MNUFC put the “win” in “Windy City” with a scrappy, upstart performance against a stacked Chicago Fire team, holding fast against a torrent of shots for its first victory on the road in MLS. With more than 250 supporters who made the trek giving their all, rookie forward Abu Danladi notched his first brace in MLS for a 2-1 win that might have been unexpected going in, but never looked haphazard.
“It was nice to get that monkey off our back,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “People mention it every time when we're away. To come here and win is especially pleasing. We work so hard last week to concede the goal in the 94th minute which we didn't deserve. So tonight, at times, we rode our luck a little bit. I always thought we looked dangerous on the counterattack. With traveling supporters as well — which were fantastic when you consider we haven't won a game all season. For that many people to turn up on the road, and to give us the support that we had, it was pleasing for them."
With an attack as skilled as theirs held down at the back by the experience of Bastian Schweinsteiger, it made sense for the Fire to approach the match patiently. They began by working the ball into the final third and then looking to overload the pitch on the wings, forcing numbers mismatches whenever possible. Add to that Chicago’s impressive total of goals on setpieces (18) to Minnesota’s weakness for giving up setpiece goals, and it seemed like patience would be the order of the day for the Fire. Chicago’s best chances, however, seemed to come on the counterattack.
In the first 15 minutes, Chicago forward Nemanja Nikolic saw a few good looks go begging — all the harder for him given a seven-match scoring drought that’s seen him drop out of the lead for goals in MLS. Whether frustrated by Bobby Shuttleworth or his own aim, Nikolic couldn’t find the back of the net.
On the other side of the pitch, Minnesota’s speedy front four were poking and prodding on the counterattack, making life difficult for the Fire’s defense. The gameplan appeared to be much the same as it was against Seattle: stand tall at the back and hope for an overcommitted offense to leave a gap. The Loons played physical when called for while the Fire looked for calls that didn’t come. Despite opportunities for both teams through the first 30 minutes, neither side could tip the balance in their favor.
“We defended really well when we had to,” said Heath. “We broke really quickly and we're starting to get a little bit of chemistry, I feel. I feel the players are starting to really enjoy each other. I'm pleased for Abu Danladi. Because obviously last week, he had a couple really good opportunities to take us 2-nil up and missed them. I said to him, got to keep getting in the right spots and tonight I thought he was terrific.”
The deadlock broke in the 36th minute. Although it was Chicago racking up shots and time in the opposing team’s box, it was Minnesota that opened the scoring. Midfielder Kevin Molino struck a brilliant ball ahead to a streaking Ethan Finlay on the right wing. The midfielder tried to center the ball, but defender Johan Kappelhof tracked back and got his body on it. Unfortunately for him, it fell back at Finlay’s feet and Finlay dinked it across to forward Abu Danladi who finished it smoothly for a 1-0 lead.
If the lead surprised a Loons team facing one of the league’s best teams on the road, they didn’t act like it. They kept their form and their gameplan of bending but not breaking on defense while looking to get out ahead on the break didn’t miss a beat. For the next ten minutes, they turned back several more Chicago attempts before striking again.
In the 45th minute, Danladi notched his first brace in MLS. Defender Jerome Thiesson gave up the ball on the right wing and immediately took off like a rocket down the sideline, getting it back from Finlay and curving a beauty of a cross in front of the defense and onto the outstretched foot of Danladi, who scooted it past goalkeeper Matt Lampson. Chicago won the possession battle and outshot Minnesota 14 to four in the first half, but found themselves on the wrong side of a 2-0 deficit heading into the break.
“It was the first time I was really up the pitch so it was not really a reason to be tired so far, but yeah, obviously we had good defense and I just saw my chance there,” said Thiesson. “Ethan had the ball in the middle, he could turn to the other goal's direction, and he served me just a perfect ball. The ball was perfect and I didn't have another choice than to put it directly into the middle. Of course, Abu's quickness helped a lot, because I think the ball wasn't that perfect but he made it look like it was. I'm really happy for him, and for me with the assist, and for the whole team."
Although MNUFC didn’t neglect opportunities to test Chicago’s defense in the second half, the real story quickly became the strong defensive effort by defenders Michael Boxall and Brent Kallman, who repeatedly sent back crosses from the wings. Between them and the clutch defensive work of sub Collen Warner, who came on in 34th minute following an injury to midfielder Sam Cronin, the Fire kept finding their final balls frustrated.
Their quality was on full display through the first 20 minutes of the half, with forward Michael de Leeuw sending a sneaky backheel pass off a long, lofted through ball directly to forward Luis Solignac on the left side of the box. His shot, though, was turned away by Thiesson. Moments later, Schweinsteiger put Warner on skates at the top of the box, juking him and sending him to the ground not once but twice, but nothing came of it.
With the volume of chances they were putting together, it was perhaps inevitable that the Fire would get one back. In the 77th minute, Schweinsteiger pulled a similar move to the one Thiesson did on the earlier MNUFC goal, sending the ball ahead to the middle from the backfield and then cutting hard up the sideline and getting it back. He then sent it ahead to forward David Accam, who buried it after a miscommunication between the otherwise sterling center back duo of Boxall and Kallman left him isolated on Shuttleworth to make it 2-1.
"Obviously you know the rule when it goes 2-1, you worry about Accam's pace,” said Heath. “I thought Calvo, Kallman, Boxall, [Thiesson], did fantastic. Every ball that came in, I thought it would be a deflection. Something that would break us down because they were in really good spots. They were determined to get on the end of it. It was really a workmanlike performance from the people in front of them. I have to mention Ibson again. I said early on in the year, when the All-Star game was picked, there's been nobody better than him this season. I thought he had an incredible performance tonight."
In the end, Chicago almost levelled the match in the 89th minute off a cheeky bicycle kick by de Leeuw, but it wasn’t enough to keep MNUFC from its first MLS road win in a stunning upset. Finlay stood out down to the last play with a ton of effort and some gritty work to keep possession and stymie the Fire right at the end. Chicago won nearly every statistical category from possession to shots to crosses to corners to passes to passing accuracy, but the resilient Loons stood tall and stuck together to grit out a win away from home. The strains of an a cappella rendition of “Wonderwall” sung by the MNUFC supporters could even be heard echoing up to the night sky on the broadcast.
Following a bye week for international play, MNUFC returns home to face Philadelphia Union at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, September 9. The match kicks off at 7:00 p.m. CT with pre-match coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. on FOX9+ and MNUFC Radio on 1500 ESPN.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Jerome Thiesson, Michael Boxall, Brent Kallman, Francisco Calvo; M Sam Cronin (Collen Warner 34’), Ibson, Ethan Finlay, Sam Nicholson (Miguel Ibarra 76’), Kevin Molino (Jermaine Taylor 87’); F Abu Danladi
MIN Unused Subs: GK Patrick McLain; M Ismaila Jome, Collin Martin; F Brandon Allen
Chicago Fire Starting XI: GK Matt Lampson; D Drew Connor, Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean (Jonathan Campbell 46’), Patrick Doody; M Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Djordje Mihailovic (Michael de Leeuw 46’); F David Accam, Nemanja Nikolic, Luis Solignac (Arturo Alvarez 71’)
CHI Unused Subs: GK Stefan Cleveland; D Michael Harrington; M Juninho; F David Arshakyan
36’ – Danladi (Finlay) – MIN
45’ – Danladi (Thiesson) – MIN
77’ – Accam (Schweinsteiger) – CHI
69’ – McCarty (YC) – CHI
78’ – Danladi (YC) – MIN
84’ – Schweinsteiger (YC) – CHI