If every game from here on out indeed resembles a Cup final, then Minnesota United ought build some silverware display after Saturday's needed 1-0 victory at Austin FC.
Loons coach Adrian Heath made the comparison often after a "hugely" disappointing home loss to Colorado last Sunday, when they played with an extra man and still were outscored 3-0 In those 35-plus minutes.
On Saturday, they welcomed three starters back from international duty and made Franco Fragapane's 16th-minute goal off Hassani Dotson's spinning assist stand as the winner.
They did so due to a resolve demonstrated down their defensive spine by record-tying goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who delivered his 11th clean sheet this season — as well as reunited center-backs Michael Boxall and Bakaye Dibassy and 35-year-old veteran Ozzie Alonso.
It didn't hurt Miller was helped by an Austin FC team that created chance after chance but couldn't hit an open goal, either.
Six days earlier, the Loons squandered three points that could cost them dearly come season's end. It kept them in the Western Conference seventh place and its final playoff spot.
On Saturday, they got those three points back by winning for the third time in 15 road games against a last-place, expansion Austin FC team that nonetheless had beaten the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake in its past two home games.
"Huge, huge," Heath said of those three points earned. "I thought everything we weren't last week, certainly the last half an hour, we were tonight. Really resolute, defending like our lives depended on it, which is what you have to do on the road."
The three points temporarily moved them from seventh to fifth place before Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy won late games. By night's end, they were back in seventh place, one point behind both teams. They're five points behind fourth-place Portland and a home playoff game with five regular-season games to play.
Heath called Alonso "incredible for his age and his performance" paired in a defensive midfield with Dotson when veteran and new daddy Wil Trapp stayed back in Minnesota because of family reasons.
"There was a ton of fire," Miller said afterward. "A ton of guys sacrificing their bodies and putting everything on the line to make sure we made it as difficult as possible for them tonight. From the first whistle to however long stoppage time was, you could see the fight and really commitment to a defensive mentality."
Heath praised Miller's play. He particularly noted Miller's stretching hand save that stopped forward Cecilio Dominguez's header in the game's opening minutes and Argentinian star Sebastian Driussi at game's end.
"The way the game was going at that particular time, it would have been a long way back, I feel," Heath said about Miller's early save.
Miller's 11th clean sheet this season is a personal best and ties a club record set by Vito Mannone in 2019. It comes after his season ended in midsummer a year ago when he underwent surgery on both hips.
"To get a personal best and tie a club record is something I'm proud of because of the work I put in to come back from last season's injury," said Miller, who has started every game after the team's 0-4 start. "But it's not just me. It's a testament to our defense and our defensive mentality."
Austin FC played without five injured players — including defender Ben Sweat and former Loons striker Aaron Schoenfeld — at its sparkling new Q2 Stadium. The Loons and their coach visited for the first time Saturday, 12 years after Heath helped plant the MLS seed in Austin by coaching the USL's upstart Aztex for two seasons before the franchise was moved to Orlando.
Q2 Stadium was where Austin FC had won five of its 28 games before Saturday night, but the last two came over two playoff contenders.
Before that, Austin also had beaten Portland twice, won at Colorado and beaten the Loons at Allianz Field way back in early May.
"It was a huge, huge three points," Miller said. " The way our team has been able to respond all season, you've seen the character this team has. It was a tremendous effort by everybody."
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the event.