Photo by Will Bramlett, special to FiftyFive.One


Minnesota United FC’s Debut Spoiled by the Portland Timbers 5-1

by on 3 March 2017

In a way, it doesn’t matter what the score was tonight in Portland. Minnesota was played off the pitch by a superior squad, that’s true.

It’s the multiple other watch parties around the Twin Cities and around the state bringing in new fans and giving a space for long time fans to celebrate the culmination of years of support in a state not necessarily known as a soccer hotbed.What mattered were the 150-plus Minnesota fans in Portland to cheer on the team in its first MLS match. It was the watch party at the Nomad hosted by the Dark Clouds, the fan group who helped hold together soccer support in the Twin Cities back when it looked like Minnesota might not even have a professional team for much longer.

In time, the XI who wore the badge for Minnesota might become household names for fans, loved or hated for what they’ve done for the team. Right now, this match was for the fans who followed a team that nearly ceased to exist. This match is for the former players, playing for next to nothing, who gave their all for Minnesota soccer sides that always seemed to be run on hope and not much else.

In the place of Ramirez and Ibarra were forward Johan Venegas and Danish winger Bashkim Kadrii. On the right side roamed the Loons’ biggest offseason signing, Kevin Molino. Proven MLS defensive midfielder Collen Warner patrolled the center of the pitch alongside Finnish international Rasmus Schüller and another MLS veteran, Mohammed Saeid.For this first MLS match in Minnesota United FC history, two of the biggest names in Minnesota soccer over the past few seasons, Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra, found themselves on the bench. Head coach Adrian Heath decided on a 4-3-3 heavy on MLS and international soccer experience.

The back four featured the only Loon in the starting XI who was also with the team last season, left back Justin Davis. The new central pairing of Norwegian Vadim Demidov and Costa Rican international Francisco Calvo were tasked with controlling the space in front of goal, with former Timber Jermaine Taylor to their right.

For most watching the game, what is known of these players has come from little more than a couple highlight clips and some minutes during the Portland tournament.

Before the game even started, from the north end of Providence park, the Timbers Army were in full voice and provided a great tifo to start the MLS season.

On the pitch, the Timbers showcased one of their strongest sides in years led by Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Diego Chará, and Fanendo Adi. The Timbers pushed early for the first goal, hoping to quickly put their stamp on the game. By the third minute, Diego Valeri had put a shot on the side netting and Minnesota was struggling to maintain possession.

Hints of something better for Minnesota were there in the beginning. Taylor, Molino, and Saeid had a nice interchange along the right side that ultimately resulted in a turnover. The first shot on goal by a Minnesota player came from Molino, set up by a great long ball from Calvo.

However, small successes for Minnesota couldn’t prevent the big mistake. Sebastián Blanco and Calvo took turns pushing each other to ground, fighting for a long ball along the end line, but it was Calvo who got called for the foul.

The ensuing free kick by Valeri, knocked on by a glancing header from Vytas Andriuškevičius, found Lawrence Olum on the far side of the a goal. Olum’s seeing-eye bouncing shot floated over Alvbåge into the back of the net, and Minnesota found itself down 1-0 after only 14 minutes of MLS play.

Chara would be the first to go into the book in the very young MLS season after jumping on Warner’s ankle in the middle of the field, continuing where he left off last season after he committed the most fouls in the league. Involving both his feet in the tackle, Chara presented referee Chris Penso with a bit of a soft yellow/harsh red decision, and Penso opted for the former.

The rest of the first half would be one step forward and one step back for Minnesota. After finally connecting their quick back-and-forth passes through the midfield, a cross to Davis opened up the final third and the Loons looked like they might have a decent chance on goal. Instead Molino’s shot was blocked and Portland quickly countered. Davis tried to head the ball back to Albåge, but Adi was there to steal the pass at it was only some quick thinking defending that kept Minnesota only a goal behind.

The moments that Heath has been working towards were there in the first half though. Crisp, quick passing through the middle with each player having a sense of where to put the ball to find the open man. The organization on defense, with the Loons in two tight banks of four, sandwiching Warner, was intended to absorb the tremendous attacking might of the Timbers. In attack, the Loons could never seem to make that final pass to connect with Venegas up top.

Still, in many ways, Heath had to be happy that his team walked into the tunnel at the half only down one.

