Center back A.J. Albers and winger Javier Alcantara scored for City, while opposing winger Mark Boquin recorded Viejos Son Los Trapos FC’s first NPSL goal, with the home team also making its league debut.
A cloudless sky set the scene for the first game played in the NPSL’s new North Conference. The gametime temperature of 80 degrees felt much warmer, coming on the heels of some of Minnesota’s diverse spring weather, and the heat was only exacerbated by James Griffin Stadium’s artificial turf.
Minneapolis City opened the game by attempting to take the initiative with a high press, while as expected, VSLT was comfortable playing the ball around its back line when in possession, and patiently waiting for its opportunities.
The game’s first scoring chance was produced by the Crows. Miles Stockman-Willis, playing as an attacking midfielder behind starting center forward Connor Stevenson, was able to dribble past his mark. Having created his own look at goal, Stockman-Willis loosed a low shot, but the effort skidded wide and to the right of the post.
City held the run of play over the game’s first 10 minutes, and both sides were doing their best to settle into the contest. Shortly thereafter, the Crows would lose a bit of their composure at the back, leading to a couple hairy scrambles for loose balls inside Minneapolis’ penalty area.
In the 13th minute, a foul from Crows center back Nate Engel led to a 30-yard free kick for Viejos. Club president and starting center back Juan Fiz swung a driven ball towards the far post. Headed for the underside of the crossbar, the shot forced a parry from City goalkeeper Matt Elder.
The next 10 minutes saw City hold a majority of possession, but the Crows were unable to string together combinations of passes in VSLT’s final third. There was intent on Minneapolis’ part of purposeful one-touch passing, but the club was not quite sharp enough to execute it early in its first competitive game of the year. Viejos, on the other hand, was content to sit back and take its chances on the counter, attacking up the channels in between City’s ranks.
Attempting to capitalize on one such chance in the 22nd minute, VSLT was quick to react to a loose ball in midfield. A through-ball played into space for forward Joshua de la Rosa bisected the Crows’ back line.
Coming out of his 18-yard box in an attempt to clear the ball, Elder got the charging de la Rosa instead, and was shown a red card for denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. The collision left de la Rosa shaken, and the forward was withdrawn from the game.
Forced to insert goalkeeper Peter Runquist into the game, City head coach Adam Pribyl elected to remove Stevenson, pushing Stockman-Willis forward and changing the Crows’ 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-1.
With over an hour left to play on a seasonally-hot day, the Crows had to abandon the high press, and VSLT seized increased control for the remainder of the half.
Viejos attacking midfielder Mauricio Mendoza Nochez, who had posed an occasional threat in the game’s first half hour, took advantage of the space provided by playing against a 10-man opposition.
Using clever movement and touches, Mendoza Nochez attempted a pair of shots in the final 15 minutes of the half. His effort in the 36th minute from just outside the 18 may have had a diving Runquist beat, but curled just outside the far post and wide of the top corner.
Reduced to attacking on the counter, City was able to trade a few chances with Viejos, but neither team was able to open scoring as the first half came to a close. Both sides looked a touch short of midseason fitness, but up a man, it was VSLT that had momentum heading into the break.
Unable to link play with 11 men in the early going, and unsuccessful on the counter on either immediate side of halftime, the Crows would turn to a set piece to draw first blood.
Center midfielder Martin Browne addressed the ball ahead of a free kick 35 yards from Viejos’ goal.
“I was at the back post and no one was guarding me,” said Albers. “I put my hand up and Martin gave me a little head-nod. I was wide open, and just tapped it in with my head.”
The assist from the elder of the Browne brothers was precise, and his center back needed to make only the slightest of adjustments to meet the ball with his head, handing the Crows a 1-0 lead.
It was not to last.
A few minutes later, a sequence of events led to VSLT’s equalizer. It started with Stockman-Willis pulling up with a leg injury, allowing Viejos to attack against nine City players. The ball was worked forward, out wide, then back in to the box where it found Boquin with his back to goal.
While the Crows were disadvantaged, it was not the lack of Stockman-Willis’ involvement that left Boquin with the room to turn while positioned between Engel and left back Nick Hinds, and shoot on goal. Given space, the winger lashed a shot into the side netting past a diving Runquist.
“Everybody worked together. Just one cross, maybe the defense for the other team was a bit weak, there,” Boquin said. “They lose track of me, I turn, take the shot — [was] the most simple thing to finish it. I was in the box, so why not?”
A few minutes after the leveling goal, Pribyl was ejected from the game following a brief conversation with the referee.
