Ahead of Minnesota United’s penalty shootout Tuesday to decide who would advance in the MLS is Back tournament, Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Andrew Tarbull was the picture of grim-faced determination.

Loons goalie Tyler Miller? All big smiles and friendly advice.

“I told our guys before just to pick your spot and stick with it and be confident,” Miller said. “I think that in PKs, a lot of it just comes down to your confidence.”

Miller’s easy disposition seemed to make a difference. His five teammates were sure in their perfect kicks past Tarbell. And Miller did his part to save one of Columbus’, helping the Loons move on to the quarterfinals against a team many pegged as the favorites to win with a 5-3 edge in penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw in regulation.

 

 

“Whatever you do, be positive,” was coach Adrian Heath’s message to his squad before the shootout. And neither Ozzie Alonso, Jan Gregus, Aaron Schoenfeld, Raheem Edwards nor Chase Gasper blinked as they approached the spot, even though Gasper had the added pressure of scoring the winner after Miller parried Columbus’ Chris Cadden’s attempt in the third round.

That actually wasn’t Miller’s only penalty save of the evening. In the 79th minute, Miller stopped Columbus striker Gyasi Zardes’ penalty kick, but he cleaned up his own rebound to equalize. That came after United center back Jose Aja, who has filled in for unavailable MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara all tournament, caught Columbus’ Derrick Etienne Jr., with a high, studs-up challenge to his shin inside the box.

Miller, though, said he doesn’t blame Aja because mistakes happen when players have to make split-second decisions. And Aja didn’t let the outcome rattle him, just like Miller.

“Our whole defensive unit that we had this entire game, I mean, we probably got out-possessed a lot,” Miller said. “But we defended as a team, and that’s what it’s going to take to win this tournament. And these one-off games are very difficult, but I think you saw collectively how strong our unit is together. And when it comes down to it, anybody’s ready to make a play.”

United indeed, managed just a tad more than 35% of the possession. Part of that was the opponent, as Columbus — which hadn’t lost a game all season and conceded only one goal before this match — is known for a dominant passing midfield. But the Loons also capitalized on an 18th-minute score after midfielder Robin Lod banked in an uncleared corner kick off the underside of the crossbar, and they packed it in defensively after that.

Boxscore: United 1, Columbus 1 (Loons win on PKs)

“I think it was the toughest opponent, for sure, in this tournament,” said Lod, who scored only his third goal for United. “And we proved ourselves and showed that we can win against anyone here.”

The Loons will now face the San Jose Earthquakes at 7 p.m. Saturday, a team they already bested 5-2 back in March before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the season.

But before that, the team is taking a moment to enjoy a hard-fought win, even if it’s alone in Orlando instead of in front of a sea of Allianz Field fans.

“We’ve got a really happy dressing room in there, singing their ‘Wonderwall’ at the end of the game,” Heath said. “As I said to them before the game, we’ve been here four weeks. What’s another two weeks going to take? Let’s stay in the competition.

“We’re here now, let’s see if we can go and win it.”

 

The Star Tribune will not be traveling to Florida this month for MLS, NBA and WNBA coverage. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the game.