Game 1: MNUFC @ Vancouver
New-look Minnesota United exorcised numerous past demons as they defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2019 opener 3-2. The Loons welcomed in numerous big-name signings this offseason, and the makeover seems to have had the desired effect.
All the new faces played their part: Ike Opara dominantly claimed dangerous aerial threats; Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus provided a calmness to midfield that was sorely lacking; and Vito Mannone and Romain Metanire provided assurance at positions with question marks.
“After the first goal, I know there would have been one or two people back home going, ‘Oh here we go again,’” Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath said. “But no: it’s not here we go again. This is not the same group as we’ve had before. We’re stronger, mentally and physically.”
From a holistic perspective, the revamped roster allowed United to present a different and more aggressive team shape than in seasons past. Last year, Heath would often instruct the entirety of his back four to remain deep and not press the issue. This put more stress on the attackers as they didn’t have the support of overlapping outside backs. Saturday night’s victory saw a stark contrast to that former ethos — and a strong argument could be made that that was catalyst for Minnesota’s win.
From the onset, Metanire and captain Francisco Calvo rushed forward at every opportunity. Even in the past when Heath has allowed his fullbacks to jet forward, it’s been when the team is comfortably in possession high up the pitch. Not on Saturday. Against Vancouver Calvo and Metanire seem to be expected to be up the pitch early, ready to support the offensive under the assumption the ball would come. A bold and confident new strategy from a coach feeling bullish about the new weapons at his disposal.
Calvo roaring forward paid the most dividends on this occasion. Early on he had United’s best chance when his shot ricocheted off the crossbar. Shortly thereafter, he won the spot kick as he attacked a ball deep in the penalty area. Darwin Quintero would coolly slot home to equalize. The pair would combine brilliantly in the second half when Calvo busted forward beyond even striker Romario Ibarra to latch onto a delicate chip from Quintero to put the Loons ahead.
For major chunks of the match United appeared to boss possession even though they only managed to edge at 51 percent come the final whistle. Still, a major difference compared to last year was how high up the field the team was when in possession as they often floated just outside the Vancouver box.
“I think the two midfielders helped us enormously, Jan [Gregus] and Ozzie [Alonso],” Heath said. “Their composure to take the sting out of the game, to keep the ball, to play the right ball at the right time, play it forward when they have to, kill the game; they were terrific today.”
Coach Rating Out of 10
8 — Finally has the tools at his disposal he’s been requesting for years. He showed — for one night at least — that his philosophy can be successful. Didn’t back away from his game plan despite his team allowing a horrendous early goal and was greatly rewarded.
Select Player Ratings (1-10 | 10 = Best)
LB Francisco Calvo, 9 — The transition from center back to left back continues to be a revelation for the Costa Rican, who’s offensive upside is clearly immense. He should be given the green light to go forward as much as possible.
CDM Ozzie Alonso, 8 — Position of need + proven MLS veteran = great fit. He covered many positional holes in transition which kept small fires from turning into blazing ones.
CM Jan Gregus, 6 — The Slovakian had a solid yet unastounding performance. If this is his floor then United should feel relatively confident about playing in the postseason.
RM Miguel Ibarra, 7 — Showed all the industry and work ethic he did last year. That earned him a starting place on a much more competitive team. Against Vancouver he showed why his energy could be a great foil to the new injection of skill around him.