Minnesota United’s set-piece success propels them into quarterfinal

Jan Gregus’ free kick bee-lined to a spot parallel to the near post. Ethan Finlay met it perfectly, sticking o

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Jan Gregus’ free kick bee-lined to a spot parallel to the near post. Ethan Finlay met it perfectly, sticking out his toes to redirect it into the back of the net. Bang bang.

After the draw, teammate Chase Gasper shared it was something they had been working on. But a few days later, Finlay declined to take a bow. Maybe that’s because the winger doesn’t want to reveal any insights on how the Loons have been so successful on set pieces going into their MLS is Back Tournament quarterfinal game against San Jose at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“It wasn’t like it was a particular set play that we were trying to hit it to the near post there,” Finlay said. “But it’s really about being at the right spots; that is exactly where I was. I was in my spot, and it was making sure I could get something on the ball.”

The Loons often have been in the right spot at the right time to remain one of the final eight MLS clubs in the tournament that restarted league play after a four-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Overall this season, United has score 13 goals in six games. Here’s a breakdown of those goals:

  • Six (46 percent) were derived from set pieces — or soon following a free or corner kick. Three of those goals have come in this tournament.
  • Five (39 percent) have come in open play, including Kevin Molino’s dramatic winner in the final seconds against Kansas City on July 12.
  • Two (15 percent) can be classified as counter attacks, which has been a preferred style of play for the Loons.

On their set-piece prowess, United coach Adrian Heath said “ultimately it’s the service” — and that is Gregus often arching threatening balls into the 18-yard box. His distribution around the park has brought in four assists this year.

To jump start the Loons’ comeback against K.C., Gregus’ free kick deflected off Sporting’s Khiry Shelton body for what was technically an own goal, but it was a direct byproduct of a Minnesota attacking set piece.

Then, the early game-changer in the round of 16 match against the favored Columbus Crew on Tuesday was a Gregus corner kick that pin-balled around in the box until 6-foot-3 center back Jose Aja’s backward header went to Robin Lod, whose right foot converted a goal from a few yards out.

“People have been really determined to get on the end of it and then we haven’t given the first ball up,” Heath said. “We’ve been alive for the second one, and we’ve scored two or three goals from that.”

Minnesota has scored 11 goals against the Earthquakes in their last three matchups dating back to March 2019, including five in the Loons’ victory in California in March.

Ike Opara, the Loons’ 6-foot-2 center back, dunked on San Jose with two header goals, one apiece off the near and far posts. Gregus’ service set up both goals. On a third corner, Opara was taken down in the box to draw a penalty kick.

While Luis Amarilla’s attempt from the spot was denied, Lod seized the rebound for another goal, which can be chalked up to another set-piece genesis.

While Opara is out for the tournament, Aja’s assist on Lod’s goal has shown he can help full the void.

“I think it’s a huge advantage for us,” said goalkeeper Tyler Miller of the set pieces he gets to sit back and enjoy from the other end of the field.

The Loons might need to capitalize on another set piece Saturday because Molino, the team’s most creative attacker, and key wingback Romain Metanire are dealing with hamstring injuries. On Thursday, Heath called their availability game-day decisions.

Then there’s the curious case of new striker Luis Amarilla. The Paraguayan arrived in Minnesota with the audacious aim of scoring 25 goals in what was then going to be a 34-game season. He backed it up with two goals in the Loons’ opening two wins in March.

But warming up for the MLS is Back Tournament opener on July 12, Amarilla pulled his adductor and missed the game. He subbed in late in the scoreless draw with Real Salt Lake before starting the past two games. Lately, he hasn’t seemed near his peak.

Heath chalked some of that up to the long layoff, saying throughout the tournament he felt his team has gotten better each game.

“Not only Luis, but I don’t think as a group, we’ve got to the level that we were before the big break,” Heath said.

Before Lod scored against Columbus, he had only one goal in more than 1,000 MLS minutes with Minnesota.

“We’ve been talking about Robin Lod last week, I’ve seen a difference in him in the last couple of days, and once we get opportunities for Luis, he will score goals,” Heath said. “You don’t score the goals he has and lose that overnight. It’s a case that he’s going to have to work through it as all strikers do. I’m sure if we present him with the opportunities, he will put one or two of them away.”

Both of Amarilla’s goals in March were off headers (one in open play, another a counter attack), and if Loons get him on the end of a corner or free kick Saturday, it could reignite the striker while keeping the club’s set-piece successes going.

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