ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath called tonight’s game the biggest of the Loons’ season to date, with fellow Western Conference playoff hopeful San Jose Earthquakes coming to town on the back of a six-game unbeaten streak. After the final whistle had blown, and a pair of second-half goals had lifted Minnesota to a 3-1 victory, Heath lingered on the field for an extra few moments before heading into the tunnel.
“I was so proud of the players,” Heath said. “The reason I went over to the crowd — I thought they were incredible this evening. We had them spots late on when we were under the kosh, [San Jose] were piling everybody forward, and the reaction of the crowd to every clearance and every tackle was… sometimes that’s the stuff that gets you over the line. That was my little thank you to them.
“I thought it was an incredible effort from the group against a really good team. A team that puts you under so much pressure, plays unlike any team I’ve ever played against before in my career as a player and as a coach, and I’ve been doing this a long time. But fair dues to their coach and how he sticks to his principles. He ain’t changing and they’re difficult to deal with as results of late have proved.”
In a game that could have turned on a number of pivotal moments, and wasn’t out of reach for the visitors until Loons winger Kevin Molino scored two minutes into added time, it was a bit of gamesmanship from the Quakes that ended up putting late wind under the Loons wings. Having won the pregame coin toss, the Quakes elected to defend with their backs towards Allianz Field’s safe-standing supporters’ section — the Wonderwall. Typically, it is the Loons that do so at Allianz.
“I was a bit upset not to play the first half [in front of the Wonderwall], at the beginning,” said MNUFC goalkeeper Vito Mannone. “Teams do that sometimes. They want to break your rhythm. This is the kind of team who tries everything to make you lose, on the pitch and in these little moments. But we were brilliant in the first half. And we did fantastic — [it] actually worked our way — because we defended so well second half and we had the crowd behind us to push us when the legs were a little bit jelly.
“You play many games — every three days we play a game — and some of the boys were tired. But we said if we keep a clean sheet in the second half it’s going to happen for us.”
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The game had started well for the hosts, with hold-up play from forward Angelo Rodriguez getting the better of a number of Quakes. In the fifth minute, Rodriguez would start a sequence of play running through wingers Miguel Ibarra and Ethan Finlay that would result in Darwin Quintero’s opening goal.
Over the course of Rodriguez’s 75 minutes on the field, that hold-up play would also noticeably frustrate Quakes Florian Jungwirth, Guram Kashia and Magnus Eriksson. Unable to muscle the targetman off the ball without referee Marcos de Oliveira calling a foul, the trio vocalized their unhappiness at both Rodriguez and de Oliveira — none more intensely Eriksson. That frequent dissent drew the ire of the announced sell-out crowd of 19,653 that went on to boo nearly every touch Eriksson took in the second half.
Defending as a team, the Loons kept the Quakes at arm’s reach for most of the first half, conceding just two shots on target from 12 San Jose attempts. Per leftback Chase Gasper, he and fellow rookie fullback Hassani Dotson were under strict orders to tuck in to whenever the ball was on the opposite side of the field in order to help centerbacks Ike Opara and Michael Boxall mark all-time MLS leading scorer Chris Wondolowski. To that aim, Minnesota was successful.
But just before the halftime whistle, San Jose silenced the home crowd. An Eriksson free kick struck teammate Tommy Thompson and the deflection left Mannone helpless to intervene, leveling the game at 1-1. Mannone said after the game he felt like Thompson extended his arm toward the ball, and was upset de Oliveira did not review video of the play himself given how the play swung momentum in the game. But a quick check via earpiece was all de Oliveira required to uphold the initial call.
Heath and several Loons commented after the game that in past seasons, MNUFC had not responded well to moments of bad fortune. Against San Jose on Wednesday night, it was the back line that literally stepped forward.
Quakes head coach Matías Almeyda’s commitment to man-marking, when at its best, puts opposing teams under tremendous pressure when trying to retain possession. That is its reward. Its risk is when opposing players beat their markers off the dribble, they often find ample space to attack.
Both second-half goals would come from Minnesota centerbacks taking that space. In the 52nd minute, Michael Boxall made a run with the ball that started at midfield and didn’t meet with a San Jose player until a long touch took the ball into Judson’s path near the top of the semicircle. But where fortune favored the Quakes in the first half, it scowled upon them in the second.
Judson clattered into the ball which shot back into Boxall’s path.
“[I was] just telling myself to smash it home,” Boxall said. “I saw the keeper there, but I think when he sees a big, ugly 6-[foot]-2 Kiwi running at him, he didn’t want too much of it. So yeah, I got there first.”
Jul 3, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Members of Minnesota United celebrate after defeating the San Jose Earthquakes at Allianz Field Mandatory Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports
Following Boxall’s goal, San Jose pushed forward in search of an equalizer, and would end the second half with 15 shots and six on target. Mannone was forced into a point-blank reaction save on a Danny Hoesen shot as the Quakes forward attacked Mannone’s near post in the 68th minute. In the 71st, Eriksson got an open look from the top of the 18 that Mannone held. In the 79th, a heavy touch from Valeri Qazaishvii squandered a dangerous chance from near the penalty spot. Minnesota’s attack had stalled and its defense was hanging on by the thinnest of margins with the home crowd in full voice willing it on. Bending but not breaking, the Loons kept their lead alive into added time.
Then, Opara took his chances pushing forward from the back and sprung into San Jose’s half. Bisecting the Quakes’ back line with a sharp diagonal, he put Kevin Molino in on goal and the second-half substitute snapped the ball into the far corner to seal three points for Minnesota.
“It was a massive game for us,” said Mannone. “I think we played really well against Cincinnati, and tonight was real test. It was a team that didn’t lose in [six] games, and we beat them. And we showed again some great character and great composure.
“These nights are very important for [the playoff picture], but also for confidence for the team. Building the confidence into the schedule we’re going to have and hopefully fight until the end of the playoffs.”