The first-ever knockout match between the two NPSL North squads began with an unexpected gut punch, regulation ended with a sending off, and the drama unfolded through the final kick as the Bluegreens defeated the Fusion 3-0 on penalties after battling through extra time to a 4-4 draw in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup.
“You never know what you’re going to get first game of the season, even though we’ve had some exhibitions, and I think we’ve learned a lot about our team,” Duluth FC head coach Joel Person said after the match. “We have a lot to fix. We have a lot to work on, so even being able to push through all that, and push through some questionable officiating decisions, I’m really proud of the guys. That was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we figured out a way to get it done. That’s the mark of a good team. If you can win even when things aren’t fully clicking, then that’s a good sign.”
The win sees Duluth advance to the second round of the Open Cup, where it will host the professional club St. Louis FC from the second-division USL.
“This is the stuff little kids dream about — being that underdog, trying to take down that pro team, and getting to host them at home,” Person said. “That’s really exciting, and kind of a bucket list thing. We’ll get a scouting report on them and take a professional approach to it. If we can fix some of the issues we had tonight, I think we’ll give them a tough game.”
The wet weather did very little to dampen the spirits of the supporters who turned out to watch the conference rivals both make their Open Cup debut, but it certainly helped speed up play throughout the match. The massive bulldog emblem in the center of the pitch, likewise, helped set the tone in a game marked by sustained intensity and plenty of goals.
In the end, Vladislav Margolin sent the Bluegreens into the second round of the cup with a little bar music as he struck the underside of the crossbar in the game’s final action.
Duluth gained an early advantage in the shootout when Santiago Garcia Castro buried the first penalty to put the hosts up. Keeper Alberto Ciroi stuffed George Gauld on Dakota’s first attempt, and Joe Watt dispatched his spot kick on the second go-around to put Duluth up 2-0. The next three shooters all skied shots to set up Margolin with the match winner.
The opening moments of the match were no less dramatic. It began with a Dakota kickoff, and it took just seconds for the Fusion to work upfield and knock the ball inside to Jeremiah Willis, who roofed the bouncing ball from inside the six to make it 1-0 in a jarring start.
It took some time for the Bluegreens to recover from the opening blow, but they eventually found their footing and looked increasingly threatening on the attack as the game wore on. After a series of near-misses midway through the half, the hosts finally broke into the Fusion safe and looted the place 15 minutes before halftime.
In the 31st minute, Joe Watt collected a ball lofted in over the top of the defense, and after quick feint to come free in the box, stuck the equalizer to the keeper’s left.
Duluth took the lead two minutes later when Kyle Farrar and Ricardo Ramos combined with a simple give-and-go in the box. Farrar laid the ball back off to Ramos, who put the hosts up 2-1.
The Bluegreens added a third in the 35th minute when Sean Morgan’s inswinging corner kick went straight in at the far post.
“I knew going into the season that one of our strengths was going to be attacking,” Person said. “I feel like this team can score goals. Now, I also feel like we have a good back line, and we’ve got solid goalkeeping as well, but we were just a little bit tentative. No excuses, we just need to play better defensively. I knew as the game went along we would create chances to score, and we did, and we scored. We just need to clean up the defensive side and the shape so that we’re not giving up so many goals.”
Any sense of comfort Duluth felt with a 3-1 lead dissipated quickly after the restart, and the dizzying scoring pace at the end of the first returned again once the second half kicked off.
In the 47th minute, 2017 NPSL Golden Ball winner Jade Johnson made his mark on the match, working himself open in the box before finishing low past Ciroi to cut the deficit to 3-2.
Johnson bagged the brace a minute later. Again, the ball sat kindly for Johnson in a small window of space inside the box, and he showed up to lash the ball past the keeper again and tie the game for a third time.
Two minutes later, with Duluth back on the offensive, Ramos completed a brace of his own when his dipping shot from near the top of the box crept under the bar and put the Bluegreens back on top 4-3.
Dakota drew level yet again in the 63rd minute when Jacob Weiler brought down a long corner kick at the far post and put it back into the crowded goal area for Gauld, who smashed home the equalizer.
Both teams saw chances develop over the final 30 minutes, but as if destined for parity, nothing could separate the sides at the end of regulation.
Just before that, in the final minute of stoppage time, a hard mid-air collision on an apparent 50-50 challenge near the touchline resulted in a straight red card for Duluth back Ivan Adika. With no substitutions remaining for Dakota and Akeem Smith down with an injury from the incident, both teams were reduced to 10 men for the remainder of the match.
“From my vantage point, that looked like a 50-50 challenge where both of them went in, and it was a fair challenge and they hit each other and fell down. I would not have made that call, and it drastically changed the game, so that was unfortunate. But again, we pushed through it and got it done, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the guys. Any time you’re up two goals and you have to go all the way through extra time to win on PKs, you don’t want to do that. But at the same time, we got it done, so I’m not going to complain about it.”
The Bluegreens have less than a week to prepare for their upcoming tilt with St. Louis FC in the second round of the tournament, and they can expect an even stiffer challenge come next week. The team will be bolstered by the addition of several more players in the meantime as the club readies for the NPSL season opener this weekend.
“We have two or three more guys coming in, but again it’s a continual challenge for me to put all the pieces of the puzzle together in a really short time,” Person said. “We’ll see how that goes. We do have more depth coming in, we are excited about the talent we have, but it’s about putting it all together.”
The NPSL regular season gets underway for Duluth when the team visits TwinStars FC on Saturday.
FiftyFive.One is now on Patreon. Do you like the independent coverage of soccer news from Minnesota and beyond that FiftyFive.One offers? Please consider becoming a patron.