SAN JOSE, CALIF. – Minnesota United might have shipped three goals past the San Jose Earthquakes, but it was the Loons defense that stood out in a dominant 3-0 victory on Saturday night. They kept a clean sheet for the first time in their past 25 MLS matches dating back to May, courtesy of a cautious defensive game plan.
"We told ourselves that if we kept the clean sheet, we'd win the game," midfielder Jan Gregus said. "And that's what happened."
A strong showing from new center back Ike Opara effectively shut down Chris Wondolowski, Major League Soccer's No. 2 career goal scorer, while goals from Darwin Quintero and Miguel Ibarra secured the Loons' second road victory in a row.
After a promising 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps in Minnesota's season opener last weekend, coach Adrian Heath made no changes to the starting 11, and praised another cohesive performance.
"We've got a team now that's comparable to many teams in the league … now we've got a team that can compete," United coach Adrian Heath said.
Minnesota had trouble building an attack through the midfield against San Jose's aggressive man-marking scheme, but found success with the early ball in behind. Romario Ibarra had a golden opportunity to put Minnesota in front after taking Romain Metanire's incisive pass in the ninth minute, but the Ecuadorian striker couldn't beat Quakes goalkeeper Daniel Vega.
In defense, Minnesota stymied San Jose's buildup with a compact bank of four in the middle, featuring offseason additions Gregus and Ozzie Alonso. Even in its incipient stages, their midfield partnership has been remarkably solid.
"I wouldn't change them two for anybody in the league," Heath said. "Ozzie has been the best number six in this league for 10 years, and we brought a Slovakian international to come and play alongside him. I don't think it's a coincidence that we've dominated both games in possession because we've got two really good continuity players in there — people who know where to stand to get the ball, people who know when to pick the pace of the game up and when to slow it down."
The pair forced numerous turnovers that led to breakaways, but Minnesota's finishing failed throughout the first half, as Quintero, Romario Ibarra and Francisco Calvo all missed golden opportunities. They were almost made to rue these chances when Cristian Espinoza's low cross deflected onto the post for San Jose.
"We probably should have been up two or three at halftime, truth be told," Heath said. "I was thinking, 'Here we go again.'"
In the second half, however, it took the Loons just two minutes to convert when Quitero scored after the Loons were awarded a penalty kick for a hand ball after consulting VAR video replay. Not five minutes later, Miguel Ibarra curled a shot into the top corner on a quick transition.
The remaining 40 minutes were a test of Minnesota's defensive resolve as San Jose began to push numbers forward, trying to rally.
Espinoza forced a key save from Lons goalkeeper Vito Mannone and Wondolowski came close in the late moments, but Minnesota, with a late San Jose own-goal tacked on, held on to the shutout.