Written By David Naylor (ZoneCoverage.com)
The opening act of the doubleheader between Minnesota United FC and the Portland Timbers was played under the hot sun of a Minnesota Sunday afternoon, and the temperature on the pitch fit the match’s intensity nicely. As with Minnesota’s previous match, it entered the game’s final minutes scoreless, begging for a winner.
Courtesy of a VAR review, a handball from Portland’s Larrys Mabiala and a clutch penalty from Ethan Finlay, a winner arrived in this match where it had refused to last Saturday. Minnesota got the 1-0 win, a crucial step up over a Portland team that had climbed to within four points of the Loons entering this match.
Minnesota’s lineup for this game had much to digest. The required exclusion of Darwin Quintero was not news, and Kevin Molino’s return to the lineup was a welcome sight. New signing Robin Lod was available off the bench for the first time, and Adrian Heath played as strong a lineup as he could even with the U.S. Open Cup game looming in just three days.
Both teams entered this game on extended undefeated streaks, with Portland’s renaissance credited to the arrival of its renovated stadium — not a factor here — and the signing of Brian Fernández from Mexico’s Club Necaxa. Fernández was the man to watch early as he irritated and created in equal measure for the Timbers.
From a Minnesotan perspective, the early portions of this game looked eerily familiar to that Vancouver game. The hints of chances came, but once again Miguel Ibarra was unable to get the right contact on the final ball, often through no fault of his own. Ibarra was inches away from a header and unable to control a tricky volley for Minnesota’s two best first-half chances.
Portland created pressure on the ball, and it peaked to require a critical intervention from Vito Mannone just before the half-hour mark. Mannone was required to make two saves back-to-back on a great opportunity down the right-hand side, first from Jorge Moreira, then from Sebastián Blanco.
“It could be either him (Moreira) or Blanco taking the first shot, so I just tried to make myself big and make the first save, and then just tried to get up and adjust for the second one,” Mannone said. “Big moment in the game, important moment for myself to be big for the team. That gives confidence to the team to go and win the game.”
“Made a huge save at a really important time,” said Heath after the game. “I expect him to come up with big saves in big moments, that’s what good goalkeepers do, and he’s started to prove that. When we need him, he comes up.”
The Loons were pressed back by that pressure for periods of the first half, but came back to find their way each time. Ángelo Rodríguez struggled with his defender early, but referee Chris Penso eventually decided the defense was illegal, giving Mabiala a yellow card for his treatment of Rodríguez just before halftime.
Each team had their moments in the first half, but adjustments were clearly necessary at halftime, not least due to the heat. The game was stopped at the 30- and 75-minute marks for hydration breaks, and passes for both teams appeared less sharp than they should be at times.
Each time it seemed like Portland had started to turn the screws, Minnesota turned them back. The Timbers had started the second half with sustained pressure, but back-to-back combined chances between Rodríguez, Ibarra and the returning All-Star Romain Métanire swung the pendulum back the other way.
Another inches-away moment was the final contribution of the afternoon for both Ibarra and Rodríguez, as Heath made his changes. Lod and Mason Toye entered in the 65th minute, with Abu Danladi to follow shortly afterwards in relief of Kevin Molino.
Between those subs, Portland made one of its own and it almost immediately got them the lead. Jeremy Ebobisse came on to play ahead of Fernández, and a knockdown gave Fernández clean air to strike a swerving ball that beat Mannone and cannoned off the post.
Again Portland increased its pressure, and again Minnesota pushed it back. Just as it looked like the Loons would be forced back for the duration of the game, a soaring Ozzie Alonso pass unleashed Danladi. His cross found Mason Toye’s sliding feet, but the ball flew inches wide of the far post, by far the Loons’ best chance of the afternoon.
Just three minutes later, the deadlock was broken by a moment of fortune after all of Minnesota’s hard work. A Greguš corner kick aimed at Ike Opara hit Mabiala under the arm, and both Opara and Michael Boxall almost immediately signaled for hand ball. Penso made no call at first, but with the Wonderwall chanting VAR, the signal was made for review.
The review was not long, and it was clear and obvious. Penso’s decision was overturned, Finlay stepped to the spot, and while Clark got a hand to the shot, the power was too much to keep out of the net. At long last, Minnesota led, and the three points were its to take.
Finlay spoke about the process after the game: “Right when I went over during the VAR decision, Adrian just said ‘You’re taking it’, and just those little things like that when you know you have people that believe in you in that moment, and obviously I personally believe in myself. It’s a big three points for this lineup.”
Opara’s perspective was different. “I didn’t see it. I don’t think I waved my arms, I didn’t see it. Boxy did, Boxy was going crazy. When Boxy goes crazy, you have a good idea that something probably happened. Haven’t seen the replay of it, but I’m just glad he gave it to us.”
“I think Ethan had pretty much made his mind up,” said Heath after the game. “It’s a pressure penalty, wasn’t it? The timing of it, the importance of it. Keeper did his best, but overall I was really pleased that he took it. Obviously it’s a feather in his cap, he wanted to take it and no doubt he’s gone and executed.”
Minnesota killed off the extended five minutes of stoppage time after Finlay’s 91st minute goal with little incident, and the undefeated streak stretches to ten matches in all competitions, with 17 of a possible 21 points picked up in the league in that time. This was also the team’s eighth clean sheet of the season. Most importantly, it also pushed the club to second place in the Western Conference at time of writing, with Seattle yet to play on Sunday night.
“Feels good,” Heath said of the league standing. “Obviously, still a long way to go, but I do know how important the three points were today, because certainly they’ve got to be there or thereabouts at the end with all their home games to come and the quality they have.”
He went on: “The next few weeks, as I said about a week ago, I said probably the next 20 days have got to be the most important since I’ve been here certainly. We’ve got another big game on Wednesday, we’ll treat that with the respect it deserves because it’s a huge game for us. Then it’s Dallas, who are around us in the league, then we’ve got Colorado and Orlando here. By the end of that stretch, we’ll have a good idea of where we are.”
The Open Cup semifinal on Wednesday looks even more tantalizing after such a competitive first game between these teams. For Sunday’s efforts, Minnesota earned some breathing room in the league and its loftiest position in its three years in MLS. Perhaps the lucky break will open the goal-scoring gates for these critical 20 days.