In what Adrian Heath billed as “the biggest game of the season,” Minnesota United came out firing, early and often. Scoring just five minutes into the first half and seven minutes into the second half, the Loons dismantled a San Jose man-marking defensive system that many opponents have struggled with. Darwin Quintero struck first for the Loons, rifling an inside-of-the-foot volley just past the fingertips of San Jose goalkeeper Daniel Vega. A Michael Boxall second half goal then cancelled out a San Jose equalizer from Tommy Thompson at the close of the first half. Deep into stoppage time, Kevin Molino found himself in acres of space and made no mistake in finishing to secure a vital three points for Minnesota at the death.
“I thought some of the gameplan worked very well, certainly in the first half where we got the spare man at the back on the ball and we sucked him in,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “It was just our final ball in the final third that wasn't good enough. Had we had a little bit more quality at times or a little bit more care, we probably could have got three or four one-on-ones in the first half, but we didn't. The game wasn't finished until Kev scores [in stoppage time]. But it was a magnificent effort from the group.”
With the spotlight in recent weeks on San Jose’s stifling defense, Minnesota United wasted no time in testing it. Just five minutes into the game, Miguel Ibarra cut inside from the left wing and pinged a ball to a well-positioned Angelo Rodriguez. Acting as a wall, Rodriguez used one touch to drop the ball back off to Ibarra who took the pass in stride and found a cutting Ethan Finlay. The midfielder took a quick peek up and sent a lofted cross to Darwin Quintero who wrapped the inside of his foot around a first-time volley, sneaking it past Vega to give the hosts the lead.
From there, the Loons used the first goal as a confidence booster to create dangerous attacking chances. In the 12th minute, Jan Gregus sent in a curling cross from a free kick that found the head of Michael Boxall. The defender almost seemed surprised to be wide open on goal and was unable to steer his header into the beckoning net.
San Jose’s one-on-one, man-marking system had been a major subject of discussion before the match and it was clear what the visitors’ intentions were. With each Minnesota player being tightly marked by a Quake, the Loons had to play out of the back throughout the opening passages of play. Angelo Rodriguez played a crucial role in this game, holding up countless balls and absorbing the contact from San Jose’s centerbacks, Florian Jungwirth and Guram Kashia.
“You have two against one up at the top,” said Adrian Heath. “We have two defenders against their one and what they want to tempt you into doing is playing long and straight early so you don't get any numerical advantage. But if you could drop another player in there, as they send their second one, then send another one. It's all about numerical advantage all over the field and we did a really good job of playing out of the back.”
Minnesota United came even closer to doubling their lead in the 35th minute when two clear cut chances fell to the home side. First, a pirouette turn from Darwin Quintero allowed the midfielder to wriggle between two San Jose defenders but his touch was too heavy as he tried to round the goalkeeper. The ball fell to Miguel Ibarra who laid back to Quintero, whose shot on goal was just blocked for a corner kick. Seconds later, Osvaldo Alonso found Quintero running across the face of the San Jose defense. Quintero angled his body to play a beautiful flick to a waiting Angelo Rodriguez who did well to hold off defensive pressure, then turn and fire a shot that went just wide of the post. The two quick-fire chances got the Minnesota crowd back on their feet heading into halftime.
It looked like the game was heading to the break with the Loons up by a goal and holding on to a clean sheet, but San Jose thought otherwise. Tommy Thompson received a one-two pass, getting in behind Ethan Finlay, which forced the midfielder to pull the defender down just on the edge of the MNUFC penalty area. The resulting set piece was drilled into the box by San Jose and the ball pinballed around before striking Tommy Thompson and deflecting into the back of the Minnesota net. The goal sucked the life out of the Minnesota crowd and gave the visitors an important equalizer before halftime.
“I watched it again and I don’t know why we have VAR, to be honest,” said Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone. “It’s clear that you need to check it, at the least the ref needs to go on the side and have a look at it, if it is. It was an important moment of the game, we needed to finish the half with the lead and unfortunately, we didn’t and he didn’t go to check it. I understand if it’s close to the body but when the hand connects with the ball, it’s a hand ball.”
