Deep in the second half of their opening MLS is Back Tournament match against Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United were staring a 1-0 deficit square in the face and had done nothing to encourage fans that the score-line would change.
The harsh tweets and criticism came in fast and furious after a dismal 60 minutes that saw the Loons not only struggle to sustain any possession or initiate any build-up play offensively, but also sit back on defense and endure chance after chance from their I-35 rivals.
Just minutes after his insertion into the match, and after VAR disallowed a goal from Ethan Finlay, Schoenfeld found himself on the end of a pass from Romain Metanire with a sure scoring chance, but SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia tripped the Minnesota forward up just outside the 18-yard box to preserve the lead, and was shown a red card for his efforts.
“[Aaron] was great,” said Finlay after the match. “He injected a lot of energy into the group right away. Obviously, he made a game-changing play, and his first touch on the ball from Romain was world class.”
Adrian Heath’s side had woken up, and Sporting were tiring. Minnesota just needed one more boost.
Enter Raheem Edwards.
The offseason acquisition from Chicago Fire was subbed on in the 77th minute and immediately brought the team’s entire energy level up another notch. The combination of being up a man and bringing on arguably their most versatile piece off the bench continued to swing the momentum in the Loons’ direction.
Following the own-goal equalizer in the waning moments of stoppage time, Edwards was on the end of a Metanire cross and gave it a touch over to Molino, who found the back of the net for the game-winner and three more points for Minnesota.
“Raheem and Aaron gave the team a lift,” said Heath. “People were starting to get tired. That’s why you have a squad of players.”
That squad of players has been needed on both offense and defense for the Loons. With Opara out rehabbing an injury and Brent Kallman finishing up his suspension from last season, Minnesota’s had to look to new CB signee José Aja, and the Uruguayan hasn’t disappointed through the first two matches.
Weathering a couple early mistakes and miscommunications with fellow CB Michael Boxall, Aja found his footing midway through the opener. Unfortunately, he also found himself directly in the path of a laser SKC free kick, which caught the defender directly in the face. To his credit, Aja hung in there through the rest of the match and stood his ground to help keep the Loons within striking distance.
That solid play continued into Minnesota’s second group stage match vs. Real Salt Lake. While offensively there was much left to be desired, Aja helped the Loons defense maintain a clean sheet and a scoreless draw.
According to WhoScored’s advanced stats, Aja has the best Match Rating of the entire current starting back line (7.32). He also leads the team in average blocked shots (1.5), clearances (5) and tackles (3.5).
“We’re going to need all these players,” Heath reiterated after the RSL match. “I don’t think people quite understand – who are not here – how difficult these conditions are, to be playing.”
Depth has always been a valuable facet of any MLS team, but it’s at a premium in the MLS is Back Tournament. That depth is the reason that, with one game left in the group stage, Minnesota is in the driver’s seat to not only advance to the knockout rounds, but win the group entirely.
Minnesota United rounds out the MLS is Back Group Stage Wednesday night (7/22) at 9:30 p.m. CST vs. Colorado Rapids.