In its final road game before opening Allianz Field on April 13, Minnesota United traveled to the East Coast to face a perennial powerhouse on their home turf without two key pieces of its attack: midfielders Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra. In response, Head Coach Adrian Heath went away from his favored 4-2-3-1 formation for a 3-4-3. The team responded by standing up to the New York Red Bulls’ best efforts and taking advantage of their opportunities to head into their inaugural home opener at Allianz Field with a 2-1 win and nine points in five road games.
“I thought we deserved it,” said Heath. “They had a bit of pressure, but apart from one good effort from Bradley Wright-Phillips, I can’t remember Vito having an awful lot to do. We looked dangerous on the break all evening. The change in formation certainly helped us and I thought there was a lot of really good performances. But we spoke to the group before the season started and the five games on the road, and we thought that if we could come out with seven or nine, it’s been a really, really good start for us. And that’s what we’ve got. So we’re delighted with virtually having played a third of our away games now. To be where we are gives us a lot of encouragement.”
The game began in much the same way as the last couple have for the Loons, getting pushed onto their back foot. In the opening minutes, the game was played largely in Minnesota’s end, with the Red Bulls refusing to let the visitors get comfortable in possession. Given that, though, the home side couldn’t find a seam to break down the defense, largely thanks to yeoman’s work by everyone in the Loons’ revamped three-man backline and support from defenders Francisco Calvo and Romain Metanire as wingbacks.
What offense there was through the first part of the first half for Minnesota came from Metanire pelting down the right line and getting the ball ahead to forward Angelo Rodriguez, who reprised his solid role as a hold-up attacker from the first half of the game against the New England Revolution. For his part, Metanire was an absolute dynamo throughout the game, streaking up and down the pitch and making a big difference both in attack and on defense.
“They’re probably as good as anybody in the league at pressing the ball, and if you play into their hands, of trying to play short balls out and then all of a sudden they turn you ‘round, it’s a problem,” said Heath. “So we tried to break the initial press, get it into Angelo and get runners going from there. Can we switch the play? I thought we managed to get our fullbacks — especially Romain — into their half of the field. That was where the goal came from. So tactically, it looked like we knew what we were doing.”
In the 19th minute, an injury to midfielder Alex Muyl after chasing down midfielder Ethan Finlay forced Red Bulls Head Coach Chris Armas’ hand, leading to Daniel Royer coming on for the injured Muyl. The sub itself — basically a like-for-like — made less difference immediately in the short term than in the long term, leaving Armas with just two more subs for the rest of the game.
A bit of rocky possession through the middle third over the next stretch for Minnesota United saw some errant passes lead to opportunities for New York, but the home side was unable to capitalize on them. For their part, the Red Bulls looked more aggressive, but not necessarily clearly better organized than the Loons. In the 22nd minute, forward Matthias Jorgenson got out on the break with forward Bradley Wright-Phillips open on the left wing, but he took his shot and missed badly.
Minutes later, though, the Loons would get their first good look at goal after forward Abu Danladi held up his run down the middle just long enough to receive a cross from the right wing and drive a solid shot stopped only by a sliding Tim Parker, who cleaned up the possession beautifully. It was the first sign, though, that Minnesota was capable of putting something together on the counterattack by pinging a few key passes through a couple of players.
In the 34th minute, it would be Metanire catalyzing the attack as he drove forward and dinked the ball ahead to Rodriguez, who held it up long enough to spring Danladi through the middle. This time, Danladi would not be denied and struck a confident right-footed ball past goalkeeper Luis Robles and into the back of the net to give the Loons a 1-0 lead.
The texture of the game changed a great deal in the final stretch of the first half. Although New York continued to dominate possession, Minnesota was much more content to let them pass the ball around, instead sitting back and relying on sterling work from goalkeeper Vito Mannone and centerbacks Michael Boxall, Ike Opara and Brent Kallman to see out the first half.
As the second half began, Minnesota found themselves outshot six to four and outpossessed 56% to 44% and yet on top. Heath brought in forward Romario Ibarra for Danladi, likely trying to keep the latter’s minutes controlled as he works his way back into game shape. As it turned out, it was a fortuitous switch.
In the 50th minute, Calvo launched a long ball over the top to Rodriguez, who settled it under pressure before turning and firing from the right side of the box. The ball ricocheted off a New York defender and directly into the path of a waiting Romario, who fired it into the back of the net with a roundhouse volley, pushing the lead to 2-0.
“You’ve still never won it, have you?” said Heath about his sense after the second goal. “Because we knew they were going to keep pressing and I thought, ‘Here we go,’ because we’ve had three penalties this year and I thought we were going to get one against us. But I was pleased with the commitment to see the job through, because I honestly think at this point last year we would have caved in and this would have been 2-2. But now, we brought a different mentality and we’re a different group and we gave ourselves a good opportunity to move forward.”
Quickly, Armas decided he was going to need to change things up and in the 59th minute, he put in midfielder Derrick Etienne Jr. for Jorgensen and midfielder Marcus Epps for defender Michael Murillo. The move packed the midfield with speed, and from that moment on, the game became one of survival for Minnesota. With Wright-Phillips freed up up top, he began to get more looks but the Loons would not let him get comfortable, putting a body into him and making life difficult for the striker.
The Red Bulls got their breakthrough in the 70th minute of a corner kick. After the initial shot off the cross was rebuffed by Mannone, the ball trickled out just far enough to fall to an onrushing Cristian Casseres Jr, who slotted it home to cut the deficit in half.
That would, however, be as much as they got. Rodriguez was subbed off for midfielder Rasmus Schuller in the 73rd minute and, three minutes later, Finlay would come off for midfielder Hassani Dotson, effectively signaling Heath’s intent to get everyone behind the ball and play for the one-point win. In the end, Minnesota would stand tall in defense and put in a gritty performance to earn their third — and toughest — win of the season so far, despite missing Quintero and Ibarra.
“Different mentality. Different group,” said Heath of the difference from last year, when the team only won a single road game all season. “You go from the middle of last year, [adding] Angelo, Romario and Darwin, plus the five we’ve added this year, in less than six months it’s like eight players who are new in the team. And we’ve added really important pieces with Ozzie Alonso, Ike Opara, Vito in goal, Romain. We’ve added a lot of experience.”
Minnesota United’s next game is on Saturday, April 13 against New York City FC at Allianz Field. The Loons’ home opener kicks off at 4:00 p.m. CT on ESPN2 with pregame coverage beginning at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN Radio on SKOR North. Fans should come early for festivities that get underway at noon on the north side of the stadium, including the Bullseye Fan Zone presented by Target.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Brent Kallman, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall; M Romain Metanire, Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso, Francisco Calvo; F Ethan Finlay (Hassani Dotson 82’), Angelo Rodriguez (Rasmus Schuller 74’), Abu Danladi (Romario Ibarra HT)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Eric Miller; M Collin Martin, Lawrence Olum, Romario Ibarra
New York Red Bulls Starting XI: GK Luis Robles; D Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence, Michael Murillo (Marcus Epps 59’), Tim Parker; M Alejandro Romero Gamarra, Alex Muyl (Daniel Royer 21’), Cristian Casseres Jr, Mathias Jorgensen (Derrick Etienne 59’), Sean Davis; F Bradley Wright-Phillips
RBNY Unused Subs: GK Ryan Meara; D Amro Tarek, Connor Lade; M Vincent Bezecourt
34’ – Danladi (Rodriguez, Metanire) – MIN
50’ – Romario – MIN
70’ – Casseres – RBNY