Duluth FC seems to have a penchant for drama in must-win situations, but once again, it all worked out in the end for the BlueGreens in their home playoff debut. The Midwest regional quarterfinal match at Denfeld ended 2-2 in regulation, and after two scoreless periods of extra time, the hosts prevailed 4-3 in the shootout to claim their first-ever NPSL playoff victory.
Team captain Kyle Farrar sealed the result for the hosts on the fifth and final attempt from the spot, sending the partisan crowd into a frenzy, but it was the dynamic duo of Jan Hoffelner and Alberto Ciroi, and their combined heroics between the posts, that ultimately stole the show and secured the BlueGreens’ passage to the next round of the postseason.
With Hoffelner in net to start, Duluth worked to establish an edge in possession and dictated the pace of play in the first few minutes, but it didn’t take long for the guests to settle into the match and challenge the German keeper with their increasingly offensive-minded behavior.
The best-looking chance came late in the first half when Anthony Bowie put a header on frame for Grand Rapids, but Hoffelner jumped high to tip the shot over for the visitors’ seventh corner kick of the half. A minute later, Hoffelner again got a hand on the ball to deflect a targeted long throw-in off the crossbar, then made the save on a follow-up shot to preserve the clean sheet through the opening 45.
Taking advantage of the halftime break, the BlueGreens picked up where Grand Rapids left off to start the second half and earned the first corner kick of the half just one minute after the restart. An onrushing Ryan Tyrer then smashed home the ensuing inswinger with a firm header to put the hosts up 1-0.
“We just talked about the adjustments and little tweaks we needed to make at halftime,” Duluth head coach Joel Person said. “We went over set pieces, both attacking and defensive, and we ended up scoring on an attacking corner. We worked on that all week, not just at halftime, and we worked on it on film, so to see all the work that we put in pay off is pretty rewarding.”
Six minutes later, after a nice bit of hold-up play from Farrar, Brooks Rice doubled the lead for Duluth. The young winger came flying up the left flank and took the ball over, knocking it ahead to himself and sprinting by the last defender before sliding a shot past Noah Fazekas to the far post for 2-0.
The match was far from over, however, and the visiting Boys in Blue cranked up the offense once again and worked themselves back into the game just before the final whistle.
Matthew Whelan, who provided a serious aerial threat throughout the game, finally stuck one past Hoffelner in the 82nd minute, halving the lead with a decisive header.
Then, a minute into added time, a desperation long ball into the box was knocked on beautifully for Kenroy Howell, who promptly ran on and smashed home the equalizer from inside the goal area.
Second-half substitute Alexis Mendez came closest to putting the match away for Grand Rapids in extra time, but the Duluth keeper was equal to both of his efforts on frame. With two minutes remaining, and the shootout looming, Person made the strategic decision to replace Hoffelner with Ciroi.
“Number one, he was the goalkeeper that won the shootout in the Open Cup to begin with, so we knew that he had a lot of good saves in him,” Person said. “And actually knowing we could run into this situation in the playoffs, we practiced penalties this week, and out of our two goalkeepers, he was the better one. Don’t get me wrong, Jan obviously played a really good game, but a penalty is a very specific skill, and Alberto was our choice for that. So we put him in, made the change, and it worked out for us.”
The first six spot-kicks all found the back of the net, but on Grand Rapids’ fourth attempt, Ciroi got the better of Trent Vegter, diving to his right to parry the ball away.
On the follow-up for Duluth, Rice kept the visitors’ hopes alive when he missed high to keep makes level at 3 a piece, but Ciroi came up huge again for the hosts on the next shot and shut the door on Joe Broekhuizen with a timely punch up and over the bar.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him, because he is a really, really good goalkeeper, and he hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time this year, so for him to get in there and win us that game is huge for him,” Person said.
In the end, there was no one better suited than Farrar to seal the win for the BlueGreens. The former All-NPSL second-teamer has struggled to fully regain his form after taking a knock early in the season, but the English striker looked like his former self throughout the match and fittingly capped a strong performance up top with the game’s final tally.
“It’s something we’ve been missing all season, especially when he was hurt,” Person said. “It’s just the timing of it. He got hurt right at the beginning of the season, and it put him back, so his fitness was lacking, and his game sharpness and game speed and all that. But as you can tell, I think in the last two games he’s really started to turn a corner, and he is getting a little closer to where he was last year. He’s also one of our team leaders, and he’s instrumental in getting the guys going, even in the locker room and off the field.”
The win sets the BlueGreens up on their third and most important date yet with North Conference champion and top seed Minneapolis City in the Midwest semifinals, and Person will be looking for an improved performance over last time out against the still unbeaten Crows.
“We’re familiar with them,” he said. “The other thing that I think will give us a little bit of a spark is that we just didn’t play very well the last time we played them. We’re capable of better than that, and the guys know that, so I think that will give us a little bit of extra effort and spark during training this week to get ready for that game. That should be a fun one.”
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