On a night whose importance no doubt weighed heavily on Head Coach Adrian Heath, the Loons gutted out a big win in the return of their gaffer to his former team’s home as they faced Orlando City SC. After taking an early lead, MNUFC saw Orlando draw level but ultimately pulled ahead in the 79th minute and held on for three points with an impressive defensive stand late in a 2-1 road win.
“The players worked really, really hard and I said, if we took a little bit of care with the first ball and the ball turns over in transition, on the counterattack, I thought we would cause them trouble and that’s the way it proved,” said Heath. “I thought [Orlando] had a lot of possession, plenty of crosses in the box, but I thought we defended the box really well. Can’t remember Matt Lampson having a really big save to make, other than stuff that he should save. So on the whole, I thought it was a bit tight at the end considering the chances we had late on on the break, but I’m delighted for the players.”
The match began with the Loons as the aggressor, dominating possession early and showing patience as they worked the ball through the midfield and then cycled it back to the backline when openings were shut down. And when seams opened up, they pounced. In just the fourth minute, midfielder Kevin Molino sent a threatening ball curling into forward Christian Ramirez that couldn’t quite connect.
Three minutes later, a save by goalkeeper Matt Lampson turned into a breakaway for the Loons when he launched the ball ahead to midfielder Sam Nicholson who streaked up the sideline on fought hard to push it deep into the final third. But as soon as he lost it down on the left wing, the break started the other way, although it ultimately came to nothing.
Throughout the up and down action that prevailed at the match’s start, Molino was noticeably aggressive with the ball, carving out space all across the midfield. Chalk it up to his first match back in Orlando or simply the residual adrenaline from last week’s brace, but he was clearly stepping up.
He ended up playing a crucial part in the match’s first goal. In the 12th minute, Ramirez held up the ball down the right wing long enough for the midfielders behind him to close the gap. He knocked it back to midfielder Ethan Finlay who touched it back to Molino and then immediately took off toward the box, skirting the offside line the whole way. His patience was reward as Molino tapped it ahead directly to his feet and Finlay found the net to give the Loons a 1-0 lead.
“[Finlay]’s been working so hard and he’s been a bit frustrated with the level of his own play, but the one thing about Ethan Finlay is he gives you everything he’s got every single time he steps on the field,” said Heath. “He’s the same in training. So we know what we’re getting out of him. This will do his confidence no end of good and I think he’ll be able to build from that now. “
With the lead in hand, MNUFC at first seemed to settle into comfortable possession. The midfield would poke and prod but then cycle it to the backline again. But although more opportunities were created through aggressive counterattacking over the next several minutes, by the midway point of the half, a bit of wind went out of Minnesota’s sails. It didn’t help when Molino’s strong showing was interrupted after he went down in the 36th minute after taking a knock to the knee. Molino came back on but it would prove to be a harbinger of worse things to come for the midfielder.
When Ethan Finlay put a rugged tackle on midfielder Richie Laryea near the edge of the box in the 42nd minute, what initially looked like a free kick was overturned by video review and deemed a penalty. Lampson went right and midfielder Yoshimar Yotún went slightly left to level the match at 1-1, a score that would hold heading into the break.
Minnesota United began the second half where it ended the first: on the back foot. Lampson made a fingertip save in the first minute of the second and then in the 49th minute, Molino went down again, this time with a non-contact injury that would see him replaced by Collen Warner. Molino will be fully assessed tomorrow.
Orlando took advantage of the ensuing bit of disarray by lining up chances, but time and again they fell short or were turned away, often well before they got to Lampson — MNUFC ended the evening with 11 blocked shots. As the half continued, the intensity stayed high as possession and counterattack ebbed and flowed for each side. Either team might seem to hold the edge for five minutes at a time. Nicholson, who was a terror down the left wing for much of the match with his pace and ability to cut the ball inside or cross it at a full run, eventually came out with a hamstring issue that flared early on.
“I thought [Sam Nicholson] was outstanding for the first hour and then he felt his hamstring getting tight and that’s why we took him off: as a precaution,” said Heath. “But it’s probably his best performance for us since he’s been here. Starting to look like the player we thought we were getting. He looks fitter and sharper. Hopefully his hamstring’s not too bad and he can build from that performance because I thought he was excellent.”
Miguel Ibarra came on in his stead and would prove instrumental in the match-winning goal. In the 79th minute, rookie forward Mason Toye — making his professional debut after coming on for Ramirez in the 72nd minute — tapped a beauty of a flick on to Ibarra as he sped down the left wing. The move left several Orlando defenders in the dust and opened up the middle of the pitch for Finlay, who was there right on time to receive Ibarra’s cross and bury a right-footed shot to give MNUFC a 2-1 lead.
“I thought that was a great flick for Mason for that second goal and then I don’t know if Joe [Bendik] caught him at the end or not for the penalty, but he’s a silly boy if he goes over when he’s got a chance to score his first ever league goal,” said Heath. “We’ve got big hopes of Mason. He’s got a lot of work to do, but he’s got a lot of talent.”
From there, it was Minnesota’s defense that came to the fore. Forward Justin Meram came perilously close to tying it in the 90th minute after releasing on the break and taking in the outlet pass, and Orlando came even closer on the ensuing corner kick, but midfielder Ibson was there to clear the ball of the line. There were plenty of heart-stopping minutes over the final ten-plus minutes, including a heady play by captain and defender Francisco Calvo to go to ground inside the six-yard box in the final minute of stoppage time and keep possession long enough to get back up and clear the ball to finish the match.
“I think it’s always important to get your first win, and it’s always important to get your first away win,” said Heath. “We’ve managed a couple of them tonight. It sets us up nicely for a big game against Chicago at home next week. We’ll certainly be going in with a lot more confidence after this win.”
MNUFC will hope to build on this momentum as the team heads back to the Twin Cities for its home opener at TCF Bank Stadium against the Chicago Fire on Saturday, March 17 at 1:00 p.m. CT. Pre-match coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. on FOX Sports North and MNUFC Radio on 1500 ESPN.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Matt Lampson; D Tyrone Mears, Michael Boxall, Francisco Calvo, Jerome Thiesson; M Ibson, Rasmus Schuller, Ethan Finlay, Kevin Molino (Collen Warner 50’), Sam Nicholson (Miguel Ibarra 67’); F Christian Ramirez (Mason Toye 72’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Brent Kallman, Carter Manley; M Collin Martin
Orlando City SC Starting XI: GK Joe Bendik; D Scott Sutter (RJ Allen 83’), Jonathan Spector, Amro Tarek, Mohammed El-Munir; M Yoshimar Yotun, Cameron Lindley, Will Johnson, Richie Laryea (Tony Rocha 67’); F Justin Meram, Stefano Pinho (Chris Mueller 28’)
ORL Unused Subs: GK Earl Edwards Jr., D Lamine Sane, Donny Toya; M Cristian Higuita
12’ – Finlay (Molino) – MIN
42’ – Yotún (PK) – ORL
79’ – Finlay (Ibarra, Toye) – MIN
56’ – Laryea (YC) – ORL
88’ – Schuller (YC) – MIN
90+’ – Toye (YC) – MIN