ST. PAUL, Minn. — An end-to-end game turned on video review when referee Chris Penso awarded Minnesota United FC a penalty that winger Ethan Finlay converted during stoppage time to give the hosts a 1-0 win. While not called during the run of play, the call came after Larrys Mabiala’s outstretched arm was determined to have interfered with the ball inside the Portland Timbers’ penalty area.
With Darwin Quintero suspended due to accumulation and Kevin Molino taken off in the 77th minute, many among the announced crowd of 19,726 wondered who would take the penalty after it was awarded. There wasn’t any question in Finlay’s mind.
“It always feels good when you know the guys behind you are confident in you that you’re taking the PK, just those little things like that, when you know you have people around you that believe in you in that moment. And, obviously, I personally believe in myself,” said Finlay, adding that Loons coach Adrian Heath told him immediately after the Video Assistant Referee decision “You’re taking it.”
Finlay’s sent his penalty to Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark’s right, and while Clark got fingers to the ball at full stretch, he was unable to turn it around the post.
After the final whistle, Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri received a verbal warning for sarcastically applauding the referee. Additionally, Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese crossed the field to have a word with Penso.
The win gave Minnesota a 3-2 series lead in MLS play against Portland since the Loons joined the league in 2017. The home team has won each of those matchups.
“I thought we’d get a dubious last-minute penalty,” Heath joked. “It was like a training session at the end: attack against defense; who was going to get the break? And we got it, today. I feel for them a little bit because I know if we’d been on the receiving end of the penalty, we’d have been probably a little disappointed. But you know, we always think that these even themselves out, and as they do, we actually probably deserved that. Maybe not today, but over the last few weeks we’ve deserved better than we’ve got out of games.”
Minnesota goalkeeper Vito Mannone recorded his eighth clean sheet of 2019, bettering the seven clean sheets MNUFC earned over its first two MLS seasons. Following the game, Mannone credited his defense and mentioned the strong play of centerback Ike Opara in particular.
Asked for his thoughts on the cause of the Loons’ defensive improvement after conceding 70-plus goals in 2017 and 2018, Opara offered one word: “Pride.”
“I refuse to pick up the ball 70 times out of the net,” Opara said. “We’re tired of it. We’ve set a goal to keep as many clean sheets and to try to keep the goals allowed as low as possible.”
On the other end of the ball, the Loons have played more than 210 minutes without a goal from open play, dating to a 57th-minute goal from Darwin Quintero against Real Salt Lake on July 20. In the last two games, MNUFC has sent in 57 crosses and tallied just five shots on target. As he did following Minnesota’s 0-0 draw with Vancouver July 27, Heath attributed his teams attacking swoon to a final pass that has often gone missing.
“I don’t think our final ball was the right ball, at times,” Heath said. “But as I said, I can’t fault the players for their determination to see it through to get a result.”
With the result, MNUFC moved into second place in the Western Conference. The Loons are now unbeaten in their last 10, including both MLS and U.S. Open Cup play. For the latter competition, both teams will regroup to face one another in three days time. The Timbers will remain in Minnesota until Wednesday’s rematch at Allianz Field. That U.S. Open Cup semifinal, with the added restriction of only five non-domestic players available for selection per team, will force both Heath and Savarese to make changes. Tired legs may as well. Both teams struggled to get up and down the field at the end of a humid 86-degree Sunday.
For the Loons, strength in depth has defined its cup run.
“We’re going to have to probably call upon some guys who, you know, maybe played some minutes today, and some guys who didn’t play any minutes to set up for us in that Open Cup.” Finlay said. “That’s been really the backbone of our run in Open Cup is those guy’s setting up.
“I’m excited about it. This team and this organization is going to continue to make strides in the league, but we also want to win an Open Cup. And I think we’ll put out a really, really good lineup.”
Heath was asked about the lineup Portland is likely to field for that match and if he has concerns.
“About eight players for them,” Heath quipped.
One player likely to feature for the Timbers is Jeremy Ebobisse. The forward, who came on in the second half of Sunday’s game, set up Brian Fernández for a shot that struck Mannone’s left post and produced a gasp from the home crowd.
“He was really able to help Fernández get another number up top, so Fernández wasn’t doing it all on his own” Opara said of Ebobisse. “Jeremy was able to penetrate [via] runs, and he’s good at what he does when he’s out there. He’s probably not as natural out there [as Fernández], but I think he’s adjusted well. It’ll be curious to see where he plays on Wednesday.”