After the disappointment of Wednesday night’s loss in Houston, Minnesota United were forced to sit back and watch as their competitors in the Western Conference took the field first with positions to claim. First San Jose lost in New York, then Dallas folded in Chicago. Portland dropped their game against D.C. United as Minnesota took the field on a warm September afternoon, with an opportunity made greater by the failure of others.
Real Salt Lake, their opponents on the day, had just as much opportunity to claim. The Utah team would be the first team beyond LAFC to reach 15 wins with a victory, and would have guaranteed themselves second place in the conference for the weekend had they won. Minnesota was in a similarly pivotal spot, looking to match Salt Lake on 14 wins and pass it on points, while creating space from the teams behind it.
Adrian Heath named his strongest available starting XI, with Darwin Quintero returning from the hamstring injury picked up against the Los Angeles Galaxy two weeks prior, and the Loons’ international players playing with significantly more rest than they had in Wednesday’s sad display. Thomás Chacón and Ángelo Rodríguez were not named in the substitutes, with Heath trusting Mason Toye to carry the load.
Questions around Quintero’s fitness, form, future and favor in Heath’s eyes have swirled since his absence from the starting lineup in the U.S. Open Cup final. He played very well in the Galaxy game, but the injury let the doubt creep back in. From the opening whistle of this game, he played with the intent and fire that have characterized his best stretches with the team. He hit the crossbar on an attempted chip (from an offside position) less than ten minutes into the game, and would prove pivotal as the game progressed.
First, however, Minnesota allowed an opening goal against the game’s run of play. Robin Lod had missed two solid chances created by Quintero and Kevin Molino, and the Loons soon regretted the misses. Jefferson Savarino’s shot forced a great save from Vito Mannone, but the deflection fell to Albert Rusnák and his weak shot escaped Mannone’s gaze and trickled past a desperate dive. The Loons started well, but stared at a deficit.
Enter Quintero, who solved that problem less than three minutes later. An inch-perfect through-ball from Molino found Quintero’s run past the Salt Lake defense, and the Colombian made goalkeeper Nick Rimando look thoroughly silly before finishing off the post past the recovering defenders, Rimando left rolling on the ground in his wake. It was a classic Quintero goal — a summer 2018 Quintero goal — and it brought Minnesota back to level terms.
The Loons appeared to sit back slightly after their goal and opening salvo, as Real began to search for an opening in the Minnesotan defense. A clever set-piece routine forced a critical intervention from Ike Opara, and while the defense held, the chances were all for the team in white.
In the 33rd minute, the Wonderwall began to sing “Bella Ciao”, a song adopted by anti-fascist groups in World War II-era Italy and continued in such groups nowadays, and revealed several banners and a flag sporting the Iron Front logo of an anti-fascist group in Nazi Germany. Supporters’ groups in Portland and Seattle have been fighting against an MLS ban of the logo’s display over the past weeks, and Minnesota United and the Wonderwall held dialogue over the past week about the club’s position. The display was planned, and reportedly led to the removal of one fan.
On the pitch, the half ended without further incident. As the second half began, Minnesota were almost ahead less than twenty seconds after the opening whistle. It was a pass from Molino and a shot from Quintero once again, but this one hit the outside of the post rather than the inside. The intent was clear, and there was not long to wait before Darwin found his second.
Set up by a tremendous save on a ball going out of bounds by Romain Métanire, Quintero snuck past two Salt Lake defenders who ran into each other and just ran towards Rimando’s 18-yard box. Mason Toye slipped offside and was unavailable for the pass, but it didn’t matter as Quintero simply took the shot to Rimando’s near post and sent Allianz Field into raptures.
It was Quintero’s first game with multiple goals since the 4-3 loss to Toronto in April, and it could not have come at a better time for Minnesota. “I think I said after on the TV that if we are going to make a push from now to the end, we need our best players to come alive,” Adrian Heath said after the game.
“Darwin [Quintero] is a difference-maker,” he went on. “We know that but we need to see that on a consistent basis. We need to see him now, push on from that and if he does that will be really, really valuable for us moving forward. You hear me many, many times, talk about scoring goals and making goals and that’s why they go for the most money. That’s why you pay them the most money. It’s the hardest thing in football to do and when he does it well, he’s excellent.”
Minnesota’s substitutions showed a bit of attacking intent, as Abu Danladi and Ethan Finlay entered in place of Toye, who did not have as great an impact as he has so often recently, and Molino, who was superb in both attack and defense. Finlay quickly got involved, as his speed threatened to punish Salt Lake as it pressed for an equalizer. Minnesota’s defense played further up to the attackers than it had in the first half, and Real struggled to find openings.
Hassani Dotson was United’s third sub in place of Quintero, and Dotson almost immediately put the game out of reach. An outstanding cross found Lod’s leg, and Rimando made an incredible save to keep the score from changing. Eight minutes later, it would be put out of reach.
The goal came by way of a Métanire pass, with the defender showing his best form in weeks. He pulled away from his defender, and as he and Danladi pulled the defense right, his pass came the other way to a wide-open Finlay, who made no mistake in finishing past Rimando from the top of the box. There were seven minutes to go, but the game was over. Minnesota had survived the tricky moments of the first half, and truly ran the show in the second.
As “Wonderwall” rang out over the field, one could be forgiven for casting an eye over the table. Minnesota, at the game’s finish, was the only West team in the playoff race to register a win this weekend, and moved back into second in the conference (Seattle has since won and bumped Minnesota back to third). They beat a team above them in the standings, and found the offense that has so often eluded them in weeks past.
Quintero spoke after the game through translation about the win’s importance. “Happy for the win, it’s always great to help the team and always great to be on the scoring sheet,” he said. “We work to score goals and to help the team as best we can, sometimes things don’t happen but let’s enjoy that tonight things went our way.”
Heath, for his part, wanted improvement on the first half’s play. “I thought [in the] first half, we gave them too much space. I thought we could have defended even in the block that we had, I thought we could’ve been a lot further up the field. [The] line of confrontation could’ve been a little bit higher. But they possessed the ball well, they do well at getting out of from their back third into their middle third. [Damir] Kreilach is very, very smart, very experienced. [He] comes into the right pockets at the right time and gives them a bit of an overload in there.”
He did find room for praise for his attackers, however. “It was difficult but I thought our combination play at times in the first half was excellent when we got Robin [Lod] and Kevin [Molino] and Darwin [Quintero] on the ball because as I said, they are three of our better footballers and we need them to be on the ball creating and being as lively as they were at times.”
Heath also noted that both Molino and Michael Boxall were sick in the days leading up to the game, with Boxall a game-time decision on Sunday. Boxall struggled at times defending Savarino but had a great performance overall. Ike Opara said more about the illness: “I realized that he (Boxall) might be a little more fatigued, so it’s just a little bit more work but for those guys to gut through it, it was big for us,” he said. “That bug’s been going through the whole team this past week or two, and unfortunately they got it and were able to respond and fight through it today, and be productive, not just be out there. It was impressive.”
With just four games remaining, thoughts of not just playoffs but a home playoff game can become a reality. Quintero maintained a reality check. “We are going step by step, we have not qualified yet,” he said. “That is what we would like in the first playoff game, to be here at home but we cannot celebrate yet because we have not achieved it quite yet.” The win on Sunday was a big step, but there is still work to be done.