In at least one way, Minnesota United FC’s match went exactly according to plan.
The Loons finished their inaugural Major League Soccer match with 53.5 percent of the possession.
Oh, United still lost by a jarring 5-1 margin to the Portland Timbers in the season opener in Portland. But that one statistic, and the benefit of a day’s hindsight, demonstrate the big loss wasn’t a complete disaster for the expansion team as it prepares for its home opener next Sunday.
Coach Adrian Heath had preached all preseason the importance of his team being a possession-minded one. And the foundation for that is there, especially as shown for most of the second half. United seemed to finally settle in and even came within striking distance of Portland with 10 minutes left after forward Christian Ramirez’s goal made it 2-1.
The problem was, though, all that possession didn’t equate to a goal until Ramirez came on as a substitute late in the match. And all that possession also didn’t seem to stop Portland’s fierce attack from capitalizing on its scoring opportunities.
“We have conceded probably three poor goals,” Heath said after the match, referring to midfielder Diego Valeri’s header to start the second half and forward Fanendo Adi’s two stoppage-time goals near the end. “And at this level and against this quality of player, you’re going to get punished.”
The other two goals, according to Heath, were not his team’s fault. One was the first score from midfielder Lawrence Olum after the referees called a free kick for Portland when Heath believed United defender Francisco Calvo was actually the one fouled. The other was Valeri’s penalty kick conceded just minutes after Ramirez’s goal. Heath said he didn’t “know if it was a penalty.”
Center-back Vadim Demidov pulled Adi back in the box to give up the kick. This was after he had been all over the forward early in the game during a corner kick and wasn’t called for a penalty.
Considering Portland’s first goal off the free kick came just two minutes after that first interaction with Demidov and Adi, it’s not surprising the call went against United.
And maybe that’s the crux of the issue. With possession in place, it seems United’s defense would do well to take fewer risks, while the offense could take quite a few more.
“They had a lot of possession, but they rarely penetrated,” Portland coach Caleb Porter said of United. “I thought overall, the back four did a really nice job of managing the counterattack, which is what we knew we would be dealing with, and managing the runs behind, which is what we knew they would look to do.”
Porter added he thought the match was closer than the result indicated. He said he told Heath after the game that the Loons were “going to beat some teams” this season.
Heath said his players started the match cautiously and weren’t playing as quickly or crisply as he would have liked. The second half showed a real improvement, with midfielders Mo Saeid and Collen Warner taking charge more, and the addition of Ramirez shifting the formation to allow forward Johan Venegas to sit a little farther back where he looked more comfortable.
But hanging on to the ball for the majority of the match is only so effective. The Loons, who next play against fellow expansion side Atlanta United FC on March 12 at TCF Bank Stadium, will need to score more goals and allow fewer.
“At the end of the day, we have to look back at the score and the result,” right back Jermaine Taylor said. “And we shot ourselves in the leg.”