Star Tribune special sections editor Paul Duncan is visiting family in the UK, and following Minnesota United's preseason tour of England. He filed this report from United's final game, against second-division side Derby County, who are currently third place and in position to play off for promotion to the Premier League.
Minnesota United lost the final game of its preseason tour 2-0 to a strong Derby County side that included six players from its first-team squad.
It was the best match-up of the trip, and for most of an entertaining game, both sides were equal in terms of fitness and competitiveness - an encouraging sign for the Loons, who are building up to their season, while the Rams are two-thirds of the way through theirs.
It was clear even during the warmup that this was going to be a different test from United’s previous games against Matlock Town and Pro Player Academy; the Derby players were physically a step up from the rest of the opposition. Coached by ex-Manchester City (and Derby) player Paul Stimson, the Rams made sure Minnesota’s first-choice side were kept on their toes for the full 90 minutes. After some early Derby pressure, Minnesota got into its game and started to piece together some quality approach play. Miguel Ibarra in particular was full of running in all areas of the pitch, and forward Christian Ramirez was a constant worry for the Derby defense. At the back, keeper Mitch Hildebrandt made a couple of excellent stops to deny Derby’s physically imposing attack, including one flying save and a brave dive at the feet of Derby’s center forward, a man most of us would not care to encounter on a dark night.
Ramirez got caught offside a couple of times when played into good positions, and if you are lying down, you will be ready to receive the news that Ibarra took a shot on goal, with his left foot. Jamie Watson was in full competitive mode, making sure everyone knew when he objected to a tackle or disagreed with a decision, on one occasion telling the referee in no uncertain terms, “I got the ball first, so [redacted] off”, to laughter from both benches.
On the Minnesota sidelines, the consensus was that the better players were stepping up, and clearly not afraid to play at this level. Team president Nick Rogers turned to me and said, with a mixture of pleasure and pleasant surprise: “We look good!” And they did.
It was only a contested (and potentially offside) 80th minute goal and a 90th-minute tap-in for Derby that separated the two sides. For Minnesota United, there was certainly no shame in defeat, and more positives than negatives can be taken from a match that was all the side could have wanted in preparation for an exciting season to come.
The squad fly home tomorrow. If anyone feels like welcoming them home, their flight lands at 4:30, so be at the far end of the baggage claim hall by 5.
Audio interview with team president Nick Rogers
Duncan caught up with Rogers before the game, and they talked about team bonding, the three players on trial with United, Rogers' visit to Liverpool (the team president's favorite European club), and what the team has built - in terms of relationships and experience - through the trip: