Dakota head coach James Robbins set up his charges in a 4-2-3-1 to open the game. Stephen Harris started in goal behind a back four of Emran Beljulji, Osman Mberwa, Lewis Grant, and Adrian Baclawski. Faiz Musa and Christopher Kumon played as dual No. 6s in the center of midfield behind Zuheer Al Abase. Akeem Smith lined up at center forward, flanked by Sunaj Beljulji and Jacques Ncengetere.
City head coach Adam Pribyl made use of a similar shape at the onset. Matt Elder was between the posts, with Charlie Adams, A.J. Albers, Trey Benhart, and Abdallah Bah making up the Crows’ back line, from right to left. Ian “Steve” Smith sat in front of defense, with Martin Browne, Jr. in center midfield, and Ben Wexler playing in the hole behind striker Will Kidd. Isaac “Goose” Friendt started on the right wing opposite Whitney Browne.
Minneapolis held a majority of possession in the first 10 minutes, attempting to play through the middle with Wexler and Martin Browne, and occasionally testing the Dakota defense with long balls played into the corners for Friendt and Whitney Browne.
Meanwhile, Dakota was content to play the ball around its back line, and send the ball in the direction of Smith; sometimes for the target forward to hold up, and sometimes to run on to.
Full backs Adams and Bah were getting further forward than City’s wide defenders had in previous games, and Wexler and Whitney Browne were interchanging positions in an attempt to find space between Fusion’s lines.
The first dangerous chance of the game came in the 15th minute, when driven service by Adams, 30 yards out from goal, found the head of Kidd in the 18-yard box. But Kidd headed the ball just wide of the far post.
Three minutes later, Bah was fouled on the ball after cutting in from his left flank. Martin Browne curled the subsequent free kicked into the center of the box, and again service found Kidd. The forward’s header caromed off the crossbar close to the near post.
Still holding on to a scoreless contest, Dakota was sitting 10 men behind the ball by the 20th minute.
In the 24th minute, a shot ripped by Whitney Browne was met with two palms by Harris, as the Fusion keeper dove to his right. The rebound was flashed across goal by Wexler, but the ball was well out of reach of the nearest City player (Kidd).
Following a Minneapolis free kick in the 27th minute, the Crows’ center backs were caught high up the field, and Minneapolis’ midfielders failed to provide adequate cover for a quick counter sprung by Fusion. Smith bore down one-on-one with Elder, forcing a big save from the keeper, as a strong left hand momentarily limited the damage to City to just a corner.
The resulting corner kick saw the ball rattle around the edge of the penalty area before it fell to Baclawski, who ripped a low shot across Elder and inside the far post.
“When I’m walking up to the box for the corner kick, I’m playing in my mind. ‘I’m going to score a goal here,'” said Baclawski. “When the ball was played out, [Musa] was standing behind me telling me to hit it. I didn’t even look at the goal. I just hit it with my left foot and watched the ball go in. It was an amazing feeling.”
Fusion had taken the lead against the run of play, but the Crows were soon to answer.
In the 31st minute, Friendt pounced on a careless back pass, then fed the ball to Kidd. The latter weaved his way around the right edge of the box, creating his own look and drilling a waist-high line drive into the far side netting, using his left foot.
Whitney Browne would attempt to put the Crows in front in the 33rd and 34th minutes, but couldn’t beat Harris to a through ball, and moments later, sent a pull-back from Friendt over the cross bar.
In the 38th, Musa picked up a yellow card for upending Friendt, which awarded Minneapolis — and Martin Browne — a free kick at the top of the D.
Martin Browne sent a curling shot through Dakota’s wall, and out of Harris’ reach to the keeper’s right.
The goal marked the fourth Martin Browne had been involved in via free kick in City’s first four games (two goals, two assists).
Dakota nearly leveled before the half, as a botched exchange between Smith and Albers led to a turnover in Minneapolis’ final third. Smith (again) fired low, and again Elder (again) got down to his left to deny the forward.
The only change to either team was made by Robbins, who brought forward Isaac Kehson on for Sunaj Beljulji to start the second half.
Kehson would make an early impact with a a driving run down Dakota’s right flank, drawing a foul from Wexler, but Dakota’s following free kick proved inconsequential.
Where the Crows had bossed possession in the first half, they were struggling to re-establish their rhythm coming out of the break.
