A season-high crowd of 651 filled the stands at Augsburg College’s Edor Nelson Field for Minneapolis’ final NPSL home game of the year, but most Crows fans left disappointed as goals from Karim Darbaki and Justin Oliver dealt City and its postseason aspirations a defeat.
Both teams ran out in some variant of a 4-5-1/4-3-3, though the TwinStars gave their center forward, Karim Darbaki, a free role — playing Darbaki as something approaching a false No. 9.
The TwinStars opened the game by looking long to wingers Oliver and Chase Wright. The duo posed a reasonable threat with their pace, but City’s back line was able to handle the pressure.
The game’s first real scoring chance came in the 13th minute as Oliver made his way down the wing on a counter, then pulled the ball back for Barinedum Kordah. The right back’s shot forced City keeper Matt Elder to dive to his right and parry the ball with one hand.
Having the run of play early, the TwinStars produced a pair of speculative efforts to round out the first 30 minutes of play. Both Christian Deaconson and Wright struck driven efforts from outside the 18-yard box that came close enough to the crossbar to draw worried exclamations from the home crowd.
As the opening half wound down, City asserted itself into the contest. A pair of increasingly close offside calls — first midfielder Abdallah Bah trying to play forward Miles Stockman-Willis in on goal, then winger Whitney Browne doing the same for Stockman-Willis — seemed to suggest a shift in momentum in Minneapolis’ favor.
Then, against the run of play, Karim Darbaki was given space on the edge of City’s 18-yard box.
“I picked my head up, and faked a cross,” said Darbaki. “I always know, when I fake a cross, the near post is open.”
Carrying through on his stated intent, Darbaki curled a ball inside the near post, up and out of the reach of Elder. The TwinStars took a 1-0 lead.
Before the half ran to a close, City winger Whitney Browne was removed from the game with a hamstring injury, replaced by Isaac “Goose” Friendt.
Suffering from a knock or two sustained in the opening 45 minutes, Minneapolis holding midfielder Ian Smith was replaced at halftime by A.J. Albers, with the latter slotting in at right center back, and starting center back Max Kent sliding forward into midfield.
Having begun the game on the bench after arriving to the field late, Martin Browne, Jr. replaced Brayan Lopez in midfield, bringing Lopez’s Crows league debut to a close after 45 minutes.
Playing with an added sense of urgency, City worked the ball forward to Stockman-Willis early. Finding space, the forward drove to the left edge of the 18-yard box, sending in a driven, low cross, which TwinStars’ keeper Sean Teske did well to hold.
Having resumed playing on its front foot, City continued to press for a goal.
“Sometimes you have to throw the kitchen sink at guys to get that equalizer,” said Minneapolis head coach Adam Pribyl. “We left ourselves a little susceptible to the counter attack.”
The TwinStars would capitalize on that vulnerability in 57th minute, as Oliver was played in on goal from midfield, and kept onside by City’s full backs while getting in behind the Crows’ center backs.
Oliver capped a patient run by slotting the ball between Elder’s legs as the keeper attempted to control the winger’s shooting angle.
Having a notable impact on the game, the TwinStars’ keeper, Teske, was key in protecting his team’s lead.
In the 65th minute, a ball sent long for Friendt might have gotten around the winger around his mark and in on goal, but Teske came off his line to sweep up 25 yards from goal.
Five minutes later, Martin Browne would play Friendt in on goal, slipping a diagonal pass into the winger’s path, but Teske again proved equal to the challenge, smothering Friendt’s shot with a trailing right leg.
Struggling to break down a TwinStars side sitting deep in defense of a two-goal lead — and facing a top keeper in Teske —City changed its formation to a 4-4-2 diamond around the 75th minute to get a second forward in front of goal.
A free kick taken by set-piece specialist Martin Browne rattled around in Minnesota’s penalty area, but was cleared. A nicely-weighted pass from Browne into the path of Friendt resulted in a scuffed shot that went wide of Teske’s near post. Second-half substitute Connor Stevenson loosed a point-blank shot on goal but was denied by Teske’s right hand as the keeper fell backward. Stevenson’s next effort was thumped wide of the near post from just outside the 18-yard box. And a misread bounce on the part of Minnesota’s defense played Stevenson in on goal from a narrow angle, and resulted in a failed attempt from the former to lob Teske.
And then, City had run out of time.
For the TwinStars, the win was a point of pride in a season that hadn’t gone quite as the club hoped, and a positive note as a young team attempts to use a bottom-half finish to build towards a stronger 2018 in the NPSL’s new North Conference.
“It was a rough season for us,” noted TwinStars head coach Youssef Darbaki. “I wasn’t supposed to coach the team this year, but had to juggle this and [our youth] academy. We had seven concussions — a lot of injuries. We’re a young team.”
“Most of these kids are academy kids and freshmen in college. I think next year, or the year after that, we’ll be a really solid team.”
On the day’s victory, Teske offered, “This game, it’s for our pride. It’s about our dignity. We don’t want to lose this game — we know a lot of these guys personally.”
For Minneapolis City, the loss meant that it no longer controlled its own destiny. Had the Crows defeated the TwinStars, a win over Med City in Rochester, Minn. on Saturday would have guaranteed a playoff berth. As a result of the defeat, the Crows will still have to take care of business in their season finale, but will also have to hope for a favorable result in either the Dakota Fusion-TwinStars game this weekend.
“Ian picking up the knock in the first half, I didn’t want to gamble with it,” Pribyl said. “We had to make a change there, and I don’t know if I made the right change. Just didn’t pan out.”
“I think we came out swinging,” said Stockman-Willis. “Their [first] goal kind of came out of nowhere, against the run of play, right before halftime. That changed the whole game. That was a real heart breaker for us, which has been a theme all season on our home field.”
City’s captain, Elder, reflected, “It is tough. We lost five games and still had our destiny in our own hands. You don’t really deserve to have it if you lose five games. We let a lot slip away, even when it’s been given back to us.”
One ray of hope for the Crows headed into Saturday is a 4-0-2 away record in conference play.
“We like road,” said Elder. “We’ve got that going for us.”
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