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.
— Andy Greder (@andygreder) March 4, 2017
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.
— Doomm 🇲🇽 (@Futboltuitstar) March 4, 2017
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.
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.
— FiftyFiveOne (@FiftyFiveOne) March 4, 2017
Minnesota takes on Atlanta United FC on Sunday, March 12 at 4:00 p.m. CST for their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium.
Portland Timbers FC 5 – Minnesota United FC 1
Stadium: Providence Park
Kickoff: 9 p.m. (CST)
Weather: 49° Rain Showers
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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