Brimming with confidence, Minnesota United came into its home opener after beating Orlando City SC on the road and looked to continue its winning ways. It would not be an easy task against a seasoned Chicago Fire team with a dangerous attack, but the Loons matched them blow for blow and came out on top with a 2-1 win in front of a sold out, standing-room-only TCF Bank Stadium.
“I thought we created the better chances,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “They’re a really experienced team. They don’t beat themselves, so we had to work for everything that we got. And I thought we were worthy when it was in the end. I don’t really remember Matt Lampson having any big saves to come up with other than a few headers that you would expect him to save. Even the goal, was probably a mistake by us. But, you know, I’ve been so pleased with the players this season. And it’s another step forward for us I think.”
The match began with the two teams testing each other over the opening 10 minutes or so. Both teams pushed the ball into the other’s half but both also got swarmed by opposing defenders when they did so. It was attack and closeout, at least until the ninth minute when Chicago got a good break into Minnesota’s box, but when forward Luis Solignac cut the ball back toward the middle, midfielder Rasmus Schuller rushed in from behind and got a foot on it to pry it away.
The Fire continued to press high on the field, making it a little tough for the Loons to get out of their own end, but by the middle of the first half, more opportunities started piling up as the teams worked their way into the flow of the match. In the 22nd minute, midfielder Ibson narrowly missed an open shot after goalkeeper Richard Sanchez came way out of net to defend the counterattack but his effort went over the crossbar. Minutes later, midfielder Aleksandar Katai fired a strong shot that also went over the frame.
The tight, back-and-forth play continued until the final five minutes of the first half, at which point Chicago seemed to pour on a bit more intensity in hopes of pulling ahead in the dying minutes. Forward Nemanja Nikolic got his head on the ball in the 45th minute but it bounced safely into goalkeeper Matt Lampson’s waiting arms. Their other efforts went begging as well and the teams headed into the break even at 0-0. Although Minnesota held the advantage in possession 55% to 45%, Chicago held the edge in shots five to two.
“We tried to get the ball forward a little bit more, and maybe play in their half,” said Heath of his message at halftime. “You know, obviously in the beginning, it’s like a boxing match, you’re sort of sparring with each other — working each other out. But second half, I thought tactically we tried to move the team up the field a little bit more. Get our wide guys closer to their fullbacks so they’re under a bit more pressure. And I thought we played better. Better combination play, and move the ball quicker in the second half, which opened the game up a little bit for us.”
It was Minnesota who would break the match open in the 55th minute. Midfielder Ethan Finlay’s cross from the right wing was blocked, but it sat down on the ground and was picked up by midfielder Miguel Ibarra. Ibarra got the nod at the #10 position following Kevin Molino’s season-ending injury last week and he showed throughout the match that he was ready, displaying burgeoning chemistry with left winger Sam Nicholson and — of course — his longtime partner in crime-fighting, Christian Ramirez. Ibarra put a cross onto Ibson’s head, but Sanchez was there to block it. Unfortunately for the Fire, the ball bounced back to Ibson’s feet and he finished it off with the outside of his right boot to give MNUFC a 1-0 lead.
Although Ibson has gotten a lot of deserved credit for his passing and playmaking, scoring has never been his forte in his MNUFC career, which Heath alluded to.
“He shouldn’t have even been in there for his goal,” Heath joked. “But part and parcel of what you have with Ibson is his desire to get on the ball and play. At times, other people have to fill in and work around him. It’s something that we’ve spoke about. But the way the game was going, we asked one or two of the midfield players to get in the box, and it was a good save from the keeper on the first one, but he followed it up. I thought the goal was justifiable for him because it was outstanding.”
The Fire would pull level, though, just four minutes later after some miscommunication and what Heath referred to as “too many bodies” let forward Nemanja Nikolic break down the defense and put a shot on Lampson. Midfielder Elliot Collier, playing in his first match in MLS, picked up the rebound and buried it to level it at 1-1. Although the momentary lack of focus cost them, MNUFC bounced back from it and built the pressure back up quickly.
They managed to loosen up the match a bit, extending deeper runs into Chicago’s half with one-touch passes and overlapping runs. Once again, it was Finlay — who scored both goals in last week’s win over Orlando, including the match-winner — who made a streaking run down the right wing before firing in a cross to a waiting Sam Nicholson. Unmarked in the box, Nicholson fired a header into the back of the net to give the Loons a 2-1 lead in the 66th minute.
Nicholson credited the fans’ support for keeping the team in the match. “It was massive,” he said. “The fans were brilliant in pushing us through the final whistle. I think that’s what you need at home games, the fans pushing you through it, and it obviously helped us.”
Over the match’s final 20-plus minutes, the Loons weren’t content to sit back and let the Fire shell them. They continued to look for openings to get the ball up the pitch for that third goal that could seal the win. They made timely interceptions on crosses and closed out on attackers and the teams ended the match with 11 shots apiece after Chicago more than doubled up Minnesota in the first half. Lampson had four saves, but most of them were routine, with his only real challenge coming toward the very end when he saved a header by defender Brandon Vincent from the left side of the box. Although the team has a ways to go, it’s simply undeniable that this squad is a good bit better than last year’s, but Heath says it’s just part of the process.
“Everybody knows each other that much better. I think that we’re all a lot more comfortable with each other than we were at this time last year. People thought it was an excuse. I’ve been through this. Twice. People don’t realize how difficult the first year of an expansion team is. You know, it takes you six months to know the group that you got. And we’re just so much further down the road. We’ve got a core group that we trust and believe in. We know we’re not near the finish line. We’re going to add to this group. And if we do, this team is capable of competing against most of the teams in this league.”
Next, the Loons head east to face New York Red Bulls on Saturday, March 24 at 6:00 p.m. CT in what will likely be the staunchest challenge they’ll face in the early going here. Minnesota will have to make adjustments as defenders Michael Boxall and Francisco Calvo, plus midfielder Rasmus Schuller, will be away for international duty. Pre-match coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. on FOX Sports GO and MNUFC Radio on 1500 ESPN.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Matt Lampson; D Tyrone Mears (Marc Burch 83’), Michael Boxall, Francisco Calvo, Jerome Thiesson; M Ibson, Rasmus Schuller, Ethan Finlay, Sam Nicholson, Miguel Ibarra (Brent Kallman 90+‘); F Christian Ramirez (Mason Toye 82’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; M Harrison Heath, Collen Warner, Collin Martin
Chicago Fire Starting XI: GK Richard Sanchez; D Rafael Ramos (Drew Conner 84’), Johan Kappelhoff, Brandon Vincent, Kevin Ellis; M Dax McCarty, Tony Tchani, Elliot Collier, Lucas Solignac (Alan Gordon 80’), Alexsander Katai (Daniel Johnson 73’); F Nemanja Nikolic
CHI Unused Subs: GK Patrick McLain; D Christian Dean; M Mohammed Adams, Brandt Bronico
55’ – Ibson (unassisted) – MIN
59’ – Collier (unassisted) – CHI
66’ – Nicholson (Finlay, Ibarra) – MIN
60’ – Ellis (YC) – CHI
67’ – Tchani (YC) – CHI
90+’ – Toye (YC) – MIN