PORTLAND, Ore. – As far as inaugural matches go, Minnesota United FC’s did not go quite as well as the team would have liked.
Or, like, at all as well.
A 5-1 loss at Portland Timbers — a score that forward Fanendo Adi’s two stoppage time goals inflated Friday night — didn’t do much to dispel any of those low outside expectations many have had for the first-year MLS expansion team.
Despite the rocky defense and tame offense, the Loons still produced a few moments to remember on the historic day for the club.
Forward Christian Ramirez, who came on as a second-half substitute in the 69th minute, scored the Loons’ first MLS goal in his big-league debut. His outside-the-box strike in the 79th minute put United within one goal of Portland. Center-back Vadim Demidov yielded a penalty kick moments later, which was the first of three unanswered Portland goals in the final 10 minutes of the match. But for that small bit of time, the former North American Soccer League golden boot winner heralded a new era of goals.
And while midfielder Diego Valeri and Adi would actually end the match tied in this MLS season’s golden boot race with two goals apiece — midfielder Lawrence Olum netted the first for Portland — United still took the time after the win to savor the atmosphere. They clapped to the 150-plus fans who traveled to support the team. Forward Johan Venegas gave his jersey to a group of hopeful kids behind United’s bench.
“They’re disappointed. They’re hugely disappointed. They wanted to put a show on for our supporters,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “Our first game in the MLS, you don’t expect it to be 5-1. But hey, we knew it. This was a work in progress.”
Ramirez said when he came into the game with the score 2-0, he just wanted to give his team a chance.
“I just wanted to give us some life, down 2-0, and I thought that gave us a little bit. And then that penalty killed us,” Ramirez said. “[The locker room was a] little bit down, but we know we have a long way to go. And realistically, the score doesn’t dictate how we played, the moments that we had. So we’ll keep learning and growing from this.”
The final score, while hard to overlook, might not have been the most important part of the evening. For United, it was the team’s inaugural Major League Soccer match, marking the return of top-division soccer in the state after 40 years. And for six of the Loons’ 11 starters, it was their very first MLS match.
Starting left-back Justin Davis played in his first top-division match of his professional career. Davis joined United as the club formerly known as the NSC Minnesota Stars in 2011. Midfielder Miguel Ibarra, who had previously played in the Mexican top division, also came on late in the second half to make his MLS debut after first joining United in 2012.
Samantha Solberg, a member of one of United’s supporters groups called the Dark Clouds, said it was surreal to see such players as Davis, Ramirez and Ibarra, who she had followed since becoming a fan in 2014, on the pitch. Former North American Soccer League players Ibson, Kevin Venegas and Brent Kallman were all unused substitutes on the bench for United as well.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Solberg said. “It just felt like such a historic experience. … It just felt like this is what we had been working for.”
Team owner Bill McGuire echoed that sentiment at a Dark Clouds meet-up at a local Portland bar before the fans marched to the stadium for the match.
“We’ve known we made it because we’ve been doing so much work around this,” McGuire said. “I think people are really excited about actually doing something other than talking and reading and thinking about it. And actually, whatever happens, everybody’s just really excited to see it actually occur.”
That was another common theme among the United contingent, that the moment, for the most part, was bigger than the result.
Ben Krouse-Gagne, another Dark Clouds member, said the fans would do all they could to help the team beat those odds, including being “really, really loud,” sticking together and generally making noise for 90 minutes.
And hopefully for United, a moment like this will garner even more fans, especially if the team wants its first major league win in its home opener March 12 against fellow expansion side Atlanta United FC.
Just relishing the memory, in the end, is what it’s all about for United.
“Being here, no matter what,” Solberg said, “it’s going to be a very memorable [time].”