By Kyle Eliason

MINNEAPOLIS — The sun rose at 5:27 a.m. on Saturday, and began baking the turf at Edor Nelson Field. Eleven hours later, the air temperature peaked at 99 degrees Fahrenheit. In the time between, the monofilament polyethylene-blend fibers and crumb-rubber infill that comprise the playing surface at the Nelly absorbed enough infrared rays to raise the temperature on the field to well-over 100 degrees at kickoff, radiating heat up through players’ boots and into the pads of their feet.

The stakes were as high as the mercury. The last two unblemished records in the NPSL North Conference were laid on the line as the two teams placed different wagers on the effect the days’ conditions would have. Med City FC opted for disciplined defending, keeping 10 men behind the ball and conserving energy for catching the Crows out in transition. Conversely, Minneapolis City SC leaned into the heat.

“Watching professional games, you see a lot of that with the top clubs — a lot of [opposing] teams try to sit in and counter,” offered Crows midfielder Max Stiegwardt. “The speed of play is the biggest thing… we don’t think they can keep up with us moving the ball from side-to-side.”

Will Kidd on the attack. Photo: Daniel Mick

The Mayhem proved Stiegwardt and company wrong — at least through the opening 45 minutes. Minneapolis managed four shots on target to the Mayhem’s none, and while there were opportunities at both ends of the field, none of the Crows’ first-half efforts on goal placed Mayhem keeper Alexander Jarvis under significant duress.

Held in check by the Mayhem’s compact defense, Minneapolis City opted to double down at halftime.

“Med City came out [in 2019], in the last game of the season, and tried to do that. Fair play to them, they got one-up, early, and were able to sit,” noted Crows head coach Matt VanBenschoten. “The difference for us this year is just the patience. We know that we’re going to get our chances. Don’t need to panic. Don’t need to do anything different. And it’s not just us [coaches] saying that. The players know that.

“We’re dominating the game. We’ve got possession of the ball. We’re playing how we want to. Stay patient, the chances will come — especially with the guys coming off our bench.” 

Ten minutes into the second half, that patience would be rewarded.

Holding possession in the attacking third with more success after the restart, the Crows worked the ball to the feet of Mister Augsburg, Lionel Vang. The creative midfielder’s footwork was a half-instant too quick for the Mayhem defense, and Vang drew contact just inside the 18-yard box.

The referee signaled for a penalty. Stiegwardt stepped up to the spot, his nerves steeled.

“I like to put my team on my back or be the guy who is going to help the next guy,” said Stiegwardt. “It’s a pleasure and an honor to be the guy behind the ball to try to make something happen.”

Max Stiegwardt celebrates the opener. Photo: Daniel Mick

Stiegwardt snapped his penalty low and left. At the same time, Jarvis dove to Stiegwardt’s right. The Crows had tallied the opening goal.

Now trailing, Med City were prompted to stretch their ranks in search of an equalizer. Meanwhile, the Crows had Kevin Anderws lying in wait.

Back in his native Minneapolis for the 2021 season after a two-year stint with Associação Desportiva de Oeiras U19 and S.U. Sintrense in Portugal, the winger received an early shower midweek. VanBenschoten subbed Andrews out of Minneapolis’ 3-2 victory over Duluth FC on Wednesday in just the 31st minute.

“It’s always a big thing when you make that decision,” VanBenschoten said. “We had a good discussion about it and I give Kevin a lot of credit for his professionalism. It just wasn’t the right fit for Duluth.”

Andrews proved the right fit to seal the Crows’ victory over the Mayhem, coming on in the 69th minute after keeping a close eye on the game.

Justin Oliver beats AJ Jarvis, but his shot hit the post. Kevin Andrews was on hand to finish. Photo: Daniel Mick

“Whenever I come in, I’m ready to go,” said Andrews. “I’m just staying focused, watching how they’re playing. Every minute that goes by, I know they’re a little-bit more tired, so when I get in, I’m ready to just go wild on them.”

VanBenschoten volunteered what he and Andrews had discussed following the Duluth game.

“We sat down this week and looked at some film, and I say, ‘Hey, if you stay higher, you get the ball in the positions that you want, rather than trying to come deep.’ Not surprising, [today] he got a goal and probably should have had one or two more.”

In the 75th minute, Crows center-forward Medo Youssef played Justin Oliver in on Med City’s goal from an acute angle. Oliver’s shot was parried across the six-yard box Jarvis. On the heels of a far-side trailing run, Andrews was first to the rebound by at least a full step, slotting home his first goal of the 2021 season.

“I could feel it coming, so just waiting for that breakthrough moment,” Andrews said. “What I’m going to be thinking about tonight is the one I didn’t get. That’s what I’m focused on — scoring more.”

“I know what he can do on the ball,” said VanBenschoten. “I know what he can do in one-versus-one situations in space.”

Andrews’ goal would be the last of the game, with Minneaplis securing a two-goal victory that gave the Crows sole-possession of first place in the North Conference.

“Duluth was a big one, but especially now that we’ve taken three points from Med City, I think they are the other two best teams in the conference,” VanBenschoten said. “Looking at this stage last year, we dropped points to Duluth and came away with a really close tie at Med City, so to have those six points in hand is really big for us.”

Stiegwardt echoed the importance of the week’s victories within the context of a 14-game conference season.

“With us being undefeated, the second time we face teams, they’re going to have to try to come out and get at us, because a tie is only going to benefit us. That’s only going to benefit what we want to do on the field.”