Coming into this game, the Crows held a three point lead over a resurgent Duluth and knew that while a win would seal the title a draw would keep them in control of their title destiny. Duluth, for their part, knew that it was win or bust on their visit to the Twin Cities.
With all the play for, Minneapolis City came out firing. Head coach Adam Pribyl had pulled a surprise tactical switch, withdrawing striker Tim Wills into a creative midfield role supported by the classy pair of Max Stiegwardt and Ian Smith and surrounded by an extremely pacy attacking trident of Will Kidd, Nick Hutton and Justin Oliver.
That pace, which pushed the Duluth defense back, opened up acres of space for Wills in the middle and City went right for the jugular.
For their part, Duluth were snapping into tackles and looking to stretch City across the field but all too often the final ball was intercepted and City were on the attack.
Justin Oliver had an early chance well saved. Nick Hutton’s dynamic run required Duluth goalkeeper Jan Hoffelner into a Neuer-like clearance way out of his goal, and Wills himself found a few shooting opportunities around the 18 yard box.
But, with thirty minutes gone, it feel to fullback Abdallah Bah to open the scoring.
Bah went tearing up the sideline on the overlap, running onto Max Stiegwardt’s clever pass, cut inside and unleashed an unstoppable curler over and around Hoffelner–pure inspiration and as pretty a goal as you will see.
City kept on the front foot. Justin Oliver reeled in a long pass from Aaron Olson and his canny turn may have ended his defender’s career. Inarguably, it gave him the space to fire a shot across Hoffelner and into the far corner to double the City lead.
Out of the blue, Duluth were almost on the board.
There were mere seconds left in the half when Duluth launched a long, hopeful ball into the box. There was a touch of confusion between goalkeeper Matt Elder and his defense and, in the end, Max Kent was forced to concede a penalty to Duluth. And, with the last kick of the half, Joe Watt walked up to take the spot kick.
Elder had saved the last penalty Duluth had taken against him. And he did it again, getting down quickly to bat it away.
Duluth were down but not out, and they started the second half on a tear. It took just three minutes for them to get on the board, finishing a fine flowing move and cross to cut the lead in half.
And yet, there was such confidence in the home side that you sensed that they were unbothered by the goal. Back on the attack they went, and it took just 10 minutes to restore the two goal lead. Pace again troubled Duluth. Nick Hutton burst down the right flank and was able to cut back past two defenders to drive a ball low across the face of the goal. The onrushing Oliver made no mistake and emphatically blasted the ball into the back of the net from four yards.
Such was the back-and-forth, that Duluth weren’t done either. Nearing the 70th minute, an excellent spell of possession opened up a shooting opportunity for Rice just outside the 18 yard box. He got enough power on the ball to force a massive deflection off of Bah, and good thing–without that deflection it was right at Elder.
The City lead was cut to 3-2 with 20 to play.
The crowd, loud all game, had taken it to a decibel level that can best be described as “jet afterburner”.
A flurry of substitutions from both sides kept legs fresh, and it was from the newly introduced duo of Sekou Kromah and Juan Louis that City ended the game as a competitive affair.
Sekou, who Duluth just could not get to grips with in his 15 minutes on the field, worked a series of short passes with Louis down in the right corner and then, with a burst of pace and skill, slipped past two markers and bore down on goal. The angle with tight and he shaped to shoot, committing Hoffelner and Ryan Tyrer who was covering, which opened up a cut back to the onrushing Will Kidd.
Kidd was never going to miss from the penalty spot and he peeled away to celebrate as the ball was still curling into the net.
With 10 minutes to play, City were up 4-2 and as Sekou and Louis continued to play keep ball as the minutes ticket down, there was no question that the conference title was heading to Minneapolis.
And so it was. The referee blew the whistle and the newly crowned champions ran over to the supporters to sing and celebrate together.