As Minnesota United FC began their fourth MLS season on Sunday in Portland, questions hovered over the club.
The ongoing transfer discussions with Boca Juniors over creative midfielder Emanuel “Bebelo” Reynoso left the club lacking the No. 10 that it so clearly desired after Darwin Quintero’s departure. Newly-signed striker Luis Amarilla had announced a lofty goal of 25 goals in the season, and while a strong preseason hinted at the possibilities, this game was for real.
There is no better way to answer questions than with results, and for the second consecutive year, the Loons won their season opener on the road with a 3-1 win over the Timbers at a packed Providence Park. It was no perfect performance, and for much of the evening the Loons appeared second best, but a quality second half secured them a relatively comfortable three points.
In an offseason that created much turnover in the roster with the departures of Quintero, Ángelo Rodríguez, Vito Mannone and Miguel Ibarra (among others), Adrian Heath’s starting lineup was as familiar as it could get, as it had been throughout the preseason. Amarilla and goalkeeper Tyler Miller were the only Loons who started and had not been with Minnesota in 2019, with others in familiar positions.
Indeed, the nine players between Amarilla and Miller had all played a good amount together. 2019 Defender of the Year Ike Opara and Michael Boxall at the back with newly-official United States international Chase Gasper and Romain Métanire on their flanks. Captain Ozzie Alonso and Ján Greguš in the midfield, and Ethan Finlay and Kevin Molino, two of the longest-tenured Loons, with Robin Lod in the attack. There was plenty of familiarity, and at first, it appeared more like apathy.
Portland started the game with much of the possession and all of the offense. Within five minutes, they had a very good shout for a penalty as Miller, going for a loose ball in the box, may have knocked over a Portland player and missed the ball. Referee Ismail Elfath did not review the play, and the Loons caught a break. Even before that, Cristhian Paredes missed a very good chance, and Portland was off to the races.
In the early going, Minnesota’s attack was non-existent. A token moment was a spell where the Loons passed the ball among the four defenders, and then Gasper attempted to make an attacking run and promptly gave the ball away. There did not appear to be much of a plan, or any level of execution. Amarilla was unable to receive the ball in dangerous positions, because so often the ball was given away or taken away by the Timbers.
By the half-hour mark, however, Minnesota began to find its way. The Loons actually secured the first corner of the game, and a couple minutes later had their first real chance, with Finlay almost set free in the box. He was both offside and failed to shoot on target, but the first sniff was there.
Later, Amarilla had his first big moment, a corner that found him open at the back post, but his shot was well over the bar to his great frustration.
By halftime, the fouls and Portland players on the ground had slowed the pace of the game, and Minnesota happily chose to pass a ball back to its defense rather than attacking to the whistle. Alonso and Métanire had both received yellow cards, and the Loons’ 11 fouls in the first half were plenty.
The defense had held, though, and Portland chances had been few and far between after their early burst.
It did not take long for the second half to become far more interesting than the first.
Boxall was forced to make a critical intervention just after time, and five minutes into the half, the Loons had the lead. It was a bit of good fortune, as Lod met Portland ‘keeper Steve Clark at a ball, and it initially looked like Clark had caught it. However, Lod got just enough of it for it to slip out of his hands and down to his feet, and an onrushing Molino happily took it from there and chipped in a cool finish.
This was distinctly against the run of play of the game’s first 50 minutes, and it took just five minutes further for Portland to find their way back. Felipe Mora received a pass in the corner of the 18-yard box, and as Ike Opara tried to take the ball away from him, he found leg and not ball. Mora went down, Elfath pointed to the spot, and Diego Valeri made no mistakes to even the score.
The balance of play had shifted, regardless of the Timbers penalty. It took an incredible save from Clark to keep the scores level as Lod was denied from close range, his fingers just barely pushing the ball past the post. Minnesota continued to attack, searching for the next opening, and Portland remained dangerous. Opara was increasingly incredulous after another foul was called against him, this one outside of the box and leading to nothing.
Neither side seemed particularly impressed with the refereeing on the evening.
Just as Portland had made their first sub and Minnesotan fans were wondering when Heath would make his move, the tie was broken and Amarilla was 4 percent of the way to his goal. Finlay escaped down the right, beating his man to the box, and his cross was as good as it gets, wrong-footing both Amarilla’s defender and Clark and sitting at the perfect height for the Paraguayan to head under Clark and into the goal off the ground.
Not even two minutes later, Finlay again was the creator and Minnesota’s lead was two.
Molino hit a ball to Finlay on the left side of the box, who drew all the defenders’ attention and kicked it back over his head to a completely unmarked Molino, whose volley was perfect. It was the perfect combination and the nail in the Timbers’ coffin. Heath made two defensive subs, bringing Hassani Dotson on and giving Aaron Schoenfeld his Loons debut, and while the Timbers came close to a second goal in the last minute of stoppage time, the offside flag was Minnesota’s friend, and the final whistle was the next play.
The Loons had the privilege of being the final game of MLS’ first set of games of the 2020 season, and in the smallest of sample sizes, are leading the Western Conference with Sporting Kansas City.
The questions posed before the game remain. There were many times that one could see the lack of creativity present in the squad, and with Thomás Chacón not even in the 18-man team for this game, the solution would not appear to come from there. However, an Amarilla goal and a convincing win are a great way to start a season, and the mood should be all good as season four is off and running.