Star Tribune Special Sections editor Paul Duncan is in the United Kingdom visiting family - and following Minnesota United's preseason tour. He filed the following report from the first match of the tour.
Minnesota United kicked off their preseason tour of England with a somewhat flattering 3-0 win against Matlock Town on Monday evening. Christian Ramirez, Cristiano Dias, and Nate Polak scored the goals, the latter two coming after halftime.
A closely contested opening 15 minutes saw both sides cancel each other out with no clear cut chances on goal. The best chance of the opening exchanges fell to Matlock, which curled a dangerous free kick into the box that Minnesota scrambled to clear. Matlock had the ball in the net on 17 minutes but it was ruled offside. Just two minutes later, United midfielder Miguel Ibarra was put through on goal by a neat pass from Kentaro Takada, but he scuffed his shot into the goalkeeper's arms.
As the game started to open up, both sides started taking shots on goal, but there was little to trouble either keeper. Minnesota's passing game broke down on a surface that was showing signs of wear from both a rainy English winter and several games over the previous weeks.
As the half wore on, Matlock started showing increased confidence going forward, but were unable to take advantage of a series of attacks that stretched the Minnesota defense. As a few signs of frustration started creeping in; Takada was given a warning by the referee for a lunging challenge. Minutes later, United keeper Matt Van Oekel had to be alert to push away a decent effort on goal on 40 minutes; at the other end, Ibarra wriggled through Matlock's defense, only to thump his effort over the bar.
The breakthrough finally came on 42 minutes when Ramirez, composure personified, scored with a fine curling finish into the top corner. The goal seemed to settle Minnesota, which probably had not been expecting their lower league opponents to be quite as well organized, combative and competitive as they were. It also gave United a 1-0 lead at halftime.
Within a minute of the restart, Matlock had a great chance to equalize as Shaun Tuton danced his way round a series of defenders, only to hoof the ball high and wide. The second half picked up where the first left off - a few meaty challenges, some hard running by both sides. Matlock were making sure Minnesota knew they were in a game. Of English football.
Ten minutes in, coach Lagos made multiple substitutions to give as many of the squad as possible a run out - utterly confusing the linesman, who lost track of who was coming off and who was going on. Among the replacements was triallist JP Pittman, who flew in today - and consequently played with no number on his shirt. Despite the substitutions, though, there was no sign of the competitive edge going off the game on a chilly Derbyshire evening - for which a surprising number of the Minnesota contingent were underdressed.
On 65 minutes, a powerful crossfield pass to Cristiano Dias resulted in a thumping finish past Matlock's recently introduced 18-year-old keeper. Minnesota visibly grew in confidence after the second goal, and some neat interplay in the penalty area nearly led to a third, but new signing Pittman blazed over.
Matlock continued to compete for every ball, but Minnesota looked increasingly comfortable on the ball, absorbing Town's pressure. A pushing and shoving match on 81 minutes - known here as "handbags" - showed that none of Matlock's competitiveness had deserted them. And a minute later, the young keeper allowed a speculative shot from Nate Polak to slip under his dive for Minnesota's third goal.
The result was harsh on Matlock, who matched Minnesota in all areas of the pitch for significant periods of the game. For Minnesota, it was a good confidence booster for what will likely be tougher tests ahead in Stoke on Thursday and Derby next Monday.
Postgame Q&A with head coach Manny Lagos
Paul Duncan: What did you think of the performance?
Manny Lagos: It was mixed. We had a big group play today, two separate groups, and I thought ... You know, listen, it's a long [way to] travel, it's a new environment for us, and I thought the first group at times was struggling with the tempo that Matlock started the game out with, the pressure they put on. They had a couple of long balls that I thought were really dangerous. They played aware of our gaps and how we organized ourselves defensively and I think that affected our possession. We really couldn't get a rhythm going in the first half. The field is what it is, and Matlock's used to playing on this field, and it took us a while to get used to both the tempo and to a field that's been a bit weathered through the winter, probably.
PD: Were you surprised by how competitive Matlock were as a team?
ML: No, not at all. I fully expected a tough challenge and as the game went on it was nice to see some of our quality start to dictate the tempo of the game. Particularly early on I thought they did a good job of putting stress on us. Once we got the ball moving I thought we did a lot better. ... The first goal [by Christian Ramirez] was one of those nice curling finishes that let the team know we have quality. I think it was an important goal for our confidence. Then we started playing some good soccer and creating some good chances.
PD: So a good confidence booster in advance of what may be possibly sterner tests against Stoke on Thursday and Derby on Monday. Do you feel like your team's in a good place to deal with those games?
ML: I think we're in a good place to build for what we're trying to do this week. We're trying to physically challenge ourselves to get fitter and I think that will help us to play well in those games. So the long-winded answer is: Yes!
PD: And what about Matlock Town, they've been great, haven't they?
ML: Since the moment we've got here they've welcomed us. It's nice for us Americans to hear the passion that the fans have for the sport, the cleverness and the wittiness with which they observe the game - it's been fun for me as a coach to listen to some of the banter.
PD: I was talking to one of the executives here and he said, Do you think they'd let us come over and play in Minnesota?
ML: We'd love it! Any time! Just don't come in the winter.
Weird Minnesota connection of the day
The guy selling pies in the concessions stand refereed a USA Cup match in Blaine in 2004.
Quote of the day
"In the interest of international relations, I've been asked to put together a playlist of country & western songs with a sports theme. However, I've discovered that they're nothing about sports - they're all about pickup trucks." --The Matlock Town stadium announcer