Another week, another dangerous Western Conference foe for Minnesota United at Allianz Field, where the Loons would meet up with a Portland Timbers squad charging up the table. With a U.S. Open Cup Semifinal game against Portland in the middle of the next week, the game was also a chance to establish momentum heading into a dramatic win-or-go-home tournament scenario for both teams. With both teams eager to launch counterattacks, the game went end-to-end for 90 minutes with no daylight between the teams. It took a last minute handball in the box and a dramatic penalty shot to decide the game for Minnesota and send them into a tie for second place in the Western Conference.
"It was one of them that I thought, it was like a training session at the end, attack against defense, who was going to get the break and we got it today," said Head Coach Adrian Heath. "I feel for them a little bit because I know if we’d had been on the receiving end of the penalty, it would’ve been probably a little bit disappointing. But, you know, we always think that things even themselves out and if they do, we actually probably, deserved that. Not today but over the last weeks, we’ve deserved better than what we’ve got out of games. So, pleased for the players. I thought their effort was magnificent. It was a tough game, I’m saying it, it must be one of the most expensive assembled teams in MLS. They’ve got quality throughout and we knew it was going to be tough. I thought we created some good opportunities in the first half."
The game opened with an early corner for the home side as midfielder Kevin Molino — starting in the #10 role for the suspended Darwin Quintero — chased down a ball in the corner and it went off a Portland defender in the second minute. Although nothing would come of it, the persistence embodied Minnesota’s effort in the first half. The only problem for the Loons was that Portland was equally unwilling to give quarter. In the third minute, Portland forward Brian Fernandez checked defender Romain Metanire to the turf in Minnesota’s final third, evaded the whistle, then sprayed the ball wide to midfielder Sebastian Blanco. Blanco sent his effort wide after a good defensive effort by Ike Opara, but also went down, spending several minutes on the turf before limping back to the sideline and staying in the game.
Minnesota’s best early opportunity would come in the seventh minute off an Angelo Rodriguez header from a lofted cross from midfielder Ethan Finlay on the right wing. The Timbers often conceded the wings — especially the right side — to Finlay and Metanire, leading to a plethora of crosses and other opportunities. The final ball, though, was lacking. In all, the home side built up a surfeit of little miscues in passing and communication as they lacked a bit of focus in the final third.
For their part, the Timbers aggressive high press didn’t do much to rattle Minnesota’s backline, but it also kept the Loons largely pinned in their own half and struggling to get up the field productively in a methodical manner. Instead, the home side had to rely on their counterattack. Offensively, Portland looked much more capable of getting into the cracks and crevasses of Minnesota’s backline when in possession, but were also ultimately stymied.
Rodriguez did yeoman’s work at the point of the spear, holding the ball up effectively and drawing both fouls and attention, plus working his way forward into the box. Portland, though, would manage to force him offside on more than one occasion, limiting his effectiveness. Instead, it was largely Miguel Ibarra, playing on the left wing, who found himself the intended target of crosses from the right wing. He had several strong efforts and missed a few just by inches.
The highlight for the Loons in the first half was likely goalkeeper Vito Mannone’s impressive back-to-back saves in the 29th minute. Staring down a streaking run by defender Jorge Moreira up the right side, Mannone dropped to the ground to stop a low shot from the fullback. He popped back up immediately and got a hand on Blanco’s follow-up effort, drawing a rousing cheer from the Wonderwall behind him.
"[He] had a huge save at a really important time," said Heath. "I don’t want to say that’s what we pay him for but that’s what we pay for. That’s his job. I expect him to come up with big saves in big moments. That’s what good goalkeepers do and he’s starting to prove that. When we need him, he comes up."
Toward the end of the first half, MNUFC looked to build up some momentum and displayed a bit more of a sparkle of creativity in attack with some nice interchanges between Metanire and Rodriguez and a few efforts from distance, including one from midfielder Jan Gregus that barely missed the left corner of the goal from the edge of the box in the 41st minute. The teams headed into the locker room at the half deadlocked and goalless and doubtless a bit frustrated not to have done better in the first 45.
The second half began much the same as the first with the teams exchanging blows without landing a haymaker. But the sliver of momentum that MNUFC had built heading into the half seemed to have evaporated, with Portland now leaning slightly out on the front foot. In the opening 20 minutes of the second half, the Timbers rang up successive corners and edged their possession numbers higher, sitting on 55% of the possession by the 65th minute.
