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Minnesota United reverses recent history with two early wins

Mar 9, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Minnesota United goalkeeper Vito Mannone (1) reaches high for the ball during the first half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Darwin Quintero scored and assisted for the second consecutive week, and for the second consecutive week Minnesota United FC took all three points. This time, it was the San Jose Earthquakes dropping points to the visiting Loons.

In a game that was level at halftime, the Quakes and Chris Wondolowski threatened to score against the run of play, but ultimately couldn’t keep pace as the Loons ran away with a game that ended 3-nil.

“I thought that the back four defended the goal really well when they put balls in the box, because we know when they’ve got balls in the box they’ve got probably one of the best forwards for his movement in the league in Wondolowski,” MNUFC coach Adrian Heath said. “I think they had one cross in the first half, and he got on the end of it when it hit the post. Overall, I thought we were well-worthy winners, we were the better team from probably minute 1 to 90.”

In honor of those three goals, three takeaways from MNUFC’s victory follow.

Recent history reversal

Minnesota United FC earned a total of five points from 17 road games last season. Two road games into their 2019 MLS campaign, the Loons now have six points, thanks to the 3-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. That start to the young season has been a reversal of recent history for MNUFC.

In keeping a clean sheet, the Loons did so for the first time since defeating Montreal 2-0 at home May 26, 2018. To find the last time MNUFC kept a clean sheet away from home, one has to look back to the 2016 season — when the team played in the second-tier North American Soccer League — and a scoreless draw with Puerto Rico FC on Oct. 8.

“I’m learning all these new facts every game. I didn’t know that either,” defender Ike Opara said when asked about MNUFC keeping its first clean sheet in nearly a year. “Last week, we got our first road win against a Western Conference opponent. I didn’t know that.

Mar 9, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski (8) attempts to find the ball as it flies between Minnesota United defenders Michael Boxall (15) and Ike Opara (3) at Avaya Stadium. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

“I think everyone is tired of the narratives that we suffered over the last couple of years. And guys are prideful, and first and foremost we want to keep clean sheets and do our best with limited opportunities. So, I think that’s where the focus has been, and we believe that we’ll hit our goals and chances going forward if we can just sustain some stability in our defensive shape.”

Looking back even further, it was 2015 when the Loons last won back-to-back games on the road. MNUFC bettered Ottawa Fury 2-1 at TD Place Stadium and the Tampa Bay Rowdies 3-1 at Al Lang Stadium in mid-August of that year.

Loons’ level still to be determined

As this is being written, MNUFC sit in second place in the West, trailing Seattle by the slightest of margins in goal differential. Consecutive road victories and a shutout have fans in justifiably high spirits. And to be clear, this is not a suggestion than fans not celebrate wins. Only a reminder that the season is still very young, and the scheduling gods have smiled upon the Loons so far.

Minnesota just beat a team that kept its roster largely intact after becoming the first team in league history to finish in 23rd place. And the Quakes were playing just their second competitive game under an all-new coaching staff, helmed by Matias Almeyda.

The latter’s fondness of man-marking cost his team dearly. Helped by the heroics of goalkeeper Daniel Vega, the Quakes kept the score level in the first half. But with Romario Ibarra, Quintero and Miguel Ibarra, the Loons offered too much pace for San Jose defenders to match as the second half wore on. Plainly, it’s hard to run stride-for-stride with a faster team for a full 90 minutes, especially if man-marking.

“Romario [Ibarra]’s pace, he’s always going to get that opportunity like he did in the first half, where he goes in one-on-one, you know. He’s very explosive, really quick and if we get the ball to [Darwin Quintero] in those holes and those pockets, he makes things happen,” Heath said.

Mar 9, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Vako (11) dribbles the ball as Minnesota United forward Romario Ibarra (11) defends during the first half at Avaya Stadium. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Looking back to MNUFC’s season-opening win a week prior, the Loons faced a Vancouver roster reshaped during the winter and playing its first competitive contest under new coach Marc Dos Santos. And while Dos Santos has had success everywhere he’s coached, he has a fair amount of work to do in Cascadia.

“Obviously, winning always breeds confidence, but I’m more concerned about the performance, the level of performance expected — and if we play like that, it’s normally enough to win games,” Heath said after Saturday’s match. “We’ve had two road games, six goals, and tonight we conceivably left a few out there because we probably should have been two or three up at halftime. So it’s been a really good performance and I’m pleased with the group, pleased with the fact that it’s a clean sheet, and it’s a good start.”

MNUFC has provided solid evidence of improvement. By contrast, with both MNUFC and the LA Galaxy picked to finish midtable in the West by many pundits this offseason, this Saturday’s game in Los Angeles offers a better test of the extent of the Loons’ progress.

Heath avoids early tinkering

Prior to Minnesota’s season opener, Designated Player Ángelo Rodríguez had not yet trained a full week while recovering from a slight injury. Rodríguez began the game on the bench with Romario Ibarra starting at forward. Though Rodríguez had a full week’s preparation ahead of the San Jose tilt, Health kept his starting XI unchanged. 

Against Vancouver, Heath had Ethan Finlay replace Rasmus Schüller, Rodríguez replace Romario Ibarra and Hossani Dotson replace Darwin Quintero. Against San Jose, only the order was adjusted. Heath had Rodríguez replace Romario Ibarra, Finlay replace Schüller and Dotson replace Quintero.

The results proved eerily similar. Against Vancouver, Minnesota got its first goal when Quintero converted from the penalty spot. Against San Jose, Minnesota got its first goal when Quintero converted from the penalty spot. And MNUFC’s dangerman recorded assists on the Loons’ second goals in both contests.

The if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach following wins is a familiar one for longtime MNUFC fans, and was a hallmark of sporting director Manny Lagos’ tenure as head coach during the team’s NASL days.

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