In the week leading up to Sunday’s match against Sporting KC, Minnesota United Head Coach Adrian Heath emphasized the need to get both the offense and the defense working in concert with each other. He couldn’t have hoped for a better symphony than the one that took down the Western Conference leaders 2-0. Early goals from Abu Danladi and Christian Ramirez and staunch defending down the stretch made for a great coming out party on national TV for the much-improved Loons.
The early going found forward Christian Ramirez attacking aggressively. In the second minute, he fired a volley into the side of the net and four minutes later, he found himself with time down the right wing. He burned a low cross directly across the face of the goal but midfielder Abu Danladi — making his first MLS start — was a step behind and couldn’t get a foot on it to finish.
Over the next 15 minutes, the two teams seemed evenly matched, with spates of solid possession by each side. Minnesota’s possession in the middle third was often exemplary, although similarly to last week’s match against San Jose, the final or penultimate ball was not there for them.
But in the 22nd minute, midfielder Ibson dropped a backspinning ball ahead down the left wing for midfielder Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra ran onto it and struck a picture-perfect cross that found Danladi as he streaked into the box. Danladi’s right foot volley found the back of the net, giving him his first MLS goal and giving the Loons a 1-0 lead.
“I’m probably out of words,” said a jubilant Danladi. “Just trying to find the right word explain it. It was a good feeling just playing in front of the crowd. They put in a lot of work, they pay money to come watch the team perform. It was a great feeling scoring in front of the fans and also getting the win, too.”
“It's a great landmark for the kid,” said Heath. “I'm a huge believer in 'you get out what you put in' in football and in life generally. And he has worked so hard the last few weeks to really force my hand. He took everything on board that we asked of him because the way that we asked him to play — dropping off to that deep-lying midfield player when they got it — it's not normal for him, it's not natural. But he did it, he got on with it. It was a great finish by the way, great ball from Miguel and a lovely finish from him. Didn't blast it, he caressed it in the bottom corner. He's had a really good day and a fine start to his professional career.”
In the immediate aftermath of the goal, Sporting KC regrouped and began to apply more consistent pressure while Minnesota dialed back their aggression a notch. But just as Sporting KC appeared to be gaining confidence and stringing together possession that would lead to a quality chance, MNUFC struck again.
In the 39th minute, Danladi dug hard to the right before cutting a nifty pass back to Ibarra moving in behind him and down the left wing, once again. Ibarra centered it, a bit higher this time, and found Ramirez posted up on the right side of the six-yard box. Ramirez headed it in for his sixth goal on the season and a 2-0 lead for MNUFC.
SKC’s desperation nearly paid off as the first half drew to a close. In stoppage time, forward Dom Dwyer knocked a ball ahead into the box that goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth had to stretch for but could not control. As the ball trickled toward the endline, forward Gerso Fernandes tried to catch up and keep it in, but his effort was in vain. The half ended with Minnesota up 2-0 in spite of Sporting KC’s 62% possession.
Ten minutes into the second half and after making two impressive saves, Shuttleworth’s nose had a close encounter with Dwyer’s foot, resulting in a stoppage of several minutes as he was attended to. His backup, John Alvbage, started warming up on the sideline, but Shuttleworth stayed in. He finished the day with eight saves, a clean sheet and a broken nose.
“There was definitely talk about [coming out],” said Shuttleworth. “The trainer and I were talking about it and I just told him to jam some stuff up there and just get on with it.”
“Well, he's a goalkeeper,” said Heath. “They're nuts, most of 'em.”
A few minutes later, Minnesota nearly pushed the lead to three when Molino got out ahead of the defense on a counterattack, passing the ball wide to Ramirez on the right wing and catching Ibarra just offside in the box as he centered it. That brief attack, though, came within an overall context of Minnesota sitting back and working to defend for most of the second half.
Sporting KC appeared less possession-oriented in the second, working more to get long balls ahead of the defense. They threatened several times but kept running into solid defense, particularly from center backs Francisco Calvo and Brent Kallman. The play got more physical as the match wore on, with a small scuffle breaking out in the 71st minute between Calvo and Dwyer.
“I just tried to help him to get up,” said Calvo. “It looked like I was going to kick him. I’m not that kind of guy. Then Espinoza came it in and it was kind of … it was normal.”
SKC’s best chance in the second came after Shuttleworth knocked a shot away but couldn’t clear it. With Shuttleworth on the ground, right back Jermaine Taylor (who came on for Jerome Thiesson in the 75th minute) slid in front of goal and deflected a closer-range shot from Daniel Salloi.
Shuttleworth’s injury led to eight minutes of stoppage time, but it wasn’t enough to let Sporting KC catch back up to a Loons side that put points up early and then held the lead with strong defending. The 2-0 victory is the third in Minnesota’s last six matches, rounded out by two draws and a loss. Their 11 points put them one spot out of the playoffs, currently.
“Probably the most complete 90 that we've had in terms of both sides of the ball,” said Heath. “We spoke about it in the week: we've had games where we look as though we're a real threat going forward and then we've had days where we've been solid [on defense], but actually getting into both sides in one game, this is probably the best we've looked. I thought that we showed a real courage in believing what we were doing. I'm really pleased for the players. I'm really pleased for everybody connected with the club because you know, live on TV, we've had a couple of horror shows. It's nice to see that we are improving and we're probably a little bit more than just having a nice badge.”
Their three-match homestand completed, Minnesota now heads out on the road to face Toronto FC on Saturday, May 13. Kickoff at BMO Field is set for 2:00 p.m. CT and you can catch the action on My29 and MNUFC Radio on 1500 ESPN with pre-match coverage beginning at 1:30 p.m.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Marc Burch, Francisco Calvo, Brent Kallman, Jerome Thiesson (Jermaine Taylor 75’); M Sam Cronin, Ibson, Kevin Molino, Abu Danladi (Collen Warner 72’), Miguel Ibarra; F Christian Ramirez (Johan Venegas 84’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK John Alvbage; D Justin Davis; M Ismaila Jome, Bashkim Kadrii
Sporting Kansas City Starting XI: GK Tim Melia; D Igor Juliao (Graham Zusi 46’), Kevin Ellis, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; M Benny Feilhaber, Ille Sanchez, Roger Espinoza; F Dominic Dwyer, Gerso Fernandes (Daniel Salloi 77’), Soony Saad (Jimmy Medranda 60’)
SKC Unused Subs: GK Adrian Zendejas; D Ike Opara; M Latif Blessing, Soni Mustivar
11’ – Danladi (Ibarra, Ibson) – MIN
39’ – Ramirez (Ibarra, Danladi) – MIN
17’ – Juliao (YC) – SKC
51’ – Ramirez (YC) – MIN
72’ – Calvo (YC) – MIN
72’ – Dwyer (YC) – SKC