It was a beautiful day in the State of Hockey, and though our Wild aren't playing, Minnesota United played its most important match of the season against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The teams were tied at 12 points, each with 4 wins and 1 loss, when they met in Blaine, MN at the National Sports Center.
This match needs little more buildup than the fact that these teams are vying for the Spring Season title, and this match goes a long way towards deciding that, with a six-point swing in the balance. Both teams lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Christian Ramirez up top striking for MN United, while Daniel Mendes played the right wing and Simone Bracalelllo on the left. Ibarra was the center forward. For Fort Lauderdale, Marius Ebbers was their striker, with Shawn Chin and Martin Nuñez on the right and left wings, respectively. Fafà Picault was their center forward.
The First Half
The game began with quick play- Minnesota gave up their strategy of the past two games, and were pressing forward. 6 minutes in, Cristiano Dias and Marius Ebbers collided while going for a header. Dias continued until the half-hour mark (when he was replaced by Greg Jordan), while Ebbers was replaced by Aly Hassan immediately. Just five minutes later, Thiago Calvano sent a beautiful swing pass over the defense of the Strikers. Darnell King, a Strikers defender, inadvertently handled the ball, causing a penalty kick. Simone Bracalello took the kick, and swiftly put the Loons on top, 1-0.
The rest of the first half continued as it began, with both teams making good advances, but the defenses holding strong. There were a number of good scoring chances for both teams, however the defenses and goaltenders stood strong. Maybe the most controversial moment of the match came in the 37th minute, when MNU captain Aaron Pitchkolan slid to block a shot by Carlos Salazar. Salazar anticipated the slide, and went to ground. Despite the immediate appeal for a penalty kick, the referee rightly saw that there was no contact, and did not call for one.
The Second Half
The Second half of the game continued with both teams applying pressure. Just 5 minutes in, Fort Lauderdale broke through. Fafà Picault, avoiding a standing tackle by Greg Jordan, snuck a back-heel to Shawn Chin. Chin then passed it to a wide open Martin Nuñez, who netted the ball easily to tie the game at 1. While this play did feature smart play and passing by the Strikers, Greg Jordan had a chance to save the goal if he had executed his tackle better.
The lead did not last long, however. In the 58th minute, Miguel Ibarra took a pass and sent it on to Christian Ramirez, who touched the ball into a bounce, and struck it with his left foot for a beautiful half-volley into the top-right corner. Ramirez was quoted later as saying he was surprised himself, as he normally only uses his left foot "for running on."
Discontent to sit on a one-goal cushion, the Loons continued to press, while withstanding pressure from the Strikers. Minnesota United keeper Matt Van Oekel played extremely well, as he has all season. Greg Jordan made up for his defensive lapse with some lovely aggressive passes over the middle, which required some quick work by the Strikers' defense to clear. The Strikers gave Minnesota a scare in the 67th minute, when midfielder Brian Kallman gave away a free kick just 20 yards out form goal. Van Oekel set his 6-man wall well, however, and the For Lauderdale players kicked the ball directly into the wall.
The Loons struck again in the 70th minute, when yet another long pass caught the Striker defense napping. Christian Ramirez won the volley and back-heeled it to Miguel Ibarra, who sent a left-footed shot curling around Striker net minder Oka Nikolov.
This was when the Strikers began unravelling themselves. During the course of play, a linesman's flag had come up, signaling offsides. Seeing this, many of the Strikers' defenders stopped playing, allowing Ibarra a free strike at the ball. However, the rule states that stoppage of play only occurs if the referee blows his whistle, which did not happen (as the referee did not believe the play was in fact offsides). Therefore, the goal stood. Due to their arguing with the referee, Salazar and Nuñez were both issued yellow cards, an official warning by the official.
Just 3 minutes later, Nuñez made an ill-advised tackle in the midfield on Daniel Mendes, was issued a second yellow card, and therefore sent off of the pitch (2 yellow cards is equivalent to a red card, which dictates a removal from the match). Upon Nuñez's sending-off, Darnell King of Fort Lauderdale was also issued a yellow card for arguing with the referee.
For Lauderdale, now playing a man short, continued attempting to press, however a defensive substitution by MN Coach Manny Lagos insured the Loons' lead, and the 3-1 scoreline held.
This match was immensely important for MN United for a few main reasons. Firstly, it showed that Minnesota could score through normal course of play, not solely on the counterattack. Secondly, it broke the 1-game losing streak Minnesota was on, and returned Minnesota to their winning ways. Most importantly, it sent Minnesota to the top of the table with 15 points. The second place team is the New York Cosmos (the only team to defeat MNU this season) as well as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, both with 12 points.
Minnesota United's official recap of the game can be found HERE, while Fort Lauderdale's version of events can be found HERE. The NASL's league recap is HERE, and includes all games played on Saturday.
Remember also that there are two major matches coming up in Minnesota, one in July featuring Minnesota United vs. Swansea City, and one in August featuring Barclay's Premier League Champions Manchester City against Greek champions Olympiakos.
The Loon's next home game is Saturday, May 24, against the Carolina Railhawks. Tickets can be purchased HERE.
photo courtesy of Minnesota United FC