With just under six minutes gone in Minnesota United FC’s opening game of 2019, the common fan (and media member) could have been forgiven for wondering if anything had actually changed at all. Vancouver Whitecaps FC had opened the scoring after a catastrophic failure of marking on a set-piece, and the road blues appeared just as present as ever.
However, that single mistake was one of the few openings allowed to Vancouver, as Minnesota was the dominant team on the balance of possession and chances for almost the entire duration of the remaining game, and left BC Place deserved 3-2 winners.
United’s starting lineup matched that of multiple preseason games, including their final tuneup against Houston. Former Sunderland goalkeeper Vito Mannone in goal, the vaunted new spine of the defense in Ike Opara, Ján Greguš and Osvaldo Alonso in the middle, and the familiar face of Darwin Quintero pulling the strings in midfield.
After Vancouver’s opening goal, scored by Erik Godoy, United retook control of possession and began to dig for weaknesses in Vancouver’s defense. The target on Vancouver defender Derek Cornelius became very clear after both Miguel Ibarra and newly signed right-back Romain Métanire found themselves with acres of space down the right side of the field.
Métanire, formerly of Stade Reims in France’s Ligue 1, was an early standout. He clearly has the green light to play up the field, and his crossing ability was the source of much of Minnesota’s early aggression. He also showed a blazing turn of pace that may be seen further against a more challenging opponent.
It appeared that both of Minnesota’s outside backs had permission to go for a jog, as the best elements of Francisco Calvo’s game on the left were once again present as they had been towards the end of last season. Calvo had Minnesota’s first significant chance with a curling rocket that caught the crossbar.
The combination play between Métanire and Quintero created Minnesota’s first goal, albeit indirectly. The two exchanged the ball as they moved up the field and Quintero hit a long cross over the face of goal. Calvo beat Jakob Nerwinski to the ball very clearly, and Nerwinski’s foot in Calvo’s midriff made the awarded penalty decision very clear for the referee.
And so it was that while the eyes were on all the new signings, Minnesota’s first goal of 2019 was a penalty won by Calvo and scored by Quintero, whose unstoppable hit to the right side of goal was true. The offseason signings were designed to promote defense, but the offense appeared to still be just fine.
United entered halftime at that 1-1 score, and while Heath must not have been satisfied with the score, the dominance Minnesota showed in possession was a great start, with a possession lead in seven of the nine five-minute increments of the half.
New Vancouver coach Marc dos Santos must have given a decent speech at halftime, as the Whitecaps began the second half with their best stretch of play of the game. Minnesota was not nearly as clean with the ball, and seemed to be stuck in their half in situations where they could have done better.
This was the time where Opara, Greguš and Alonso showed exactly why Minnesota paid up for them over the winter. In moments where last season a Vancouver player may have escaped on goal or sent a dangerous cross in, Alonso would be there to move them off the ball, or Opara would confidently challenge.
The elements of Minnesota’s roster that turned over the most settled in very nicely in their opening debut, and as Vancouver’s halftime burst began to fade, United took control of the game through the old guard once again.
The goal was scored and the chance created by Calvo once again, who forced a turnover in midfield and maintained his run, and was rewarded by a perfectly weighted Quintero cross to open his 2019 account with a diving header past Maxime Crépeau. Minnesota had the lead in the 66th minute, and it wasn’t done.
Enter Romario Ibarra, whose starting position had been the most intriguing entering the week with Ángelo Rodríguez still working his way back to full fitness. Ibarra had struggled somewhat to impact the game, as Minnesota did not appear to be setting him up to use his best skills.
The goal was set up by a Vancouver mistake, but well taken advantage of as Quintero won a 50-50 challenge from Jon Erise that ended up at Romario’s feet. His guile and trickery in the box got him the bit of luck needed, as his shot deflected off of Godoy’s foot and past Crépeau, who was stuck diving for a cross.
Now, the old familiar Minnesota jitters would come in, as the club had a 3-1 lead with 20 minutes to play, and when Doneil Henry headed in Vancouver’s second in the 80th minute, those misgivings only got louder.
Heath’s changes were both practical and warmed the heart. First off the bench was Ethan Finlay, making his first MLS appearance in 11 months after an ACL tear. Rodriguez was second, and perhaps the most surprising was the stoppage time entry of Hassani Dotson, Minnesota’s second-round draft pick this season.
Dotson came in for Quintero as United attempted to kill the game off, and the veterans across the board took care of business. Both Finlay and Rodriguez had runs to the corner to kill off time, and Rodriguez arguably should have scored United’s fourth but couldn’t control the ball to get a shot off in the box.
Opara and Alonso killed off the final seconds of the game, and for the first time since March 10 of last year, Minnesota had three points on the road. The beauty of the early-season table: at this game’s end, Minnesota led the Western Conference.
While United did not keep a clean sheet in this game, as they’d done for their final five preseason games, the defense appeared to be improved as advertised, in open play. The defense of set pieces, an area which has plagued United for their entire time in MLS, might still need some tweaking, but this was a step in the right direction.
The system and players that Heath has been practicing the entire preseason appeared to be one set up for success. Calvo and Métanire’s ability to move up the field at will and attack was uninhibited and created great moments for both of them, and Quintero, as always, was at the heart of all three Minnesota goals.
“For 70 minutes, we controlled the game,” Calvo said after the game. “At the end, it’s normal that we give the ball to them. They’re home, they’re trying to tie. We demonstrated character when we defend. The only way they could’ve scored was in set pieces. They did it in that way.”
Heath’s key quote was this: “These haven’t got any baggage from the last couple years, going on the road and losing games and not being able to dig themselves out of bad situations. This is a different group, and I said that before the game.”
While the people in the press box and in the stands are still carrying that baggage, Heath’s point is valid. This is a new team, one which is looking to establish a new identity. Most importantly, this is a team that for the first time in MLS, has a win in its season opener.