That potential satisfaction quickly dissipated after the break as Valeri was able to head in Portland’s second goal just 90 seconds after the resumption of play.

Minnesota couldn’t be counted out just yet. After a prolonged run of possession for the Loons, Venegas tipped the ball to himself, before finding Molino who had drifted in centrally. A one-time pass from Molino to Kadrii led to a shot dribbled just wide of the net.

Those moments of possession didn’t seem to do much for the Loons’ defense, whose cracks began to show in the early going of the second half. Timbers runs down the wings were left unchallenged by the full backs and shots missed Minnesota’s goal by inches. The question was: could Minnesota hold it together long enough to have a chance to bring the game back within reach?

A Kadrii run into the box led to a corner for Minnesota, but Saeid’s cheeky attempt to chip goalkeeper Jake Gleeson floated over the top bar. Another Davis cross led to Liam Ridgewell conceding a corner, but a foul in the box turned the ball over.

In the 70th minute, Ramirez made his first MLS appearance, with Schüller coming off. Minnesota shifted into a 4-2-3-1, with Venegas sliding into the No. 10 role and Saeid and Warner working as the double pivot. The substitution coupled with Portland’s shift to a more defensive position gave Minnesota some of its most steady minutes in the game.

Finally, it happened for Minnesota. Venegas, comfortable in a withdrawn role, was able to gather the ball deep in the midfield before threading a perfect ball to Ramirez. A clever turn gave Ramirez the space he needed to bury his shot in the lower right corner. And just like that, Minnesota had scored its first MLS goal, with the tally coming in the 79th minute.

Then, the curse of the expansion side struck as the minutes ticked late into the match. A couple minutes after Ramirez’s goal, Valeri was able to convert a penalty after Demidov pulled down Adi in the box.

Even the substitution of Ibarra couldn’t reset the team. Saeid misplayed a ball to give Portland a four-on-three that Adi calmly finished. A second goal from Adi in added time and Minnesota would find themselves on the losing end of a 5-1 scoreline.

A game that Minnesota had a chance to make respectable, quickly spiralled out of control. With how the team would fare in its first competitive match of 2017 answered, the follow up question has become: how will the Loons react to an early stumble? It certainly wasn’t the start for which Heath was hoping.

Image Courtesy of Will Bramlett

Can the Loons pick themselves up and make a game of it at home next weekend against fellow expansion side Atlanta United? If they don’t, it could make a long first campaign in MLS feel even longer.

FiftyFive.One’s three stars

Minnesota takes on Atlanta United FC on Sunday, March 12 at 4:00 p.m. CST for their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium.

Game Statistics

Portland Timbers FC 5 – Minnesota United FC 1
Stadium: Providence Park
Kickoff: 9 p.m. (CST)
Weather: 49° Rain Showers
Scoring Summary
Lawrence Olum (14′)
Diego Valeri (47′, 82′ PEN)
Fenando Adi (91′, 93′)
Christian Ramirez (79′)
Diego Chara (Unsportsmanlike Conduct 25′)
Francisco Venegas (Disent 81′)

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  • Benjamin MacKenzie

    Disappointing score line for sure, but it still feels like that flexible attack can lead to greater strength than a rigid one.

  • Michael Clark

    Was fitness the problem at the end? It almost felt like the team gave up after the third Portland score, but they seemed to chasing attackers.

    • Matt

      I think they simply couldn’t match Portland’s intensity for the last 10 minutes. That could be part fitness, part inexperience and part having their post-Ramirez goal bubble burst by the PK.

  • Matt

    A few thoughts:
    – We were only down 2-1 with around 10 minutes left against likely one of the best teams in the league – in a tough away environment in our very first game. And that’s despite not playing all that great. Pretty encouraging.

    – The 3-goal collapse at the end wasn’t good, but not out of the realm of what you’d expect from an expansion team in their first game.

    – We clearly deserved to lose, but still miffed by the call in the corner that gave Portland the free kick that resulted in their first goal. And the PK that started the slide at the end was a bit of a dive, even though yes, his arm was pulled.