After conceding just before halftime, the Loons came out of the locker room firing and took the lead right back from San Jose. Minnesota’s centerbacks were given open real estate to run into throughout the game and the Loons capitalized on poor San Jose defending in the 52nd minute. With an open field in front of him, Michael Boxall made a daring run from his centerback position. Attempting to find Darwin Quintero, Boxall’s knifing pass deflected back into his path which started a footrace with Daniel Vega. Beating the goalkeeper to the ball in a show of athleticism, Boxall smashed it home to give the Loons an early lead in the second half.
“If you look back to the second game of the season, [Boxall] had four or five of them in that game when he nearly made it to the penalty area,” said Heath. “Sometimes you don't realize how much space you've got. That was my only disappointment at times: we didn't use the fact that they do play man-to-man and if you clear the space and you open big spaces up, you can actually run the length of the field nearly. But he did great and kept going and got himself a goal.”
Holding the one goal lead, Minnesota set up shop in their own half and defended wave after wave of San Jose attacking play. The Quakes threw everything they had at the Loons. They took countless shots from distance, sent long balls in behind the Minnesota defense and drilled cross after cross into the MNUFC penalty area. Nevertheless, the backline of Minnesota stood strong and the injection of substitutes Mason Toye, Kevin Molino and Lawrence Olum gave the Loons plenty of fresh legs. Vito Mannone was colossal for the Loons in the second half, coming up with match-winning caliber saves, one after another. With seven saves on the day, his biggest came in the 68th minute when he got down low to his near post to deny San Jose’s Danny Hoesen from close range.
“Every save is important, every play by the team is important,” said Mannone. “I thought the one with my foot on the near post, that one can change the game because it’s close range and I stuck my foot out and I tried to help the team with this important moment.”
Holding onto a slim lead and with San Jose pinning them in their own half, Minnesota’s only outlet was to hit the Quakes on the counterattack. They did just that, with minutes left on the clock. Substitute Mason Toye, who looked energetic and pacey in his cameo, made a key sliding interception that knocked the ball onto the feet of Ike Opara. The centerback, who was high up the field, turned and calmly rolled a pass to an onside Kevin Molino who made no mistake to finish past Daniel Vega, putting the game out of reach for San Jose.
The goal secured a hugely important three points for the Loons and the final whistle sent the Minnesota United faithful into delirium.
“The reason I went over to the crowd, I thought they were incredible this evening,” said Heath. “We had them spells late on where we were under the cosh, they were piling everybody forward, and the reaction of the crowd to every clearance, every tackle — sometimes, that's the stuff that gets you over the line.”
Minnesota United next game is a road matchup against the Montreal Impact at Saputo Stadium on Saturday, July 6. Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. CT with pregame coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. on FOX Sports North+, streaming on FOX Sports GO and on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Hassani Dotson, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Chase Gasper; M Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso, Ethan Finlay, Miguel Ibarra (Kevin Molino 83’), Darwin Quintero (Lawrence Olum 83’); F Angelo Rodriguez (Mason Toye 75’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Dayne St. Clair; D Brent Kallman, Eric Miller; M Rasmus Schuller
San Jose Earthquakes Starting XI: GK Daniel Vega; D Florian Jungwirth, Guram Kashia, Marcos Lopez (Shea Salinas 66’), Tommy Thompson; M Cristian Espinoza, Jackson Yueill, Judson (Paul Marie 76’), Magnus Eriksson, Valeri Qazaishvili; F Chris Wondolowski (Danny Hoesen 61’)
SJ Unused Subs: GK Andrew Tarbell; D Francois Affolter; M Eric Calvillo, Luis Felipe Fernandes
5’ – Quintero (Finlay, Ibarra) – MIN
45+2’ – Thompson – SJ
52’ – Boxall – MIN
90+2’ – Molino (Opara, Toye) – MIN
30’ – Lopez (YC) – SJ
45+1’ – Finlay (YC) – MIN
55’ – Wondolowski (YC) – SJ
76’ – Gregus (YC) – MIN
78’ – Quintero (YC) – MIN
90+1’ – Alonso (YC) – MIN
90+3’ – Molino (YC) – MIN