Eight days after it played last-place Vancouver to a scoreless tie that probably should have been more, Minnesota United moved in a mere moment from fifth to second place in the Western Conference with a last-chance 1-0 victory over Portland that it might not have deserved Sunday.
Veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay’s penalty kick in second-half stoppage time at Allianz Field won it after a referee’s video review determined United’s corner kick hit Timbers defender Larrys Mabiala’s extended arm in the penalty area when both he and Loons defender Ike Opara each went to head the ball.
After review, referee Chris Penso awarded United a penalty kick two minutes into five minutes of stoppage time and Finlay muscled that 12-yard shot past a former Columbus teammate, Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark, for the winner.
Was a victory that extended its unbeaten streak in Major League Soccer and U.S. Open Cup games to 10 consecutively (8-0-2) deserved?
“Well, that’s just how it works,” Finlay said. “We’ve been on the opposite of that. It could have gone either way honestly.”
When it went United’s way, it left the Loons essentially in a three-way tie for second place with only LAFC clearly ahead of them, by 14 points. It put them seven points ahead of pursuing Portland, too. Their eight shutouts this season equal the team’s total its first two years.
“As I’ve said, we’ve done nothing,” United goalkeeper Vito Mannone said. “It’s another step toward our object. It’s a big step.”
Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese called it a “very even game” decided by “a particular situation” with which he didn’t agree. The two teams meet again at Allianz Field in three days, in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal.
“Both teams did enough to win it,” Savarese said. “And both teams, I think a tie could have been the right thing in this match.”
His team easily could have scored the game’s only goal. United goalkeeper Vito Mannone stopped Portland’s Jorge Moreira and Sebastian Blanco bang-bang in succession in the game’s 30th minute and star forward Brian Fernandez thumped a one-timed, left-footed shot from 12 yards away in the 78th minute.
“The game could have tilted the other way, and they could have 1-0 and you would have said that was a fair result,” Finlay said.
Except for United’s chances, most memorably of which was a connection between second-half subs in which Mason Toye’s sliding shot at Abu Danladi’s goal-mouth crossing pass went just wide in the 86th minute.
“We always think these even themselves out,” said United coach Adrian Heath, who called the decision dubious. “And if they do, we actually probably deserve that. The last few weeks we’ve deserved better than we’ve got in games.”
Opara immediately raised his hands and looked for the referee near game’s end when the corner kick glanced off Mabiala and bounded to the field’s far side.
“Actually, I didn’t see it,” Opara said before referring to teammate Michael Boxall. “Boxy did. Boxy went crazy. When Boxy goes crazy, I’ve got a good idea something probably happened.”
When Penso went to review and then returned pointing to the 12-yard, penalty-shot spot, Finlay stepped forward. He powered a shot aimed just inside the left post, bouncing it off Clark’s outstretch hands and into the goal.
“Obviously, we’ve got history,” Finlay said. “I’ve taken plenty of those in training against him. He has seen me go that way most often.”
Savarese wasn’t convinced Sunday’s outcome was just.
“The game was decided by a play that I’m questioning very much,” he said. “What happened at the end just makes you not understand exactly what a PK is anymore. That’s my only thing. I want to make sure I see consistency. In this case, I don’t understand.”