    – Discouaging, however, to see Demidov torched so badly. And Taylor needs to go. Venegas surprisingly looked weak and a non-factor up top after so much promise as a No. 9 in the preseason. We need Molino to be much more of a spark. Davis showed some promise, but worrisome judgment on the back pass to the keeper. Was hoping for more from Kadrii.

    – Huge for Ramirez to score, especially right away, to shake the “can he do it in the MLS?” question.

    – Warner was promising.

    • Jake Rueter

      I think Johan looked better in preseason when he was lined up with another player close by. Neither of Saeid or Schüller were able to connect with him, and I think that’s a big part of why we had such trouble finding our footing.

      I’m not a fan of the 4-3-3 that we ran. The bright spots we saw going forward in preseason came from quick interplay between attacking players who were able to find pockets of space. All three of the attackers were too isolated tonight.

      • Bill Stenross

        I think a lot of us expected to see something closer to that. We’ll see what happens moving forward.

  • Matt Legas

    I think it was a rough game for sure. Tough to start with a team that is ready for another trophy run, but might be good for the players to realize the intensity and focus needed to succeed at this level. Portland definitely did not quit even when they likely had the game secured after the PK. they kept driving.

    sorry if this is too long.
    The disappointing:
    – Taylor. Really poor. Looked to be stuck in molasses most of the time and was ball watching in a number of situations. He may have size but he seems indecisive. If Kevin Venegas did not look good in preseason, what did Taylor do to stand out? I would rather have pace and threat with the risk of being caught forward then the middling play of Taylor IMHO.
    – Very hesitant as a team early on. I think Inchy also noticed that. no one seemed to be getting forward. you are at the best level in the states. Play like it is a big deal each game. we are learning.
    – 4-3-3. We are just not ready, not on the same page. probably should work out of 4-4-2 transitioning to 4231. maybe when we have a better understanding of a cohesive starting 11 we can work the 4-3-3 in.
    – Focus. at 3-1 shoulders looked slumped. probably tired and drained, but some better effort. a lot of finger pointing between teammates. I just don’t like to see that in any part of a match with my team.
    – Johan V. Looks like he did not get his Wheaties. looked out of place playing up top. not any real good service caused him to stop searching for ways to aide in getting that service. There is more there but that position and role does not suit the skill set unless he is paired up top.

    The good and will get better:
    – Ramirez. Simply gifted, simply awesome. Came in and changed our attack and spirit. first goal of his season done, score your first goal. I am sure Bruce Arena likes what he saw. He is a gamer. if the game counts he is your guy.
    – Warner. solid. seemed to be the master hole-plugger with Mo all night. Still he was most dependable on the team. just too much to account for. great effort.
    – Calvo and Demidov. yes there is nothing above a 5 or 6 in match rating sense, but a new back middle is hard to develop. There were moments they looked all right. But I like the types of players we have in them. just too much in Portland’s attack to contend with.
    – The good flow second half up to Ramirez’s goal. Real nice build and passing. especially with Christian providing target and penetration. Hopefully since the first game is done they play a fuller game like this.

    Next game please.

  • Alberto Valsecchi

    Team continuity and resilience starts from the defensive line when protected by the midfielders.
    In this match I did not see MNUFC defensive organization nor the quality of defenders.

    The first responsibility is up to the coach as well to the expected lack of experience in MLS of some players.

    They must work on organization and movements between defense and midfield.
    The attacking line with Ramirez Molino and Ibarra looks already close to the level of MLS.
    With hard work and dedication MNUFC will do well in MLS

  • Clark Starr

    Oh well… would’ve been happy with the 2-1 loss. 3 goals in 14 minutes or whatever is a bit of a fluke. The outside backs were shaaaaaaaaaakey. Seemed that we struggled to transition from the back to the forwards. Love that Christian got the goal. The optics are worse than anything else.

  • Wes

    Looks like people here are feeling similar to me. 5-1 is bad. And there are some big problems (we should never have gone into the season without having two new full backs ready). That said, it’s fair to feel aggrieved on the first goal. And up until the final 10 minutes we were second best, but not terrible.
    Since that’s the case it’s easy to imagine that with improvements at full back and more time to build chemistry, this team can be decent.
    Finally, thank DETHLOON Christian got that goal. What a perfect way to inaugurate the MLS era.

  • keytoarson

    I’m not sure if this was ever addressed but why did Ibarra start on the bench?