In a game with major playoff implications, Minnesota United hosted visiting Real Salt Lake at Allianz Field, looking to take more from the tilt than the points the teams split back in July at Rio Tinto Stadium. The game began with RSL sitting above MNUFC in second place, but it would end with the Loons in second (and eventually third on the evening after Sounders FC beat Red Bulls) and the Claret-and-Cobalt looking up. Minnesota came out firing on all cylinders but faltered briefly after conceding an early goal. The home side would come roaring back on the strength of a brace from Darwin Quintero and a late goal from sub Ethan Finlay to seal a 3-1 win.
"It’s a huge win in light of the other results," said Head Coach Adrian Heath. "We were looking at [RSL] in the week and you’re thinking, we’ve put ourselves back under a lot of pressure again and then we respond. I’m really pleased with the response after going behind. I thought the energy levels were good. I thought our determination to get a result [was good]. I thought second half, we did some really good stuff. [We’ve] still got some stuff I’m not happy with and we’ll talk about that but in light of the results, it’s been a really good weekend for us."
The games opening minutes saw the teams vying for control of the game, as Minnesota United found seams in Real Salt Lake’s defense and cut in between the lines. For their part, the Claret-and-Cobalt found opportunities to get out on the counterattack after absorbing the home side’s attacking energy. In the sixth minute, midfielder Darwin Quintero flicked the ball out wide left to midfielder Robin Lod, but the Finnish national’s first touch let him down as goalkeepers Nick Rimando dove at his feet and saved the ball wide.
MNUFC maintained pressure on the face of goal, though, taking whatever chances they could to test Rimando’s reflexes. Forward Mason Toye unleashed a solid shot off of a through ball from midfielder Kevin Molino in the ninth minute that Rimando knocked down not entirely cleanly.
The Loons first quality chance came in the 15th minute as defender Romain Metanire pelted down the right wing and picked up a long pass from midfielder Jan Gregus. The fullback dropped the ball back to Molino, lingering just beyond the right corner of the box. Molino picked out Lod on the far post and his lofted cross found the midfielder, but he couldn’t keep the volley down and sent it over the goal.
Given the run of play, then, it was a bit of a shock when the visitors nudged ahead in the 17th minute. Following an aggressive push by midfielder Jefferson Savarino into the right side of the box, the ball was cleared back beyond the box in the middle of the field, finding midfielder Albert Rusnak. Rusnak looked to pick out a target in front of goal, but then whipped a low shot toward the left post. Goalkeeper Vito Mannone, stumbled as he looked to dive to his right and the ball trickled past him and putting RSL up 1-0. All Mannone could do was kick the post in frustration.
Barely three minutes later, though, it would be Minnesota’s turn. Again, it was Molino finding a seam through the defense, this time putting Quintero on goal ahead of a diving RSL defender. As Quintero closed on Rimando, he held up and dance the ball around the defense and past Rimando, dropping him to the ground before firing the ball back across his body and past flummoxed defenders and into the bottom right corner of the goal.
"I think I said after on the TV that if we are going to make a push from now to the end, we need our best players to come alive," said Heath. "Darwin [Quintero] is a difference maker. We know that but we need to see that on a consistent basis. We need to see him now, push on from that and if he does that will be really, really valuable for us moving forward. You hear me many, many times, talk about scoring goals and making goals and that’s why they go for the most money. That’s why you pay them the most money. It’s the hardest thing in football to do and when he does it well, he’s excellent."
With the game once again level at 1-1, the teams re-engaged and battled it out for the rest of the half without finding the back of the net, largely thanks to some heads-up defense from MNUFC and the hands of Mannone. In the 30th minute, Savarino once again wriggled his way into a sliver of space on the right side of the box off a pass from midfielder Damir Kreilach. As he dialed up the shot, Mannone came out aggressively and slid toward the attacker, raising a hand that deflected the ball out over the byline.
"I thought [in the] first half, we gave them too much space," said Heath. "I thought we could have defended even in the block that we had, I thought we could’ve been a lot further up the field. [The] line of confrontation could’ve been a little bit higher. But they possessed the ball well, they do well at getting out of from their back third into their middle third. [Damir] Kreilach is very, very smart, very experienced. [He] comes into the right pockets at the right time and gives them a bit of an overload in there. It was difficult but I thought our combination play at times in the first half was excellent when we got Robin [Lod] and Kevin [Molino] and Darwin [Quintero] on the ball because as I said, they are three of our better footballers and we need them to be on the ball creating and being as lively as they were at times."