“We’re playing a man down, it’s hot out, and we’re playing on turf, and so there’s a bit of game management involved,” stated Pribyl. “They put six extra minutes on to the first half, which is unheard of in soccer. Then we had Miles go down with a hamstring injury, and they wouldn’t raise their flags to stop play. [VSLT] scored their goal when we were an extra man down. Then there’s a [VSLT] guy cramping, and they stop play so they can take care of the guy. So I waived the center [referee] over. He came over and I tried to explain myself, and he said, ‘You’re done.'”
“I didn’t swear, I didn’t call him anything. I’m just asking for a little bit thicker skin, and consistency. But what can you do?”
With the aforementioned heat wearing on the Crows, starting wingers Isaac “Goose” Friendt and Will Kidd were subbed off in favor of Whitney Browne and Javier Alcantara. The changes would prove significant.
In the 80th minute, substitute forward Tim Wills chased an errant ball into the corner, then won it off a Viejos defender. An alert Alcantara sprung forward to join the attack.
“Knowing our forwards, and their drive to get the ball…” Alcantara reflected. “Tim got the ball off the defender, and clearly, I was wide open. He slipped it in behind the defenders. I saw their goalie coming out to close it down. I chose a corner, kicked it, and it worked out.”
Alcantara’s finish was composed, after watching most of the game from the bench.
“Just knowing that we’re all part of the team, we all have to be focused. Always have to have that mentality,” Alcantara said. “Coming in, I got energy from the guy I was going in for.”
“My hat goes off to Javi. He came up big,” said Pribyl. “I told him all week, ‘You’re going to be the X-factor.’ And he came in, and he made the difference.”
The blow proved a decisive one as City was able to hold off Viejos for the final 10 minutes (plus three more of stoppage time).
The result was a frustrating one for a VSLT team that had held a majority of the ball in the second half, and kept pace — albeit 11 vs. 10 — with a City side considered by many preseason favorites to with the North Conference.
For the Crows, absent two members of the 2016 Premier League of America West Division Best XI in midfielder Ben Wexler and full back Abdallah Bah, and two former professionals in Dan O’Brien and Brian Kallman, the victory fit the circularly-reasoned cliche that champions find ways to grind out wins when not at their very best.
That is not to say the win, away from home against an opponent that battled for 90 minutes, wasn’t an important one in City’s quest for a conference title.
As to if the 2-1 scoreline was a fair reflection of his team’s performance, a battle-weary Fiz offered, “To say it’s a fair result right after the game is hard. Right now, my blood is running too hot.”
“It was very hot, and took a lot of effort. They have a good team,” Fiz continued. “It was 2-1, it was a good game, and I think we have a good chance [in the league] if we play in the same way, because they didn’t play much better than us. For now, it is what it is.”
Ahead of the match, Fiz told FiftyFive.One his benchmark of success for VSLT would be a top-two finish in the conference, but also that he would have to assess things after taking the field for the club’s first NPSL contest.
When asked if the narrow defeat had brought an adjustment of expectations, Fiz stated, “I think we’re in the right place at this moment. We just need to finish a bit more. We were a little bit unlucky. When you have three injured players — we made three subs in a way we didn’t want to — those can be key points in the game. Overall, I’m good with the work we did as a team.”
Viejos’ goalscorer Boquin shared Fiz’ belief that the early disappointment could be overcome.
“I feel, physically, we have to work on things a little bit. I felt we controlled the game, but the opportunities for the other team, they took them,” Boquin reflected. “It’s a long season, we have more games to win.”
Having returned from exile to congratulate his team, Pribyl was in good spirits.
“I told the guys there’s been a lot of stuff written, and a lot of preseason fanfare,” said Pribyl. “But that’s the nature of the offseason, especially in Minnesota. We’re all antsy to get out here. But every team is good. Everything is going to be tough. So when we’re able to grind out wins, and especially when we’re able to score two goals a man down on the road, that’s big time.”
Albers shared his head coach’s appreciation for the resilience the Crows had shown after being reduced to 10 players.
“That was great — it was a great turnout. Obviously going a man down, it was hard. But we ground out the win. It’s a great feeling.”
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Tags: Adam Pribyl, AJ Albers, Connor Stevenson, Edi Buro, Juan Fiz, Mark Boquin, Martin Browne, Matt Elder, Mauricio Mendoza Nochez, Miles Stockman Willis, Minneapolis City SC, Nick Hinds, NPSL, NPSL North, Peter Runquist, Tim Wills, Viejos Son Los Trapos FC