Minutes before every game at Allianz Field, the same hype video plays.
Dramatic shots of the stadium and players donning uniforms are interlaced with voiceovers and the eerie soundtrack of Steelfeather’s “Something in the Air,” while spotlights flash around the ground.
Normally the video plays, the starting lineup is announced, and the game begins.
Before Wednesday night’s match, which saw Minnesota United emerge victorious over the San Jose Earthquakes, something was different. On a muggy July day, as that video played, I had goosebumps — and it wasn’t because I was wearing short sleeves.
There was something in the air.
Of course, the match was, by all means, crucial for both teams. The ‘Quakes had recovered from the early struggles associated with a coaching change, and were riding a hot streak up the Western Conference. The Loons, coming off a 7-1 thrashing of FC Cincinnati, needed to display a level of consistency against fellow playoff competitors.
It was a playoff game in July, played 108 days early.
“I think it’s our most important game of the season,” said Minnesota manager Adrian Heath in a widely-circulated quote in the run-up to the game. Hence, the atmosphere.
Taking all three points — enough to put the Loons 4th in the West — Minnesota United marked one of their, if not the, best wins in the MLS era. Need proof? Look how Heath celebrated Kevin Molino’s stoppage time goal, which sealed the win:
Most important game of the season? You betcha.
It’s not just that this victory happened, though, that matters. How it came to be is just as relevant, because there was a level of systematic solidity on display Wednesday night that could put Minnesota among the best in the league.
Despite this game falling in the middle of two others — and near the start of an intimidating 7-games-in-21-days stretch of play — the Loons had a well-rehearsed game plan in place to cope with Matias Almeyda’s Earthquakes.
“With having a game Saturday, [recovery] on a Sunday, you don’t have an awful lot of time to work on it,” explained Heath. “But I thought the lads had listened. We showed them an awful lot of video ... In a couple of days, they’ve taken a lot of information on.”
Challenged to exploit San Jose’s man-marking system, Minnesota’s players rose to the occasion, playing exactly as their coach asked them to. Michael Boxall’s goal, which proved to be the game-winner, was a perfect example of planning.
He went on an awfully adventurous run for a center back, taking the ball nearly into the penalty area before scoring inside the box off his pass attempt deflected back to his own feet. “It’s just the way that San Jose play,” Boxall said. “Every other person on the field is man to man, so that leaves me and Ike [Opara] to wait for the chance to go forward.”
Systematically, the Loons were superior. “Speaking to one or two of their players after the game, they thought that we were one of the better teams that they’ve played because of the way that we went about trying to break their system down,” said Heath.
Outside of the chalkboards, the game’s intangibles were in full force.
Yet another sellout crowd showed up in full force, providing an even stronger spine for Minnesota. “It was incredible,” said defender Chase Gasper, who made his second MLS start. “And especially in the later moments of the second half ... they were applying a lot of pressure.”
Consider the following sequence: San Jose striker Danny Hoesen is undergoing an on-field concussion “test” in the penalty area in front of the Wonderwall. After a prolonged session of Hoesen counting and following the training staff’s fingers, Magnus Eriksson strolled over to the gathering to chat with the referee.
Eriksson was an aggressor in some of the game’s prior testiness, putting himself firmly on the fans’ bad side. Sure enough, the moment he crossed the halfway line, boos like no other rained down from the supporters section. Turf: defended.
As the ‘Quakes prepared to take a last minute corner, chants of M-N-UFC rained down from the entire stadium. The fans were into it.
From top to bottom — coach to player to fan — the intensity of Wednesday’s game was unmistakeable. The most important game proved to be the most impressive — proof that there really is something in the air.