Following an offseason that saw Minnesota United add a healthy dose of veteran talent through the center of the field, expectations were high for the team’s first game of 2019 in Vancouver against the Whitecaps. Although they would concede early, the Loons stuck to their gameplan, took control of the game and earned their first ever win in a season opener 3-2 with goals from Darwin Quintero, Francisco Calvo and Romario Ibarra.
“Not getting beat on the road was going to be big for us today because I know that the same questions would have been asked if we hadn’t have done,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “After the first goal, I know there would have been one or two people back home going, ‘Oh here we go again.’ But no: it’s not here we go again. This is not the same group as we’ve had before. We’re stronger, mentally and physically.”
Despite opening up the game with more of the ball and a greater sense of control, it was Minnesota United who found themselves on the back foot early. After midfielder Osvaldo Alonso took down forward Fredy Montero, giving Vancouver a free kick in a dangerous spot, midfielder Yordy Reyna curled in a long kick that found defender Erik Godoy who dinked the ball past goalkeeper Vito Mannone.
“We didn’t look like we were going to do that in preseason,” said Heath when asked about the first goal. “We looked really, really good on set pieces, but we’ll have a look at the good things, have a look at the stuff that was not so good and try and correct it and get ourselves prepared for next week.”
To their credit, though, the Loons got right back to their plan of possessing the ball and controlling the action. They spent a lot of time 35 to 40 yards out from the Whitecaps’ goal, working to find the angle with midfielders Jan Gregus and Alonso dealing from the middle of the field and looking for overlapping runs from both defender Francisco Calvo on the left side and defender Romain Metanire on the right side.
Metanire, in particular, was a revelation in the first half. While the acquisitions of Alonso, Opara and defender Ike Opara might have gotten more attention, the Malagasy fullback played tough and physical on the ball and caromed up the right wing whenever he had the chance, frequently getting into position to send pacey balls into the box.
“If you look at Romain at right back, at Ike, and the two we’ve added in midfield, we’re just a lot stronger all around,” said Heath. “They’re leaders, people who’ve won in this division, who know what it’s like to go on the road and dig in. So I know one or two people thought we paid a lot of money for Ike. I actually thought we got him cheap because that’s how important he’s going to be for us.”
In the 24th minute, Alonso was once again tagged for bringing down an attacker, this time earning a yellow card for a tackle near the edge of the box. But this time, MNUFC stood tall and fended off the set piece. One of the team’s best opportunities came in the 32nd minute when Calvo — looking very comfortable pushing up the left wing and picking up right where he left off after two goals in the final game of 2018 against Columbus — fired a shot that snaked past Crepeau but banged off the crossbar.
Five minutes later, it was Calvo’s work rate that paid off. After midfielder Darwin Quintero worked the ball around the right wing looking for an opening, he fired in a cross that took a deflection in front of goal and squirted out to the left side. Calvo ran onto it, forcing defender Jake Nerwinski to make a play and ultimately foul him, earning the Loons a penalty kick. Quintero calmly stepped up and drilled a nigh unblockable shot into the upper right corner that goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was helpless to stop despite guessing correctly. The teams headed into the locker room tied at 1-1.
The Whitecaps came out for the second half looking more dedicated and focused, but the Loons continued to play their game, keeping possession with a lot of help from Alonso and Metanire as they stymied the Vancouver attack. In the 66th minute, their patience got them another opportunity. Romario Ibarra — playing up top as the forward — got the ball in the middle of the field and pushed it ahead before knocking it out left to Quintero, who served up an inch-perfect micro-lob ahead of the defense and onto the head of Calvo, who came from nearly the right side to finish the goal and put the Loons in front 2-1.
Then, just four minutes later, it was Quintero winning the ball in Vancouver’s half and getting it ahead to Romario on the left wing. Romario found himself one-on-one, juked Godoy, and fired in a shot that took a deflection off the defender and snuck in under Crepeau’s foot to make it 3-1.
“These [guys] don’t have any of the baggage from the last couple of years of going on the road and losing games and not being able to dig themselves out of bad situations,” said Heath. “I thought some of our play at times on the counterattack was outstanding and with a little bit of better finishing, we could have killed the game off before we did.”
In the 80th minute, midfielder Ethan Finlay, who was lost for the season last year on April 22 in Seattle after tearing his ACL, made his return to the field as a sub for midfielder Rasmus Schuller.
Vancouver made it interesting when a Whitecaps corner kick on the left side in the 81st minute led to a long lob over the top that found defender Doneil Henry’s head and then the back of the net to pull the Whitecaps within one. The Loons would stand tall over the last nine minutes and stoppage time to earn their first win of the season, their first win on the road since early last season, and their first-ever win on the road against a Western Conference opponent.
Despite the miscues, the good news is that this group should only improve with more time to gel. Alonso added the bite that was expected to the defensive midfield and Gregus was solid, if still not entirely comfortable with his role. The team worked their way into the game, though, and got a deserved result.
"This team believes in each other," said Mannone. "We showed that today and we have to carry on doing it every week. Next week is another three points on the board to take, so that’s what we’re aiming for.”
“I think the two in midfield helped us enormously, Jan and Ozzie,” said Heath. “Their composure to take the sting out of the game, to keep the ball, to play the right ball at the right time. They were terrific today. I thought there were a lot of good performances but it is what it is: it’s a start. Now we’ve got to go again next week in San Jose.”
Minnesota United’s next match is Saturday, March 9 in San Jose as the Loons head down the West Coast to face the Earthquakes. That game kicks off at 7:00 p.m. CT with pregame coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. on FOX Sports North Plus, streaming on FOX Sports Go and on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North. Fans can come down to the Dubliner Pub & Café on University Ave in Saint Paul for the Official Watch Party presented by Summit.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Romain Metanire, Michael Boxall, Ike Opara, Francisco Calvo; M Osvaldo Alonso, Jan Gregus, Miguel Ibarra, Rasmus Schuller (Ethan Finlay 80’), Darwin Quintero (Hassani Dotson 90+3’); F Romario Ibarra (Angelo Rodriguez 83’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Brent Kallman, Chase Gasper; F Mason Toye
Vancouver Whitecaps FC Starting XI: GK Maxime Crepeau; D Derek Cornelius (Victor Giro 76’), Doneil Henry, Erik Godoy, Jakob Nerwinski; M Felipe (Joaquin Ardaiz 71’), Hwang In-Beom, Jon Erice; F Fredy Montero, Lass Bangoura (Lucas Venuto 69’), Yordy Reyna
VAN Unused Subs: GK Zac MacMath; D Scott Sutter; M Andy Rose, Simon Colyn;
6’ – Godoy (Reyna) – VAN
37’ – Quintero (PK) – MIN
66’ – Calvo (Quintero, Romario) – MIN
70’ – Romario (Quintero) – MIN
81’ – Henry (Giro, In-Beom) – VAN
24’ – Alonso (YC) – MIN
31’ – Erice (YC) – VAN
45’ – Cornelius (YC) – VAN
45+’ – Romario (YC) –MIN
79’ – Calvo (YC) – MIN