In the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Allianz Field on Wednesday night, Minnesota United met a New Mexico United squad with a reputation as giant killers. In just its first year in the USL Championship, the visitors had already knocked off MLS sides FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids on the way to this game, but the Loons would brook no upset on this night, putting up six goals to New Mexico's one and punching their ticket to the Semifinal — the furthest the team has ever advanced in the tournament.
"I just said to the boys, it was a strange evening I felt," said Head Coach Adrian Heath. "There was a bit of everything in the game. I thought at times we were really sloppy. I thought at times we were outstanding. I thought at times some of the combination play was as good as you’ll see. Then we would have a five-minute spell where we would stop doing what we know we are good at. I thought the six [goals we scored] flattered us. I want to congratulate New Mexico. They’ve done incredibly well. Troy has got a really big future in the game. I thought that their support was fantastic. They’ll be really disappointed probably with the score line but they can be proud of what they’ve done in this competition considering it’s a first year club and Troy and his staff can take a great deal of credit for that and I think it’s only onwards and upwards for them as a club."
With New Mexico United coming out in a 4-4-2 formation, it seemed as if Minnesota were most interested in the game’s opening minutes in simply seeing what its opponent was all about. To that end, they seemed patient and content to let New Mexico throw its best punch, with the visitors pressing high and doing their best to win the ball back. Whenever they did, they would send the ball directly over the top to forward Devon Sandoval.
On their first corner kick of the game in the seventh minute, New Mexico got the opening they were looking for. After playing the ball short to the right wing, midfielder Chris Wehan sent the ball up top where forward Santiago Moar fired a shot that took a deflection and curved past Mannone into the left side of the net, giving the visitors an early 1-0 lead.
"We’ve watched probably their last four or five games and they’ve come up with some sort of trick plays and that was another one of them [the goal] but we’ve been through that," said Heath. "It’s not like we hadn’t seen that corner. That’s the disappointing thing and that’s what happens when you turn off for a split second and that’s what happens at this level of football."
MNUFC certainly responded to the wake-up call. In the 10th minute, fullback Hassani Dotson received the ball on the right wing, then cut it back onto his left foot before centering it to forward Angelo Rodriguez who confidently headed it in to draw the home side level at 1-1.
That goal opened the floodgates for the Loons. Six minutes later, Rodriguez got the ball out ahead of the defense and held on to enough space to fire a right-footed shot that New Mexico goalkeeper Cody Mizell got a hand on, but the ball trickled out into the path of an onrushing Darwin Quintero. The midfielder would not be denied from point blank range and he easily finished it off to make it 2-1.
In the 19th minute, midfielder Jan Gregus cut off an attempted clearance from New Mexico’s box and hit it back toward Rodriguez loitering at the top of the box. He turned and fired a left-footed shot that beat Mizell before settling in the back of the net, doubling the lead at 3-1.
"I thought that the turn and the shot in the bottom corner was an excellent finish," said Heath. "That’ll do his confidence no harm. The good thing is when you get to that situation, it’s a situation where you can bring him off. We’ve had a huge game on Wednesday and the fact that he played 60 rather than 90 makes a big, big difference. We managed to protect him a bit in Montreal as well so I’m sure he’ll be firing on all cylinders come the weekend."
Following a handball by New Mexico right at the edge of their own box, Gregus set up for the free kick alongside Quintero. The two players have passed off free kick duties depending on the situation, but this time, it was Gregus ripping the free kick around the right side of the wall and bouncing it once just outside the mouth of goal before it pushed the lead even further to 4-1.
"Quality movement, quality pace, speed of play, speed of thought, clinical, passing to people in the right spots at the right time," said Heath about the onslaught of scoring. "My favorite saying: give it to people when they want it, not when you’re finished with it and that’s what we did."
At this point, the wind had all but gone out of New Mexico’s sails, all their earlier energy gone and the players reduced to pinging the ball ahead whenever possible and looking over their shoulders as soon as they received it. Minnesota continued to generate chances as the first half wore on, but it looked as if the visitors might sneak into the locker room for a chance to regroup and reassess without suffering another blow. But in the 45th minute, Quintero got the ball on the right side, switched it onto his left foot and fired a quick shot that Mizell once again managed to deflect but not corral. Rodriguez was there to pounce on the rebound and complete his hat trick, sending the squads into the tunnel at 5-1.
The visitors began the second half with a pair of subs, sending in David Estrada and Josh Suggs for Daniel Bruce and Auston Yearwood. Minnesota came out with the same lineup, perhaps with an eye toward letting the starters give their best shot at locking down the lead for the next 15 to 20 minutes before bringing on subs.
The Loons nearly conceded a second goal following a corner kick in the 61st minute that led to quite the pileup in front of goal. New Mexico and Minnesota players jostled and collapsed for a few heart-stopping seconds before the ball squirted out and up the field toward New Mexico’s end with Quintero in hot pursuit. Quintero brought the ball all the way up the pitch down the right side, eventually sending it left and onto the waiting feet of midfielder Kevin Molino. Molino took a touch and drilled it at Mizell, who once again couldn’t hang onto the ball. It rolled out to midfielder Miguel Ibarra who took his time and forced Mizell to dive before cutting left in front of goal and nestling it into the back of the net. It was Ibarra’s first goal at Allianz Field and scored in front of the supporters, who responded ebulliently to Batman’s first in the team’s new home.
"It’s good for him," said Heath. "He’s put in a real good shift today and he’s followed in and then he showed his composure. [It] would’ve been easy when you’re desperate for a goal just to blast the ball. He went to play it and then just dummied it and let it roll. He’ll be pleased with that."
From there, it was all over but the shouting, with Minnesota United confidently moving the ball all over the pitch while seeking out new seams without finding a seventh goal. As the clock counted up to 90 minutes, the referee indicated there would be no stoppage and the final whistle blew with the Loons the victors and headed for a Semifinal matchup on Wednesday, August 7 against the winner of the LAFC vs. Portland game.
"Some of my greatest memories in football have been wining cup competitions and now you’re a couple of games away," said Heath. "Trust me, when you get to 50-odd years of age, you’ll look back and remember these games. It might be a Semifinal or something so who knows. There’s been a lot of great players who’ve never won anything. All of a sudden, you’re a couple games from winning something. We didn’t take the game lightly, that’s why we put the team out that we did and now we advance."
Minnesota United’s next game will have them messing with Texas as Western Conference foe FC Dallas comes to Allianz Field on Saturday, July 13. That game kicks off 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 (Eric Miller 64’); M Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso, Kevin Molino, Miguel Ibarra, Darwin Quintero (Ethan Finlay 73’); F Angelo Rodriguez (Mason Toye 63’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Brent Kallman; M Lawrence Olum, Rasmus Schuller
New Mexico United Starting XI: GK Cody Mizell; D Austin Yearwood (Josh Suggs HT), Ethen Sampson, Justin Schmidt, Sam Hamilton; M Daniel Bruce (David Estrada HT), Juan Guzman, Saalih Muhammad, Santi Moar; F Christopher Wehan (Ryan Williams 64’), Devon Sandoval
NM Unused Subs: GK Benjamin Beaury; D Manny Padilla, Rashid Tetteh; M Kenny Akamatsu
7’ – Moar (Wehan) – NM
10’ – Rodriguez (Dotson) – MIN
16’ – Quintero – MIN
18’ – Rodriguez (Gregus) – MIN
23’ – Gregus – MIN
45’ – Rodriguez – MIN
62’ – Ibarra – MIN
54’ – Wehan (YC) – NM