As the second half opened, Minnesota quickly established its dominance, grabbing control of the action and refusing to relinquish it. In the 52nd minute, Darwin Quintero capitalized on a loose ball near the midfield line and took the ball himself all the way into the box, looking off a run from Toye and smelling blood in the water. As defender Nedum Onuoha backpedaled, Quintero lined it up and rifled a shot between his legs and onto the near post past the outstretched fingertips of Rimando to put Minnesota ahead 2-1.
Sensing vulnerability, the Loons piled on the chances. In the 54th minute midfielder Osvaldo Alonso corralled a long ball near the middle of the field and fired it back at RSL’s net from about 45 yards out. The ball sailed over Rimando and kissed the top of the bar as it went out — a mark of the home side’s burgeoning confidence. Minutes later, Gregus drilled another long shot from the edge of the box that ricocheted off a defender, earning the Loons a corner kick. These six minutes or so of attack took the wind out of RSL’s sails, reducing them to pinging balls ahead on the counterattack as they absorbed chances.
Once the subs started to come in around the 68th minute, it looked for a bit like the Claret-and-Cobalt might be able to put together an answer. In the 76th minute, the visitors kept up a concerted attack in Minnesota’s final third, earning set piece opportunities, but Heath responded by bringing out brace-scorer Quintero for Hassani Dotson and shifting the formation to a defensive-minded 4-1-4-1 that effectively ended Real Salt Lake’s resistance.
The final nail in the coffin came in the 83rd minute when defender Romain Metanire wrangled possession and pushed up the right wing, looking inside and seeing Ethan Finlay — who had come on in the 68th minute — alone in the middle of the park. Metanire hit the early cross as Abu Danladi — who came in with Finlay — pulled defenders wide right with him, giving Finlay plenty of time to line up a shot and fire it past Rimando on the left. His ebullient celebration ended in a knee slide that stopped short and saw him tumbling before kicking the corner flag and coming up smiling — a fitting metaphor for a Minnesota United team that began brightly, stumbled early and now finds itself once again in third place in the Western Conference with only a handful of games remaining.
"[It’s] getting people in the right spots," said Heath about the rejuvenated attack. "When you get really good attacking players and they know where to be and you can get the ball to them at the right time, it’s difficult to stop. People come in here and they try to take the middle of the field away. Well that’s okay because then we’ll go wide and you’ve got people like Romain [Metanire], who now is getting back to his best. They want to do that, that’s fine. We’ll go out wide and we’ll go up the field that way and we’ll deliver into the box that way. I thought there was some really good things to work on. It’s been a big week for us, mentally as well, to get over the disappointment of the performance in Houston. For them to respond the way they did, I’m delighted."
Minnesota United’s next game is on Sunday, September 21 as the Loons head west to face Portland Timbers FC in another game rife with playoff implications that kicks off 3:00 p.m. CT at Providence Park. That game will be on ESPN, streaming on ESPN+ and on MNUFC Radio on SKOR North.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Vito Mannone; D Romain Metanire, Ike Opara, Michael Boxall, Wilfried Moimbe-Tahrat; M Jan Gregus, Ozzie Alonso, Kevin Molino (Ethan Finlay 68’), Robin Lod, Darwin Quintero (Hassani Dotson 77’); F Mason Toye (Abu Danladi 68’)
MIN Unused Subs: GK Dayne St. Clair; D Brent Kallman; M Lawrence Olum, Miguel Ibarra
Real Salt Lake Starting XI: GK Nick Rimando; Donny Toia, Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Nedum Onuoha; M Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach (Brooks Lennon 80’), Everton Luiz, Jefferson Savarino (Joao Plata 72’), Kyle Beckerman; F Sam Johnson (Corey Baird 72’)
RSL Unused Subs: GK David Ochoa; D Marcelo Silva; M Kelyn Rowe, Luis Arriaga
17’ – Rusnak – RSL
20’ – Quintero (Molino) – MIN
51’ – Quintero – MIN
83’ – Finlay (Metanire) – MIN