Created: 06/07/2014 10:18 PM KSTP.com
By: KSTP Sports
On a hot and humid night in St. Petersburg, Fla., Minnesota United FC were crowned North American Soccer League Spring Season Champions.
The pressure was on for Minnesota United FC as it controlled its own destiny in the final game of the 2014 NASL Spring Season against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Minnesota fans experienced a wide range of dread to euphoric emotions as the match wore on, but United ultimately held on to a 3-3 tie to clinch the Spring.
"I just think as wide open as the game got it really characterized what we did as a team this year," said Minnesota United Head Coach Manny Lagos. "We had some great moments of soccer and had to deal with a team that was playing at home and playing desperate, but we really responded well. By no means was it a perfect game, but it characterized the attitude and the way the guys were the first half of the season."
Things started brightly for the Loons, with the team looking the likelier of the two sides from the starting whistle. The pressure paid off earlier than ever before, as United midfielder slotted a perfectly weighted ball to defender Justin Davis who looped the ball past Rowdies goalkeeper Cody Mizell in the 12th minute. Davis' first of the season triggered a celebration at capacity crowds in Twin Cities watch parties, but the early strike reinforced just how much more time had yet to be played.
In the 33rd minute, it all unraveled at the back. 2013 NASL MVP Georgi Hristov was played into space behind the United left wing and dinked the ball across goal to the far area at the top of the six yard box. Winger Blake Wagner had too much time and space, and volleyed the ball past Hildebrandt, who reacted sharply but could not keep the ball out.
With the equalizer, any momentum Minnesota had from the early game ebbed away and the Rowdies continued to take the initiative, putting the heat on the Minnesota defense and midfield. In first half stoppage time, Rowdies' forward Lucky Mkosana found the ball behind the United left and with space to run at the goal. Hildebrandt charged off his line, but the Tampa forward calmly tucked it underneath to put the Rowdies up 2-1.
That turned out to be essentially the final kick of the first half, and the Loons headed into the locker room behind after 45 minutes for the first time in the season. With the Spring title on the line, time was running out on the Loons championship hopes.
Minnesota fans would not have to wait long for a response from their team. United roared out of the half with a flurry of chances, including a searing volley that was saved dramatically by Mizell. The Loons would not be discouraged, attacking and attacking. In the 57th minute the ball was played to Jamie Watson on the side of the box. The veteran held his shot, instead putting the ball across the six yard box to Daniel Mendes who coolly slotted it home to even up the score and earning Watson his second assist of the game.
Just four minutes later, Minnesota struck again, this time after an inch perfect pass from Christian Ramirez set up Miguel Ibarra racing into the box from the right. Ibarra cut inside and smashed the ball past Mizell to put Minnesota back up by a 3-2 score.
Needing just a tie, the scoreline provided quite a bit of comfort, but there was drama left to be had in the game. Tampa earned a corner kick in the 74th minute. The resulting ball went to the far post, where it barely eluded the United defense and hit Rowdies captain Frank Sanfilippo in the shoulder. He may not have known much about it, but it didn't matter as the ball squeaked past Hildebrandt and into the corner of the net.
The Rowdies' third set up an extremely nervous final fifteen minutes for the Loons. Minnesota threatened occasionally, while Tampa had their own looks, but neither team had much in the way of chances until stoppage time, when a series of corners for Tampa raised blood pressure across Minnesota. But the Loons held, and after some expert time wasting, emerged from Tampa's challenge as the NASL Spring Season Champions.
"I am extremely proud of our team and the way we played tonight," said United President Nick Rogers. "I am so proud of how we finished out the game and got the result we needed to clinch the Spring. But we are not going to celebrate this for long, our goal has always been to win the Soccer Bowl and this is an important first step, but its just the first step. There won't be any let up from us."
The Spring Season title guarantees United a spot in the postseason. A newly created 4-team postseason that see the Spring and Fall Champions hosting first round matches.
Minnesota United returns to play an international friendly, July 4th against the Under-21 Mexico National Team at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine, Minn. United welcomes English Premier League opponent Swansea City to Minnesota, the first time a Premier League team will play in Minnesota. United kicks off the Fall Season July 12th against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Florida.
(Courtesy: Minnesota United Media Relations)