Minnesota United FC coach Carl Craig tinkered with his starting lineup Saturday with the hope of generating more thrust on the offensive end.
Reigning North American Soccer League most valuable player Stefano Pinho earned his first start in a Loons uniform and provided a lift. His goal gave Minnesota a two-goal lead that became a 2-0 victory against struggling Jacksonville.
The Loons (4-1-1) bumped their unbeaten streak to five matches, this one before an announced crowd of 8,861 at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine. And they moved to first place in the spring season standings.
Craig said he felt good for Pinho, who missed the entire preseason because of injury and has been slow to find the form that made him a catalyst at Fort Lauderdale. He looked the part Saturday, making a quick turn and booting the ball home from close range in the 28th minute.
“It’s tough being a footballer when you’re not on the field,” Craig said. “When you train every day and don’t get the reward of playing on Saturday night, it can be a little soul-destroying.”
Pinho’s postgame smile revealed a soul intact.
“I’m very happy because I’m here to help my teammates,” he said.
A fourth shutout victory in the past five matches was the product of a renewed intensity. Minnesota closed on the ball well against Jacksonville (1-4-1). A week ago, the Loons settled for a 2-2 draw at Ottawa and Craig demanded a better effort.
“Carl made it very clear, it doesn’t matter how good a team is, if you give them time and space, they become amazing,” defender Kevin Venegas said.
Creating his own time and space, Venegas opened the scoring by bending a left-footed shot from about 18 yards out into the upper corner of the Armada goal in the 16th minute.
“I wanted to make sure I put my foot through the ball cleanly instead of rushing it,” Venegas said before joking, “Product placement.”
Bernardo Anor made his second start of the spring season, the first since suffering a concussion in the season opener at Carolina. And defender Damion Lowe got the nod over veteran Tiago Calvano. The duo, along with Pinho, gave Minnesota an edge in quickness at several positions.
The Armada remained snakebit when it comes to scoring. Matt Fondy showed why the team has scored a league-worst three goals. Getting behind the Minnesota defense for a chance to tie the game 1-1, Fondy missed the net. Jacksonville has gone 344 consecutive minutes without a goal.