After having to play shorthanded for the last few weeks between injuries and international call-ups, a nearly full-strength Minnesota United FC brought it to visiting D.C. United on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium. With a clean sheet, four goals and three points in hand, the Loons put together a strong performance catalyzed by midfielder Kevin Molino, who had two assists on the night.
“It just feels nice to have everybody back,” said forward Christian Ramirez. “We’re growing each game whenever we have full bodies and I think that’s one of the biggest things that Adrian said today in the locker room, he said: ‘It’s nice to see all these faces back here.’ Because we know we can play some good soccer.”
From the opening whistle, MNUFC exerted control over the match. The effect of having their regular lineup on the pitch was evident as the Loons worked the ball confidently around the middle of the field. In the second minute, Molino deftly redirected a long ball out of the backfield ahead to Ramirez, but the striker couldn’t seal the deal.
Just five minutes later, though, the partnership paid off when Molino sent a gently curving lead pass up and over the defense to Ramirez as he drove hard into the box on the right side. Ramirez drilled the ball past Bill Hamid and into the back of the net for a 1-0 MNUFC lead.
“Today is probably the fittest [Molino]’s felt, and I don't think it’s a coincidence that he played a lot better,” said Heath. “Because that’s what he can do. The ball he put in for Christian [Ramirez] for the first goal, is as good as you’ll see. But I expect that of him. He can create with the best of them.”
"First the run from Christian initiated the pass from me," said Molino. "When you look at it, it’s a fantastic finish. That set the tone for the game. You know, that put us in the position to get the three points. So, I’m just happy for the team, for getting the three points."
In response, D.C. United redoubled its efforts and started to break down the defense along the left wing, with forward Deshorn Brown penetrating far into Loons’ territory before sending a shot wide in the 11th minute. In the 15th minute, Brown threatened again, this time from the right side, but Bobby Shuttleworth turned him away and kept Minnesota’s lead intact.
Over the next 25 minutes, MNUFC held the bulk of the possession, but D.C. United kept finding its way into the final third. The backline and the defensive midfielders held fast and did their jobs, but it seemed like they were being forced to do them far too often. After defender (and new father) Jerome Thiesson cleared a ball deflected by Shuttleworth but left near the six-yard box over the endline in the 39th minute, it felt like it was only a matter of time before another goal would break open the match.
Fortunately for the Loons, it was a goal for them, instead of against. In the 40th minute, MNUFC got a three-on-two break going with Molino handling the ball through the middle, Ramirez on the left and forward Abu Danladi on the right. Molino dinked it ahead to Danladi, who easily finished the shot on the near post for his third MLS goal and a 2-0 lead for the home side.
“I mean he’s an incredible player,” said Danladi of Molino. “I saw him with the ball and just a wide space on the outside. I knew if I opened up to the space he would give me the ball and that’s what he did. I just tried to bury it.”
During the play, Ramirez came up hobbled and had to come off, replaced by midfielder Miguel Ibarra. Over the last five minutes of the half, D.C. gamely tried to throw more weight forward, especially in Minnesota United’s half, but ultimately had to head to the locker room down two goals and losing the possession battle 63% to 37%.
D.C. United started the second half with more energy, sending a ball ahead in the 49th minute that forced Shuttleworth out of goal at the edge of the box. Brown maneuvered around him, but the ball rolled almost all the way to the endline on the left side of the net. By the time Brown recovered, all he could do was fire it harmlessly into the side netting. A couple minutes later, a promising header by defender Sean Franklin off a corner kick from the left side went sailing over the crossbar.
In the 58th minute, D.C. United finally managed to score, but it was on their own goal. Molino once again got the play started with a perfectly executed cross from midfield to Ibarra on the right wing. With room to spare, Ibarra curled a pass into several waiting Minnesota players, but it was D.C. defender Jared Jeffry who deflected the ball in.
With a comfortable three-goal lead, MNUFC settled in a bit, allowing D.C. to chip away at its defense for the next 20 minutes without putting too much forward. It didn’t matter, though, as the defense held tight. As the clock wound down, the main question was whether Shuttleworth could keep the clean sheet, and he was forced in the 88th minute to make a clutch save to preserve it.
“We had probably about a 15-minute spell in the second half where we took too many chances, didn't play what the game gave us, tried to create too much, didn’t want to clear our lines, didn’t want to put a foot through it. But that would be nitpicking. But, if we’re going to get better than that’s what we have to do. And I thought there were some really good performances.”
The cherry on top ended up being a goal in stoppage time by Miguel Ibarra. Midfielder and sub Johan Venegas got the ball to Ibarra near the edge of the box and diminutive Ibarra faked his man by slowing up his dribble and then nutmegged him, sending the ball toward the far post. Hamid got a finger on it, but the ball dribbled toward the goalline and kissed the post before settling in for a 4-0 lead.
“I’m pleased for the supporters,” said Heath. “You know, they’ve been fantastic. They were again tonight. 20,000 people. And, you know, we haven’t been winning every week. Come in and watch winning football. They come in to get behind the team and they can see the work that we’re doing.”
Up next is Seattle Sounders FC, who will visit TCF Bank Stadium to face MNUFC on Saturday, August 5 at 7:00 p.m. The match will be broadcast on My29 and MNUFC Radio on 1500 ESPN with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Jerome Thiesson, Michael Boxall, Francisco Calvo, Ismaila Come; M Sam Cronin, Ibson, Kevin Molino, Sam Nicholson (Collen Warner 77’), Abu Danladi (Johan Venegas 60’); F Christian Ramirez (Miguel Ibarra 43’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Patrick McLain; D Jermaine Taylor; M Collin Martin; F Brandon Allen
D.C. United Starting XI: GK Bill Hamid; D Sean Franklin, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Taylor Kemp; M Ian Harkes (Jared Jeffery 46’), Marcelo Sarvas, Lloyd Sam, Luciano Acosta (Lamar Neagle 46’), Nick DeLeon (Patrick Mullins 70’); F Deshorn Brown
DC Unused Subs: GK Travis Worra; D Chris Korb, Kofi Spare; M Sebastian Le Toux;
7’ – Ramirez (Molino) – MIN
40’ – Danladi (Molino) – MIN
58’ – Jeffrey (OG) – MIN
90+’ – Ibarra (J. Venegas) – MIN
36’ – Kemp (YC) – DC
79’ – Shuttleworth (YC) – MIN
86’ – Cronin (YC) – MIN