An Archie Maoh goal in the 64th minute spared Sioux Falls from going scoreless in the home finale of its inaugural NPSL campaign.
For the Crows, who traveled with only 13 players due to availability and injuries, the three points were a mission accomplished. For the Thunder, who went down fighting, the defeat was another bump in a turbulent but encouraging first season.
A hot afternoon set the stage and evening offered little resipte, with the temperature 88 degrees at kickoff.
Both sides made use of 4-2-3-1 formations to open the game. A key difference, and one that was immediately noticeable, was the contrast in the Thunder holding a high line and City sitting deep.
On the Crows electing to defend in their own half, Minneapolis head coach Adam Pribyl said, “Frankly, it wasn’t necessarily something we talked about a ton. I think it happened naturally because of the conditions and lack of subs.”
On Sioux Falls’ positioning, Stockman-Willis noted, “I really was surprised they were playing such a high line, especially after the first time I ran in and got called offside. I thought they would have recognized that and tried to sit a little deeper.”
City would open the scoring in the fourth minute as midfielder Martin Browne, Jr. bisected the Thunder’s back line with a diagonal pass, leading Stockman-Willis in on goal. The forward collected the ball, rounded Thunder keeper Matthew Scott, and rolled the ball into the net to give the Crows, clad in their Eradicator-pink away jerseys, an early lead.
Sioux Falls managed a pair of half-chances over the subsequent 10 minutes, shooting from outside the 18-yard twice before conceding a second goal to the Crows.
Like the game’s opening score, Minneapolis’ 16th minute goal was provided by Martin Browne to Stockman-Willis. Released at midfield, the forward was faced with a one-on-one with Scott, and finished over the keeper and into the back netting.
City remained content to sit back and strike at the Thunder on the counter, while the Thunder elected to test 19 year-old Max Kent in the air, with the center back making his second-straight start for the Crows. The latter approach bore little fruit for Sioux Falls as the Macalester College defender won more than a half-dozen headers and yielded little airspace to the Thunder.
“As much as it was a grind to get ingrained with the team, it shows that the team does a great job keeping you up on your feet,” said Kent. “It’s showing at the most important part of the season.”
Sioux Falls created its best chance of the half in the 20th minute when forward Tyler Limmer attempted to set Maoh up for a shot on goal from inside City’s penalty area, but the pass was a little ahead of Moah. Stretching, the forward got his toe to the ball, but Moah’s touch sent the ball up into Matt Elder’s hands, and the Minneapolis keeper held.
In an odd series of events that began in the 33rd minute, City’s Ian Smith was fouled on the edge of the Thunder’s penalty area. Martin Browne’s free kick went over Kent and found City center back Trey Benhart, who headed the ball off the crossbar. Before the resulting goal kick could be taken, Kent was given a yellow card for dissent, complaining about being held in the box. Additionally, the referee ordered Kent to retrieve a new jersey from the Minneapolis bench as Kent’s had been torn at the collar during the previous play.
Looking to fight their way back into the game, the Thunder opened the second half with a pair of scoring chances.
First, Limmer was played in on goal, albeit from a narrow angle, by Michael Haight, forcing a reaction save from Elder.
Shortly thereafter, Maoh was presented with a similar opportunity, and again Elder proved equal to the challenge, this time producing a kick save.
Minneapolis would plant a dagger in Sioux Falls in the 53rd minute, working a counter attack through Stockman-Willis. The forward drove the ball to penalty area, then squared it for Will Kidd, who finished back across Scott and inside the far post.
The goal came as Haight — who scored away to Minneapolis and entered the evening tied for the Thunder’s team lead with three goals on the season — was dealing with a shoulder injury that would force his departure from the game.
Down three goals, Sioux Falls might have been lacking in end product, but didn’t resign itself to a passive end to the evening.
“They way they were sitting deep, we thought we needed more pressure,” said Sioux Falls head coach Azzaro Suehne. “We changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. I think it helped us a little bit.”
“We should have had that urgency from the start,” said Thunder center back Jeffrey Beck. “It was a little too late, but it was a change of heart. We realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get it done, now.'”
Limited to a pair of substitutes and protecting a large lead, perhaps it was City electing to take a conservative approach. Perhaps it was the introduction of fresh legs on Suehne’s part. Perhaps it was a belated sense of urgency from Thunder players wanting to send their fans home with something of which to be proud. Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above. In any case, the last 30 minutes belonged to Sioux Falls.
Brice Holiday, a 53rd-minute substitution, made a significant impact for the Thunder.
Holiday whipped a free kick toward the far post in the 61st minute. The curling effort bounced once on its way wide post, and Amadu Myers’ reaction as the ball went out of bounds suggested the Thunder midfielder could have done better to apply a touch inside the six-yard box.
Sioux Falls would break its duck in the 64th minute. A ball played long for Maoh saw the forward marked by City right back Charlie Adams. The latter misjudged the flight of the ball, and missed his attempt at an interception, giving Maoh a half step. The forward took his first touch over Adams, ran onto the ball, and drilled a half-volley over Elder to give the home crowd something to cheer.
“The defenders were sitting back,” noted Maoh. “I said to myself, ‘I have to take a chance.’ Fortunately, the ball found the back of the net.”
The Thunder kept the pressure on, as Holiday again tried to pick out Myers at the back post, Holiday tried to duplicate Maoh’s goal with a half-volley of his own, and a Holiday cross found full back Eric Beltran on a nice overlapping run. But Sioux Falls was unable to further reduce Minneapolis’ lead.
Safe with a two-goal lead, and looking to run out the clock, City made a pair of late substitutions. Joey Gustafson came on at center back, pushing Kent forward into midfield. And backup goalkeeper James Neher came on as a forward in added time.
Minneapolis needed a win and got it, keeping its postseason hopes alive. The three points ensured the Crows still control their own destiny, but will likely have to defeat the Minnesota TwinStars on Wednesday at home, then beat Med City in Rochester on Saturday to reach the playoffs.
The Thunder bid farewell to their fans with a late effort, and perhaps a parallel can be drawn with their inaugural season that saw a change of head coaches and a resulting swoon. Sioux Falls can still play spoiler, as the Thunder could derail Duluth FC’s bid for the North Conference title should they take points off the BlueGreens away on Saturday. An upset win for Sioux Falls could, other results pending, even deny Duluth a postseason berth.
“We’re kind of disappointed,” said Suehne. “We wanted to give our fans a beautiful show for the end of the season but it turned out the other way around. But, in every way possible, it’s a way of preparing for next season. We’re hoping we get our act together and come out very well next year.”
The Thunder’s captain, Beck — who served as interim head coach when the two teams met earlier in the season — offered, “[The season] had its ups and downs, that’s for sure. I think we made the most of it. We have one game left, hopefully we get a result and go out with a win.”
“I thought we came out ready to go,” said Stockman-Willis, following a man-of-the-match performance that saw the forward tally a brace and an assist. “A little adversity with the road trip, two subs; we knew we had to come out going strong, right away.”
On being informed of the other North Conference results from Saturday, Stockman-Willis added, “It’s going to come down to the last day. It’s still all for us to do. We’ve got two games; we win out and we’re in the playoffs.”
“We can only control what we can control,” said Pribyl. “Came here with with a strong core group. We knew what we were getting into; it’s hot playing on turf. They ground out a result, so I’m really proud of the guys.”
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