Darwin Cup celebration

How We Got Here: Minnesota's Run to the Cup

Heading into its first game of the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Minnesota United had little reason to feel optimistic. After all, the club’s history in the tournament as an MLS side was less than stellar. In their first season in the league, the Loons had bowed out quickly, losing 4-0 to Sporting Kansas City on the road. In their second season, they benefited from a favorable draw, getting USL side FC Cincinnati in the Fourth Round, but still needing penalties to advance to the Round of 16. There, they were summarily dispatched by Houston Dynamo, who would go on to win the Open Cup.

In 2019, it appeared yet again as if the start of the Cup for MNUFC could not have arrived at a worse time. While Minnesota had begun the season brightly, by mid-June the team had just endured back-to-back-to-back losses in league play and found themselves consistently frustrated on the offensive side of the ball — they had scored just six goals in the previous nine games. Add in a need for squad rotation thanks to international call-ups and a foe in Sporting Kansas City with a strong Open Cup track record and things were not looking good.

Chalk it up to Allianz Field’s growing status as a fortress or some ineffable feeling about a different kind of competition, but the Loons came flying out of the gates. Just two minutes in, a left-footed flick from midfielder Darwin Quintero put forward Angelo Rodriguez on goal and he slipped the ball through the legs of SKC goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas. While the two sides headed into the locker room deadlocked at 1-1, Minnesota United blew the game open in the second half with a goal from Ethan Finlay and a brace from Quintero to put them through to a rematch with Houston in the Round of 16 with a 4-1 win.

While getting to the next round was massive, but perhaps more important were the breakout performances from the front four and rookies Chase Gasper and Hassani Dotson. Every team goes into every game wanting the W, but the length of the season and the often congested schedule mean that team’s must consider getting minutes for players who could become essential down the stretch. Keep in mind this was Gasper’s first start of the season and he has since become the de facto starting left back for the team.

“It was a really good evening for us because the goalscorers couldn't have been three better players who needed a goal for their confidence,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath. “They'll be better for that. I thought that Hassani and Chase did fantastic as well. Some of the guys needed minutes and some of the guys needed a little bit of a confidence boost in front of goal and we got all of that this evening.”

Playing in Houston is never easy, and even less so when the temperature climbs as high as it did on June 18. But while Minnesota went into the half down 2-0, Heath was confident his team could pull out the win with just a little more focus and finishing. Bringing in midfielder Miguel Ibarra for defender Eric Miller and shifting Dotson to right back moved the team out of the 4-3-3 it had started in and back to its customary 4-2-3-1 and the move paid immediate dividends. The Loons began to rack up the opportunities in the final third, and another brace from Quintero plus the game-winner from Mason Toye — his first as a professional — were enough to unseat the reigning Open Cup champs and put Minnesota through to a Quarterfinal match-up with upstart New Mexico United from the USL Championship.

“In the second half, I thought our play was excellent,” said Heath. “I think we had 16 efforts at goal. We got the ball wide, we got crosses in, we looked dangerous on set pieces. Playing here, it can give you an excuse to quit at times when you’re 2-0 down. But they didn’t. They kept going, and we live to fight another day."

The Quarterfinals marked a new high-water mark for Minnesota United in the tournament and now, suddenly, advancing even further seemed likely. While New Mexico United had done well to dispatch two MLS sides already in FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids, neither of those opponents had sent out a first-choice starting XI. For once, it was MNUFC who looked like Goliath in a David-and-Goliath match-up.

So it was surprising when Minnesota came out flat in the Quarterfinal on July 10. A scant seven minutes into the game, New Mexico drew first blood on a short corner when forward Santiago Moar ripped a shot that curved past goalkeeper Vito Mannone and into the left side of the net. That, however, was the last glimpse of glory the visitors would get.

From there, the Loons put up six goals, including a hat trick — his first for Minnesota United — for Angelo Rodriguez. Miguel Ibarra also notched his first goal at Allianz Field, executing a nifty bit of skill as he cut around New Mexico keeper Cody Mizell and put it home to wild cheering from the Wonderwall directly behind the goal.

With the win over New Mexico, the feel of the tournament finally began to sink in for the supporters and even a bit more for the team.

"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."

Thanks to an odd quirk of scheduling, Minnesota United faced the Portland Timbers in their Semifinal just three days after defeating them 1-0 in MLS league play. Ethan Finlay’s penalty kick in stoppage time thanks to a Larrys Mabiala handball lifted the Loons into second place in the Western Conference and augured another tight game in the rematch in the Open Cup.

Once again, it was a penalty kick that would give the game its first goal after Portland defender Claude Dielna raised his arm and deflected the ball on a free kick. Quintero drilled the penalty, but the Timbers drew themselves level in first half stoppage time on a goal from forward Brian Fernandez. Jeremy Ebobisse redirected a cross into the box and directly to Fernandez, who was kept just barely onside.

But in the 64th minute, Mason Toye — once again feasting in the Open Cup — took a long lofted through ball from Kevin Molino, settled with a single deft touch and cleanly finished it past Steve Clark to put the Loons on top for good and into a U.S. Open Cup Final with Atlanta United.

“[I’m] obviously delighted for everybody,” said Head Coach Adrian Heath after the win. “I thought the noise in the stadium was incredible. [The] players have worked so hard recently. If you look at the games that we’ve had in probably the last month, it seems like everyone’s been, really, a must win and that weighs on you mentally as well as physically. To come through again like we’ve done again is a testament to all of the players.”

The squad will need every ounce of that resolve and then some to come out on top in a difficult Final against an Atlanta side just now rounding into form as the MLS season enters its final stretch. But win or lose, the team has seized every opportunity in the Open Cup this year, using it to build confidence and momentum as a unit and propel the club to its first chance to win a championship since entering MLS. At the end of the Open Cup Final, the team will have gone the distance and taken a Minnesota soccer club as further than any other in the historic tournament.

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