The sun set behind the buildings of downtown Minneapolis, the lower bowl and pitch of TCF Bank Stadium cast in shadow. Minnesota United FC, in their home gray and blues, stood still, waiting for the whistle to start the game. If the players were anxious after weeks of poor press and poor performances, they didn’t show it.
The motley crew of fans and supporters, mostly in black and blue, had ambled into the college football stadium over the previous hour. There was no doubt that they were all guests in this cinderblock structure across the river from downtown. On the field, the Block M in the center circle and MINNESOTA across the 18-yard boxes and the maroon seats in the stands couldn’t be covered up by the powder blue buntings and loon crests that abounded.
“I’m just so pleased for everyone connected with the team. Ownership. Supporters. Players. Everybody. It’s never easy, when you have the start we had.” Coach Heath
The supporters were gathering in “the Wonderwall”, the east end, thankful that the sun wasn’t in their eyes anymore. The stands were only half full, with an announced crowd of 17,728 being a bit generous on the number actually in the seats. The number itself was immaterial. As the night wore on and Minnesota finally shrugged off the negativity that had surrounded the club, the fans got louder and louder, pushing their team on.
During the week, Adrian Heath had spoken of this game being the “biggest in team history.” That comment hyperbolic with Minnesota having 25 unbroken years of professional soccer history with the Minnesota Thunder, Minnesota Stars, and the NASL version of United, let alone the Kicks and the Stars from the old NASL.
Still, this was a game Minnesota needed win, or at least earn a point after letting in 18 goals in the first four games. With an underwhelming Real Salt Lake visiting and with all of United’s players back from suspension and international duty, this was a great time to turn Minnesota’s season around.
Bobby Shuttleworth got the call between the posts, his third straight game in place of John Alvbåge, whose leg was cut in the home opener. The back four were the same as the Colorado game, when the Loons let in a season-low two goals: Justin Davis at left back, Francisco Calvo and Brent Kallman as the center backs, and Jerômé Thiesson on the right.
The midfield was a blend of the sides that faced Colorado and New England. Collen Warner again was the pivot, the defensive midfielder, but with Ibson as his partner, rather than Rasmus Schüller. On the wings, Kevin Molino resumed his spot on the right and Bashkim Kadrii got the call on the left.
Up top, Christian Ramirez was again target forward, a spot he earned with his goal in the season opener and Johan Venegas was again the second striker.
Real Salt Lake sent out a line-up featuring former Minnesota Stars midfielder Luke Mulholland as well as captain Kyle Beckerman, whose red card appeal was accepted by MLS. Nick Rimando returned from USMNT duty and replaced former Loon Matt Van Oekel, who had earned goalkeeper of the week honors with his role in the 0-0 draw against New York Red Bulls.
“It wasn’t the start we wanted, but I thought that showed a lot about the group tonight.” Coach Heath
Minnesota started the game strong with an early chance on goal, but Ramirez was caught offside. On the ensuing possession, Mulholland was in the right place in front of goal to put the visitors up a goal early. A cross in was well defended by Calvo, but his header went right to Mulholland, who settled the ball and put it past a diving Shuttleworth.
Calvo, captain after Vadim Demidov was demoted to the bench, might have wondered if the armband itself was cursed after watching his side go down early due to his own mistake.
Even down a goal, Minnesota still had the run of play. A well weighted ball by Venegas found an onside Ramirez. A quick reset after a foul on Ibson caught the the RSL back line out of position and a dangerous clearance gave Minnesota a corner. With each attack the tension would build, but there was no release, no goal.
Finally, the Loons had luck finally favor them, with their equalizer the result of two clearances that found Minnesotans. First, Venegas found the ball at his feet after a miss hit clearance by RSL, and then he beat two defenders in the box. His centering pass was partially blocked by Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert, but Molino was there to head the deflection into the net for his first goal in the run of play and third goal of the season.
It was a different team out on the field for Minnesota. Ibson was the point guard, calling for the ball, taking on players and finding streaking attackers all over the field. Warner was there every time Minnesota lost the ball, challenging for the ball and preventing Real to counter easily. Thiessen was on the ground often, clearing the ball out of danger. Shuttleworth was diving all over his box, keeping Real’s well-struck shots out of the goal, pushing them aside.
The first half was the first time in four games the team in gray looked to have true belief that they could compete.
Late in the half, Minnesota had another great chance. With Venegas beating his man at the midfield, only a Wingert clearance over his own goal kept Ramirez from putting the home side ahead. Then in added time, a Kadrii cross drifted dangerously close to the frame and Rimando had to punch it over. On the ensuing corner, Calvo’s header bounced hard off the turf and over the goal to end the half.
Minnesota was the aggressor again to start the second half, sending wave after wave against the deep lying RSL defense.
In the 52nd minute, Ramirez held off his defender, dropping the ball to Molino. His run split the defense and Molino’s pass found Ramirez right in on Rimando. He lofted the ball over a diving Rimando and Minnesota had their second lead of the young season.
Minnesota’s pressure didn’t relent. A Kadrii shot had to parried wide by Rimando and Ramirez couldn’t redirect a Davis cross on frame. There was a palpable feeling in the stadium that Minnesota was not done scoring for the night.
A terrible gaffe by Rimando gifted Ramirez his second goal. The USMNT goalkeeper misplayed it with his feet and Ramirez was there to dribble the ball into the goal.
Even up 3-1, the Loons weren’t done. Molino drove the ball down the right side, beating his marker and bearing down on Rimando in a two-on-one. He paused, waiting for Rimando to commit, and passed the ball off to Venegas, who buried it in the back of the net for four.
Chants of “we want five” rained down on the field from all corners of the stands and it was clear Minnesota was not willing to settle with the scoreline at 4-1. Molino again found himself in on goal alone, but his chip sailed up and over the bar.
Heath wasn’t settling for four goals, either. The first substitution was first pick overall in the MLS SuperDraft Abu Danladi for Ramirez, leaving the American striker with a brace on the night. Then, fellow goal-scorer Molino came off for Miguel Ibarra.
While the crowd was calling for another goal for Minnesota, it would be a Minnesota United defensive miscue that would gift Real Salt Lake another goal. Yura Movsisyan beat Davis to have a one-on-one with Shuttlesworth. Once the United keeper went to the ground, he lofted into the back netting to bring Real to only two down.
Asked when he thought the team had a win on their hands, Coach Heath replied, “when [the ref] blew his whistle.”
After the goal, Heath decided it was time to kill the game off. He mad his first defensive substitution, bringing in another center midfielder in the Finn Rasmus Schüller to replace forward Venegas.
After a short two minutes of added time, the whistle blew. No one was ready to let the feeling go, the team staying on the field to celebrate their with the fans. “Wonderwall” by Oasis, the source of the unofficial namesake of the supporters section, echoed across the field. A song sung first by the supporters after Minnesota victories enroute to the 2011 NASL crown, now blasted from the stadium speakers after an MLS win.
The team, the fans, the supporters, they earned this moment of joy.
— FiftyFiveOne (@FiftyFiveOne) April 2, 2017
Minnesota United 4 – Real Salt Lake 2
Stadium: TCF Bank Stadium
Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. (CDT)
Weather: 62°, Sunny
Luke Mulholland (4′)
Kevin Molino (16′)
Christian Ramirez (52′, 62′)
Johan Venegas (68′)
Yura Movsisyan (87′)
Kevin Molino (20′ Unsporting Behavior)
Francisco Calvo (34′ Unsporting Behavior)
Yura Movsisyan (49′ Dissent)
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