s game.
Within five minutes of the game’s start, Minnesota almost had their most spectacular goal of the season and what would surely have been the best goal of the weekend in MLS. Darwin Quintero, looking to rediscover some of last season’s magic, juggled a ball with his back to goal and spun to hit it first-time with his left foot, cannoning the shot off of the intersection between post and bar.
The attacking intent from the Loons was clear, but Houston had plenty of threat of their own, with Romell Quioto in particular looking dangerous when he received the ball in transition. Quioto had speed to beat any Minnesota defender that ran with him, and forced Vito Mannone into a couple of saves.
As Minnesota fell into rhythm, the question that has been the constant over these last five weeks was the key to the game: how would they get the goal to turn one point into three? As it has been so often this season, the answer lied with a cross from Métanire, who has been the team’s most vital player in attack in 2019.
Métanire took the ball to cross from the right, as he’s done like clockwork this season. Houston’s Boniek Garcia stepped in to block the cross, and the ball took a mighty deflection off Garcia’s shin to loop over everyone, including the diving Joe Willis, to kiss the far post and land inside the goal. It was remarkably fortunate, but it was the necessary breakthrough.
Within a minute, Métanire’s defensive quality was brought into play, as it took a diving tackle from him to deny Quioto an open chance at goal. It was a stretch of play that epitomized all that Métanire has brought to Minnesota this season, and one that will go directly on the highlight reel in favor of his candidacy for the MLS All-Star Game.
Houston continued to out-possess and out-shoot Minnesota as the half closed down, with Quintero taken to ground twice on attempted breakaways in reply. At halftime, Houston led many of the counting stats, but Minnesota had ridden their luck and kept the lead.
In the early part of the second half, the Loons had the chances to put this game on ice. First Ethan Finlay got through clear one-on-one with Willis, but missed his shot just wide and was called offside. Then a long, bouncing punt from Mannone beat the entire Houston defense and left Ángelo Rodriguez alone against Willis, who was up to the challenge.
Finlay had a second chance that was not offside, but still was unable to get the shot on goal, and it marked the moment that Heath began to turn up the defense. First Rodríguez was withdrawn for Abu Danladi, then Rasmus Schüller came on for Quintero. The added defensive midfielder was one step, and the final sub of Opara for Miguel Ibarra created about the most defensive lineup Minnesota can field.
Even then, Minnesota had the best chance of those closing minutes, as a Métanire cross found a wide-open Schüller in the box, and his shot was deflected just wide by Willis as the Loons ran the show. Quioto had been withdrawn through injury at the hour mark, and Houston barely got the ball out of their own half in the five minutes of stoppage time.
Heath’s refrain after the game was a familiar message of this season’s Allianz Field games. “I’m really pleased today for different reasons, because here we’ve created two or three really good chances as well, but we don’t take anything from this game last year,” he said.
“The collective mentality to defend the goal, do what’s asked of them, people doing what the coaching staff want them to do, defending properly, putting the group before individuals, I thought it was outstanding at times. I’m really pleased for a lot of aspects of the game today, as much as I have been previous weeks when I’ve come in here and thought we’ve done great.”
Mannone credited the “grind” of the 1-0 result. “I think it’s an effort from everybody,” he said. “I think it’s fantastic how we grind for clean sheets, and of course any guys who came in who didn’t play before, people like Hassani, on his full debut as a left-back, he was fantastic. I think, as I said, hard work during the week, that pays you off in the weekend. You win games like today, where you have very good opponents, very good going forward, guys who score almost every game. It’s fantastic to get another one.”
Finlay was quick to praise Dotson’s performance as well. “I thought he was fantastic. Obviously there were some jitters there early on, but he made a couple moves where he was getting forward in the attack, holding guys off. I mean, you saw how strong he is obviously on Wednesday night against those German guys.”
“He’s always up for the fight. I thought it was a tremendous debut for him, really proud of him. That’s a kid who I think has been really solid for most of the season and is probably unfortunate to have not gotten an opportunity a little bit sooner.”
While Métanire deservedly received man-of-the-match honors from the club after this game, he had the unfortunate incident of picking up an extremely soft yellow card very late in the contest, which will result in him missing Wednesday’s game in Atlanta due to yellow card accumulation. How Minnesota manages the game without their most potent threat in a hostile arena will be very interesting to watch.
“Well, we’d prefer to have him, but it is what it is,” Heath said. “At this stage of the season, when you’re a defender, chances are you’re going to be in and around those sort of numbers. I thought actually it was a bit of a cheap yellow card with some of the tackles that went on today that didn’t get a yellow card, but it is what it is.”
Minnesota has Atlanta away in midweek and Philadelphia next Sunday, two of the East’s top five, to wrap up an Allianz Field opening schedule that has seen six of its seven visitors currently in playoff position. Should they get a result against the Union, to open those seven games without a loss is a great foundation to build on. These are two more chances to prove that the Loons belong among not just the playoff race, but the upper echelons of the West.