Around the 55th it looked like City was getting back on track, but shortly thereafter, the Fusion would strike.
A quick clearance of a City corner kick, and a missed tackle by Smith at midfield, lead to a three-on-one Fusion rush. Kehson played the ball in to his center forward, Smith, who played the ball back out to Kehson. The latter, played in on goal, finished over Elder to even the game at 2-2.
Minneapolis tried to answer in the 61st, with the elder Browne playing a precisely-weighted ball over the top of Dakota’s back line for his younger brother. Whitney Browne smashed a shot on the half volley which zipped just over the crossbar.
With 30 minutes to play — whether due to the shared belief that three points were in reach for both sides, or the presence of tired legs — the game opened up, notably.
In the 62nd, the elder Browne again sent a ball over the top for the younger, with the Whitney Browne racing onto the driven pass, and taking a touch, but lacing a shot low and wide of the left post, having cut across from the left flank to the opposite side of goal.
In the 71st minute, Dakota worked the ball into the corner along its right flank. Second-half substitute Tarr sent what may have been a cross in the direction of goal. Curling, the ball sailed over Elder, and tucked itself into the side netting just under the crossbar. With that fortuitous effort, the Fusion had taken the lead.
City sought an equalizer trying to connect long balls to Whitney Browne and Friendt, and alternately attempting build up play through substitute Miles Stockman-Willis, and sending in crosses from Bah and Adams. Protecting a lead, Dakota adopted a cautious approach.
“Once we got that third goal, we definitely sat, tried to lump stuff up to Isaac, and tried to run the clock out,” said Robbins. “Not completely out of design, more out of necessity given the score.”
City was unable to generate much in the way of offense until the game’s final minutes.
In the 87th, a layoff by Whitney Browne was laced by Frident from the top of arc, but Harris managed to knocked the shot down and gather the rebound.
Three minutes later, the ball was played ahead of Whitney Brown. The winger rounded Harris with a touch, but was forced wide by the keeper. Brown sent a firmly hit ball through the six-yard box that may have found its way inside the far post, but the effort was cleared by a sliding Grant.
In the 93rd minute, it was the elder Browne attempting to recover a point for the Crows. A bit of clever footwork by winger Javier Alcantra created space for a short back pass to Wills (both having come on late as City chased the game). Wills left a drop pass for Martin Browne, and the midfielder fired low and just wide of the near post form the edge of the 18-yard box, producing a skidding, driven shot.
A yellow card issued to Dakota for time wasting, and a free kick for City that brought Elder out of his goal, Harris collecting the ball, and the game came to an end.
“I think we’re establishing a theme,” Pribyl offered. “Possession there was 65-35, we put on more shots on goal. But we have to be able to string together a full game. The statistics tell one story, but the only statistic that matters is the end score.”
Pribyl also offered comment on his team’s ability to convert possession into goals.
“We needed to get the ball out wide,” Pribyl said. “In the second half, I think Goose touched the ball fewer times than I have fingers to count. They’re packing 10 guys in around the box. And we kept trying to feed the ball through the middle, and turn and go at six defenders. We’re not going to be successful that way.”
“The issue is, the patience goes away once we go down, and we feel like we’re chasing it. That’s tough; that’s a mentality thing.”
Goal-scorer Martin Browne reflected, “We played a good 45 [minutes]; we didn’t finish it. We had a lot of opportunities in the second half. Those guys came here to battle, so if we don’t put them away, they’re going to come back. And they got us in the end.”
While both Pribyl and Browne cited a lack of focus as decisive in postgame comments, Baclawski praised his team’s mentality.
“We’re defending really well — collectively — as a team,” the full back said. “Getting results. Staying positive on the field, not letting mistakes drag us down.”
Baclawski’s head coach Robbins was also upbeat.
“Excited for the guys. From day one they’ve wanted to show everyone that they can play. That they’re a team that people need to come and beat, if they want to pick up points,” said Robbins. “We were down at half, but we told the team at halftime, ‘We know who we are. We’re a second-half team. And if we go out there, play hard, and play for each other, we’re a tough team to beat.”
“We even told the team at half, I don’t know who’s going to win the game for us,” Robbins noted. “And it comes from Hartrick Tarr who has just gotten into training in the last couple weeks because he just finished school down in Iowa. He comes on as a sub and he provides the game-winner. It’s a team effort.”