Minnesota United defeated San Jose, 3-1, on Saturday at Allianz Field and has now won four straight in all competitions. Our soccer analyst Nicolas Hallett gives us his main takeaways from the match.
1. Minnesota United wins its “biggest game” of the season. Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath has let out some hearty fist pumps after victories before, but after the final whistle on Wednesday he shuffled into a full run and then leaped five yards onto the pitch as he vigorously pumped his fist skyward. It was evident this win meant a ton to the Englishman, who reiterated as such after the match.
“I said to you before that I thought this was the most important game of the season,” Heath said. “I was so proud of the players.”
The Western Conference is uber competitive this season and so the match between two sides holding on to some of the few remaining playoff slots felt like an old-fashioned six-pointer. Not to mention San Jose came into this fixture with a sparkling record, having only lost one match in its last 13 games in all competitions.
For these reasons, the match seemed to simulate a playoff-like intensity.
“I think we, we know we needed to get these two wins at home to start off the second half of the year,” Ike Opara said. “I look at every game as the most important. The next one is the most important.”
2. United won the game within the game. A massive key to United leaving with all three points was Heath and company ensuring his squad won the tactical battle. Numerous players gave credit to the coaching staff for the gameplan, which they felt gave them a key advantage on the night.
“I actually thought some of the gameplan worked very well, certainly in the first half where we got the spare man at the back on the ball and we sucked him in,” Heath said.
The coaching staff apparently made note of a specific tactic San Jose uses to defend the attackers man-to-man. Though the Earthquakes’ strategy seems to provide them success, United coaches noticed a weakness: when implementing their defensive shape, San Jose leaves both center backs relatively unoccupied, leaving them free to venture forward further than usual when on the ball.
This led to a number of seemingly obscure forward runs by center back Michael Boxall, which was in stark contrast to his usual conservative held back positioning. In stunning fashion, one of these Boxall runs — and a bit of good luck — led to the game-winning goal from the New Zealander.
“I think it’s just the way that San Jose plays. Every other person on the field is man-to-man, so that leaves me and Ike [Opara] to wait for the chance to go forward,” Boxall said. “Obviously that happened for me a few times. We played them the same way the last time we played San Jose. It gave me a couple nosebleeds getting that high up the field, but it worked out tonight.”
This is a marquee example of Heath playing a key role in his team winning a match, something his detractors will likely fail to point out.
3. The highly-potent United offense shows itself briefly, but then goes back into hiding. United’s opening goal in the fourth minute was reminiscent of everything the Loons have been doing well in the final third as of late. It was a flowing move capped off by an ideal cross from Ethan Finlay and finished off expertly by Darwin Quintero. But after that, the bright spots offensively were few and far between.
If there’s a negative to take away from this result for Heath, it would be that his offense only seems to click when going against lesser competition. In cup games against weakened MLS starting elevens and against the league-wide punching bag FC Cincinnati, Minnesota’s offense was rolling downhill with steam. Once again, though, against a resolute and fully motivated MLS opponent, the chance creation and goal-scoring threats looked much timider.
4. Rookies hold firm once again. It what’s been a growing narrative for some time, rookies Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson furthered their growing reputations once again with solid outings on the night. Dotson’s performance was quiet, yet effective. Meanwhile, Gasper was tasked with marking one of the league’s most dangerous attackers and passed the test with flying colors. Gasper continues to inch himself closer and closer to locking down the left back position for himself.
5. Mannone stands out. A man of the match performance from goalkeeper Vito Mannone was needed as the Loons conceded the possession battle by a whopping 65 to 35 percent margin. For much of the second half, the Loons were pinned back in their own end defending chance after chance. It’s easy to picture the Loons dropping points if they didn’t get all seven saves from Mannone. The performance served as a reminder of the former Arsenal goalkeepers’ elite pedigree and veteran presence.