At that point, Heath decided to start bringing in subs in the hopes of shifting the feel of play in the Loons’ favor. First came forward Mason Toye for Rodriguez and then midfielder Robin Lod, making his MNUFC and MLS debut in place of Miguel Ibarra. Minutes later, Portland brought on forward Jeremy Ebobisse for Marvin Loria.
"I thought [Lod's] qualities were there for people to see," said Heath. "Composure on the ball, [making] the right pass. He knew when to keep it simple. He knew when to hold possession, knew when to play forward. He’s going to be good for us."
The subs made an immediate impact, with Toye aggressively driving into the box and leveling a hard, low shot at Steve Clark that had the goalkeeper diving to his right but ultimately went out over the byline past the far post in the 72nd minute. In the 78th minute, Ebobisse teed up a shot for Fernandez, who charged onto the ball in the box and ripped a shot that pinged off the right post and out of harm’s way.
The Loons got their first best chance of the game in the 85th minute, though, when midfielder Osvaldo Alonso launched a long, lofted through ball onto the feet of sub Abu Danladi as he rocketed up the left side of the pitch. In the box, Danladi slotted a hard cut square pass out of Clark’s reach and towards Mason Toye’s outstretched foot, but the ball just barely bounced out past the post.
Minutes later, though, the game turned definitively in the home side’s favor as Jan Gregus’ out-swinging cross from the right corner curled onto Ike Opara’s head and then directly into Larrys Mabiala’s hand in the 88th minute. Play was stopped for a review and a penalty was awarded to Minnesota with the clock already ticking into stoppage time. Ethan Finlay — whose boundless drive and energy had been on display the whole game with little to show for it — stepped to the spot and drilled the ball to the left side of the net. Clark guessed correctly and dove but the ball slipped off his outstretched fingers and into the net to give the Loons a 1-0 lead.
"Ultimately, we want the right call, don’t we?" said Heath. "If VAR is going to give us that, then it’s going to be good for the game. Sometimes, I still feel as though it’s arbitrary. It’s down to the referee’s interpretation. There’s been four of five this year that I’ve disagreed with and it’s gone to VAR. So, you’re in the hands of the referee every game. Today it went for us. No doubt, at some stage, [it’ll] go against [us] like it has done a couple times."
From there, the Loons had to stand up to a few more efforts from Portland, including a threatening free kick by Diego Valeri from the right wing, but in the end, Minnesota would take all three from the game with an eye towards the rematch just three days away.
"There’s still a long way to go but I do know how important the three points were today because certainly they're going to be there or thereabouts at the end with all their home games to come and the quality that they have," said Heath. "The next few weeks, as I said, probably the next 20 days are going to the most important time of the year certainly. We got the big game on Wednesday, we'll treat that with the respect that it deserves because it’s a huge game for us. Then it’s Dallas who are in and around us in the league and then we’ve got Colorado and Orlando here. So, by the end of that little stretch, we’ll have a good idea where we are."
Minnesota United’s next game is its Semifinal matchup with this same Portland Timbers squad in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday, August 7 at 7:00 p.m. at Allianz Field. Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN+, where you can stream the game.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Romain Metanire, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Chase Gasper; M Jan Gregus, Osvaldo Alonso, Ethan Finlay, Miguel Ibarra (Robin Lod 65’); F Kevin Molino (Abu Danladi 77’), Angelo Rodriguez (Mason Toye 65’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Brent Kallman; M Lawrence Olum, Hassani Dotson
Portland Timbers Starting XI: GK Steve Clark; Jorge Moreira, Jorge Villafana, Julio Cascante, Larrys Mabiala; M Cristhian Paredes (Tomas Conechny 90+3’), Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Marvin Loria (Jeremy Ebobisse 70’), Sebastian Blanco; F Brian Fernandez
POR Unused Subs: GK Kendall McIntosh; D Claude Dielna, Zarek Valentin; M Renzo Zambrano; F Andy Polo
90+2’ – Finlay (PK) – MIN
39’ – Mabiala (YC) – POR
50’ – Clark (YC) – POR
53’ – Chara (YC) – POR
58’ – Cascante (YC) – POR
75’ – Boxall (YC) – MIN