MN United

Minnesota United 3, San Jose 0: What Is This Feeling?

Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

In Minnesota United FC’s four meetings with the San Jose Earthquakes since their arrival in the MLS, nothing has seemed to go right. 1-0 and 3-2 losses in 2017 went with 3-2 and 3-1 losses in 2018. The games in 2018 were all the more humiliating, as they were two of San Jose’s four wins in the entire season, as they finished with the fewest points in the entire league.

Saturday’s game at the Avaya Stadium, just like United’s opener in Vancouver, was a game in which United should have been the better team and taken the three points. The team continued to demonstrate that 2019 is a new season as they rolled out comfortable 3-0 winners.

With the admittedly small sample size of two games, Adrian Heath seems to have found the perfect lineup for this team as it stands. Heath did not make a single change in either the starting eleven or in the seven players on the bench from the 3-2 win in Vancouver, with Romario Ibarra still preferred up top to Ángelo Rodriguez for now.

San Jose opened the game more than willing to attack, probing the Minnesotan flanks for openings and searching for the chance to get Chris Wondolowski, their talismanic striker, the one goal he needs to tie Landon Donovan’s all-time regular season goal-scoring record. Minnesota was left to play more on the counter-attack.

After a few early nibbles from the Quakes, Romario was given a golden chance to put the Loons ahead on a through-ball from Romain Métanire, perfectly weighted to beat the defense. Romario chose to hit it first time and unfortunately hit it directly into goalkeeper Daniel Vega’s chest. United’s route to the goal was clear.

The possession and smaller chances continued to lean towards San Jose, as Ike Opara, Métanire and Vito Mannone all had to be on their tiptoes to prevent things from slipping away from them. Slipping was a factor in the game’s pace of play, as the surface was very slick to play on and players ended up sliding more often than they should have been.

Mar 9, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall (15) advances the ball while being pressured by San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Anibal Godoy (20) during the first half at Avaya Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

On the half-hour mark, United put the fear into the opposing stadium again as first Romario, then Darwin Quintero were denied by Vega from close range. Vega did well, particularly on Quintero’s rebound attempt, but the United attackers did shoot nearly straight at him.

The danger continued to flash for both sides, with the Quakes hitting the post from an accidental redirect by Michael Boxall and United taking yet another shot straight at Vega. The game making it to halftime scoreless was more than a small surprise.

The sensation at halftime was that the team that broke the deadlock first would be in very good shape to take the points. United had allowed San Jose to get mostly what they wanted on offense, and if they could do better work in possession, the game seemed quite winnable.

Those two factors came together nicely in the opening five minutes of the second half. Minnesota broke into the box through Miguel Ibarra, whose cross pretty clearly hit a raised arm from Marco Lopez. It took a minute for the referee to go to VAR, but the review was the fastest it’s ever been.

For the second week in a row, Quintero had the opportunity to open the scoring from twelve yards out, and he duly made no mistake, sending Vega the wrong way. United had their goal, and and Heath’s mantra of “goals change games” was active.

San Jose immediately attempted to recover the deficit, but left themselves open to the counter, and Quintero led the way down the field as Minnesota broke. He found Miguel on his right side, who cut back onto his left and curled a perfect shot past everyone. United were up two just seven minutes into the second half, easy as that.

Mar 9, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Minnesota United midfielder Miguel Ibarra (10) points to his teammate in celebration after scoring against the San Jose Earthquakes during the second half at Avaya Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Quakes manager Matias Almeyda wasted no time declaring his intent, with all three subs used near the hour mark. Danny Hoesen was 2018’s torturer, with three goals across the two meetings between these two clubs, and he and Wondolowski up top were the San Jose recovery plan.

Minnesota would need to win this through their defense, and while the Quakes continued to probe, every link of the United chain held strong. Mannone made a nice diving save to his right on a shot from Cristian Espinoza, and Opara, Boxall, Calvo and Métanire worked strongly in the air to deny the crosses that continued to fly in.

Heath had made his own change on the hour mark, with Rodriguez on for Romario to provide an outlet for the pressure on the Loon defenders. It was Rodriguez’s possession that drew a foul on the right side of the box for Jan Greguš to take a free kick from, and Greguš provided the final nail in the San Jose coffin.

Greguš’s free kick skimmed across both attackers and defenders, and a deflection from the Quakes’ Harold Cummings beat everyone to the far post, with Quintero and Boxall both closer to it than any defender. It was an own goal, but it was United’s third, and the perfect start to the season had survived its second match.

Both Ethan Finlay and Hassani Dotson featured in the game’s closing minutes once again, and San Jose could not even get a goal to save some face, with Wondolowski badly missing his best chance of the game from six yards out as stoppage time began. Not only had United won again, but they had recorded a clean sheet on the road.

Mar 9, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone (1) knocks the ball away in front of San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski (8) as Minnesota United defender Ike Opara (3) leaps during the second half at Avaya Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The necessary points of context are these: in 2018, Minnesota recorded a total of five points on the road, with a record of 1-14-2 and their only win coming in March. They now have two March wins already and all six points, that point total a thing of the past.

This was also the first time in Minnesota’s slim MLS history that they had recorded a shutout on the road. United’s defense has been historically bad in each of the previous two seasons, and an inaugural road shutout in their third season is an indicator that maybe, just maybe, things are changing for the better.

There also remains this necessary caveat: Minnesota has likely opened the season with two of the worst teams in the Western Conference, and have merely done what they were expected to do by winning. Perhaps the fear of the road is gone, but this team has not been tested by even a playoff-level team, let alone one of the league’s elite.

That aside, Darwin Quintero provided another match-winning performance on offense, and the revamped defense was tested and held firm. In the end, this was a complete performance by Minnesota, and the dominance of the scoreline was not unfair.

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