Minnesota came into its third match looking to see a change. Usually two games wouldn’t require soul searching, but 11 goals allowed in its first two games meant the Loons needed to drastically improve to get their season pointed in the right direction.
Colorado, boasting one of the stingiest defenses in the league, was missing two important pieces. Minnesotan Eric Miller was out with a leg injury, and also absent was 2016 Defender of the Year finalist Axel Sjöberg. The 6-foot-7 Swede will be out for two months after undergoing surgery for a hamstring injury.
Minnesota’s starting XI featured a number of changes, and contained four NASL-era Loons. As had been expected, Bobby Shuttleworth was between the pipes with John Alvbåge out for a couple weeks after receiving a laceration to his leg last weekend against Atlanta.
In central defense, Brent Kallman got his first MLS start in place of Vadim Demidov. Davis returned to the left back position after not playing the previous week. The pair joined recent signing Jérôme Thiesson and Francisco Calvo in the back line.
In midfield, Rasmus Schüller and Collin Warner were tasked with managing the center of the pitch.
Atop of the formation, Batman and Superman were reunited, with Miguel Ibarra playing on the left wing and Christian Ramirez at striker. With Johan Venegas in the second forward position and Kevin Molino out right, Minnesota offered a lot of speed in its front four.
From the opening kick off, Minnesota looked like a different team that it had in its first two contests. Within the first 10 seconds, Venegas had earned the Loons a free kick 35 yards out from the Rapids’ goal.
Minnesota came out ready to prove that the previous two weeks had been been an aberration and that the team could compete in MLS. The Loons’ players were winning the game’s little battles, forcing turnovers in dangerous spots and giving themselves chances on goal. Two brilliant opportunities came from lashing balls sent into the box that barely eluded Ramirez, the first from Molino and the next from Venegas.
Even with Minnesota owning the run of play in the first 15 minutes, it was (for a third straight game) its opposition who would strike first. Schüller tried to poke a bounding ball back to Calvo, but the pass was poor and bouncing. Calvo tried to flick the ball back over his head, but Dominique Badji put him off balance, stealing the ball and slipping it past a desperate Shuttleworth. Another Loons mistake, and another goal conceded as a result.
The Loons tried to regroup, but the mistake gave the Rapids more confidence. Colorado began to assert itself more after the goal, keeping possession, but not stretching itself in the attacking third — keeping its shape to prevent Minnesota from striking on the counter attack. But when the the Rapids had their next chance, they nearly took it. Left back Marc Burch sent in a scorching cross that found Badji in the box, who headed his shot just wide.
Minnesota could have evened the score before the half. A mistake by USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard produced a turnover near Colorado’s goal, but on the ensuing shot, Schüller couldn’t quite get all of the ball and his attempt went wide.
— Minnesota United FC (@MNUFC) March 19, 2017
In added time, Schüller took another chance on goal from the top of the box that sailed well over the frame of the goal.
One mistake was all that separated the two sides after 45 minutes. Could Minnesota finish its chances in the second half?
Adrian Heath turned to his bench at halftime for a substitution — the earliest substitution made by the head coach in his short tenure with MNUFC. Heath opted to replace Schüller with Ibson — one of the aforementioned NASL-era Loons — in a like-for-like substitution.
The substitution would provide immediate dividends, as a sequence of passes between Ibson, Ibarra, and Molino eventually worked the ball toward Warner, who was making a surprising run into Colorado’s 18-yard box. Warner was taken down by Mekeil Williams, and Molino stepped up and buried the subsequent penalty kick in the lower left corner of the net, scoring from the spot for the second-straight week.
Colorado looked to counter quickly, but Minnesota’s back four kept its line, twice stopping promising attacks with off-side traps.
Finally, after 238 minutes of MLS play, Minnesota grabbed its first lead. In the 58th minute, a beautifully weighted ball from Ibson to an overlapping Thiesson gave the Swiss right back the space to send in a cross, which Ramirez met at the near post and put past Howard.
One minute later, the Loons lost their advantage. A short clearance left the Minnesota defense disorganized, and three Colorado players found themselves all alone between the Loons’ center backs and left back Davis. All Marc Burch had to do was send the ball into that mix before Marlon Hairston wound up the lucky Rapid whose headed ball evened the score 2-2.
Minnesota’s task of holding on against Colorado was made much more difficult a few minutes later. In the 68th minute, Davis chased his own loose touch and caught Hairston in the shin with his studs, as both were challenging for the ball. The referee, seemingly slow with the whistle, was quick with a red card. As a result, Minnesota would have to make it through 22 more minutes and any added time to hold on for a point in the standings.
The Loons had already used their three substitutions, with Bashim Kadrii and Abu Danladi entering the game just minutes earlier. At the time, Heath had thought the game winnable, and had made a pair of attack-minded changes. But with his plan near-immediately upended, the Loons had dig deep and defend for the rest of the game.
At altitude, the rest of the match became a test of endurance, with Ibarra dropping to right back to allow Thiesson to switch over to the left. Time and again, Colorado threw players forward to try to break through the Loons’ makeshift defense..
But instead of breaking, the Loons hung on to earn Minnesota’s first point in MLS.
The best chance Colorado managed came in the 85th minute. A mess developed at the top of Minnesota’s penalty area, with multiple Rapids falling to the ground. The referee seemed compelled to call a foul at the edge of the box when Minnesota finally managed to clear the ball. On the ensuing free kick, Homegrown midfielder Dillon Serna found a seam in the Loons’ wall, but couldn’t keep his shot down.
Brought on as a late substitution, Alan Gordon was unable to recreate any of the late game magic he had produced with San Jose Earthquakes, and Gordon could only put a shot into the side netting off a long cross in added time.
When the whistle finally blew to end the game, Minnesota had cause to celebrate. It wasn’t a win, but stealing a point away, against a strong side was a real step forward for the Loons.
With four players set to leave for international duty (Schüller, Molino, Calvo, and Venegas), Minnesota will have to regroup again next week, but its result is something to build upon.
— FiftyFiveOne (@FiftyFiveOne) March 19, 2017
Colorado Rapids 2, Minnesota United FC 2
Stadium: Dick’s Sporting Goods Park
Kickoff: 8:00 p.m. (CST)
Weather: 69°, Clear
Dominique Badji (17′)
Kevin Molino (50′ PEN)
Christian Ramirez (58′)
Marlon Hairston (59′)
Collen Warner (Time wasting 41′)
Sam Cronin (Unsporting Behavior 56′)
Jerome Thiesson (Unsporting Behavior 64′)
Justin Davis (Serious Foul 70′)
Mekeil Williams (Unsporting Behavior 89′)
Bobby Shuttleworth (Time wasting 90’+4′)
Abu Danladi (Unsporting Behavior 90’+5′)
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