Sep 22, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Portland Timbers defense Liam Ridgewell (24) reacts to a call during the first half against Minnesota United FC at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — Three first-half goals carried Minnesota United to its first victory in eight games, following a five-game road swing that saw the Loons collect just two points. A Romario Ibarra brace from a pair of Darwin Quintero assists preceded a rare score from central defender Michael Boxall as the hosts hit the ground running in a 3-2 win over the Portland Timbers Saturday night.
Portland (13-9-8, 47 points) did not go quietly, and a pair of second-half goals set the stage for the visitors to threaten to steal at least a point late. The specter of previous swoons was perceptible, both by MNUFC’s bench and the announced crowd of 24,525 at TCF Bank Stadium. And while there were a few anxious moments as the game wound to a close, including a straight red card to Fernando Bob one minute from full time, the Loons bent without breaking to secure all three points.
“Almost — almost,” emphasized Minnesota coach Adrian Heath, choosing to highlight the importance of the victory over his side’s performance in the second half.
“Obviously, we made it difficult for ourselves. I spoke about it at halftime on the broadcast, about not conceding too much space and not letting them dictate the pace of the game. I thought we did that too much in the second half. But when I look at the overall game, I think it’d have been a travesty if we hadn’t have won with the chances we created — especially in the first half.
“Conceivably could have been five or six up at the half.”
A fledgling chemistry starting to take flight between Romario Ibarra and Quintero was responsible for several of those early chances, with Quintero’s craft and guile putting Ibarra’s pace to good use. Unfortunately for the Loons (10-16-3, 33 points), the pairing was separated in the 39th minute when an injured hamstring forced Ibarra to the bench.
After the game, Heath wasn’t completely sure if Ibarra had picked up in the injury in the process of scoring his second goal or in the celebration that followed it.
“I hope it’s not the celebration. He’ll get fined if he did,” said Heath. “But no, I think it was with the run he put on for the goal.
“The facts were [Ibarra] could stretch the field for us, and that gave Darwin all the room in the world to play.”
Ibarra confirmed he had tweaked his hamstring in the process of shooting, and said he and the MNUFC staff would know more about the severity of his injury upon further examination on Monday.
Two minutes before the break, Rasmus Schüller chested a Minnesota corner across the penalty area, allowing Boxall to smash a half-volley past Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark.
The recently-engaged Kiwi got down on bended knee and pointed toward the stands in celebration.
“[My fiancée] said that I was going to score,” Boxall said. “I think I told her she was talking [crap], but maybe she knows a thing or two about football.
“I thought [ahead of time] about [the celebration], but the chances of me scoring, especially that close to when I did it?”
Not only was the Loons attack in top form in the first half, taking 13 shots and placing eight on target, but their defense limited the Timbers to just a single shot on target over the opening 45 minutes.
“The second half, that was our team,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said. “We came in with the right energy. We spoke in the locker room and we did the things we know we are capable of. We almost tied the game. I think we had good chances and it was a great effort.
“This is the team that we have to have. This is the team that can come out and play away and get victories because what we did in the second half was fantastic.”
It didn’t hurt Portland that first-choice XI regulars Diego Chara and Diego Valeri were inserted into the game in the 46th and 73rd minutes, respectively. Perhaps the Timbers were making use of a bit of squad rotation — as owner Merritt Paulson suggested they would earlier in the week in a since-deleted tweet — or were wary of exposing a couple of important, older players to the turf in Minneapolis.
In either case, goals from fullback Alvas Powell and midfielder Sebastián Blanco gave Portland the opportunity to compete for a result in the final 10-plus minutes.
The Timbers nearly got just that when fullback Jorge Villafaña drove to the endline and cut a ball back for Blanco, with the latter in space to loose a shot from the penalty spot. But Bob’s outstretched leg altered the flight of Blanco’s shot just enough to send the ball over the goal and out for a corner.
“It was as wake-up call in the first half,” Powell said. “Then that mentality, we brought it back in the second half. We grew even stronger after we got the first goal and it gave us confidence to get the second goal. We fought to the end. But as I said, in the first half we just gave up some easy goals. And we are going to get back to training and work on all those things.”
Not only was the win Minnesota’s first since July 22, but it was also the club’s second in a dozen tries against teams coached by Savarese.
Including Savarese’s tenure with the New York Cosmos — MNUFC and the Cosmos were both in the North American Soccer League from 2013 to 2016 — the win gives MNUFC a 2-7-4 record against Savarese as a manager.
That rivalry goes even further back, as the Minnesota Thunder — in some respects the precursor to United — lost the 1995 U.S. Interregional Soccer League championship on a last-minute goal scored by the Long Island Rough Riders off the boot of none other than Savarese.
Playing for that 1995 Thunder team were current MNUFC Sporting Director Manny Lagos and Director of Player Personnel Amos Magee.
Asked if tonight’s win was adequate payback for 1995, Lagos was diplomatic.
“I’ve seen Gio so many times since then, we’ve moved on from that,” said Lagos, also smiling. “We’ve won a couple games.”
“I wish,” Magee said laughing. “I wish that still didn’t burn — I wish this was a final.”