By Kyle Eliason

ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — On Saturday evening, Minneapolis City SC traveled a short distance west on Interstate 394 to face Joy St. Louis Park for the first time. Though the hosts entered the night just six games into their inaugural NPSL season, the mood on the field suggested the two sides were old rivals. And while youth certainly had its say, it was experience that carried the day as the Crows held on to a 3-2 victory, keeping their record perfect on the season.

“We’ve had success. We’re now kind-of the dominant club in the Twin Cities, and they’re newbies. They’re trying to come in and carve out a niche,” said Crows head coach Matt VanBenschoten. “It’s always been a J.V.-varsity thing, ‘Hey, let’s show these guys, who have been here for a while, that we’re good.’”

Facing a few former Crows, including one of four players inaugurated into Minneapolis City’s Legends Club, only added to the intensity of a game that saw five cautions for unsporting behavior, four of which were earned by Joy.

“Having guys like Martin and Whitney [Browne] — great dudes and glad they’re playing again — this adds to it. Guys know each other. They want to compete. They want to win. Don’t want to lose,” noted VanBenschoten.

Through the first half of its conference schedule, Minneapolis City has conceded just six goals in seven matches. Two of those were scored by Joy. VanBenschoten offered his thoughts on trying to contain a Goats’ attack that, at time of postgame interview, trailed only his Crows for the conference lead in goals scored.

“Their front-three is really good. Their front-three is unbelievably fast. We didn’t want to play into that and set our line of competition deeper. We just said, ‘Let’s control the ball, let’s pick our moments to go forward, and just be cognizant of that fact that they’re going to try and counter on us.’”

Such an approach has its benefits, but can also be tricky for a defense. On a beautiful Minnesota summer night that helped draw a healthy crowd to Oriole Stadium, Crows centerback Jonah Garica’s voice could be heard over the din as he marshalled his teammates.

“You don’t get your chances to really defend, straight up, because we hold the ball so much,” Garcia said. “When they’re over-the-top, you just have to make sure we’re switched on and active throughout the match.

“Us, as centerbacks, as outside backs, we can get confident and comfortable on the ball. But, as soon as we turn it over, we call it our counter-press. Can we win it back in the first two or three seconds? If that’s not on, we have to call players in, return, drop our line.”

In the 21st minute, following a bit of pinball at midfield, Goats forward Emmanuel Iwe put that aforementioned pace to use, driving the ball to the end line before cutting it back to a trailing Darley Florvil. The latter lashed the ball past Crows goalkeeper Matt Elder, bringing the home crowd to life.

Come the 40th minute, Joy’s lead still stood. It was familiar territory for City. In their first trip through the North Conference slate this year, the Crows found themselves scoreless against both Med City and Sioux Falls and trailing Duluth FC at halftime, but ultimately managed nine points from those games.

“It’s just belief,” said City winger Will Kidd. “We believe we’re the better team. We believe we deserve the position we’re in. Our belief, along with our experience, I think that’s what really makes the difference.”

In the opening half’s final five minutes, the Murder swarmed.

Collecting the short clearance of a City corner, Crows dangerman Lionel Vang sent a missile of a half-volley from the edge of the Goats’ penalty area. Vang’s shot caromed off the underside of the crossbar and then goalkeeper Dawon Fairchild’s back, leveling the score.

Three minutes later, the Crows made use of a quick chain of direct play from a free kick deep in their own end, as Medo Youssef played Kidd in on Dawson from an acute angle. City’s all-time minutes leader thumped the ball past the Goats’ netminder from close range to give his team its first lead of the game.

VanBenschoten has spoken highly of the depth available to him on City’s roster multiple times this season. And it was a pair of substitutes that would combine to score what would prove the game-winner.

Where winger Kevin Andrews had used a goal to seal victory for the Crows against Med City on June 5, he opted for an assist against the Goats.

Kidd worked the ball to Andrews just outside the penalty area. Andrews then carried two Joy defenders to the goal line, and slamming on the breaks to feint an early cross, sent both out of bounds. Having created space for himself in a dangerous position, Andrews picked out Justin Oliver on the back post.

Fairchild did well to get a hand to Oliver’s header, but the referee signaled goal, ruling that the ball had broken the line.

Joy would respond in the 90th minute, as Iwe — who had done so well to set up Florvil for Joy’s first goal — put first-touch laces to a diagonal ball from Philip Caputo as the Goats’ captain capped an impressive individual performance with a goal of his own.

“My first thought was, ‘Well, this is going to be interesting for four minutes,’” VanBenschoten said. “But I have so much faith in our team, and confidence in our guys. We’re not a team to panic, even if we’re up against it. We want games where we’re going to be tested.”

As the Crows held on through added time to claim all three points, Joy’s points-per-game fell to 1.5 on the season. A parallel could be drawn to Minneapolis City’s inaugural 2016 season in the Premier League of America, in which bright flashes of talent were ample but a want of consistency left the Crows a .500 side and out of the playoff picture.

The visiting fans serenade City at the end of the game.

Kidd, who has been with the Crows since that 2016 season, reflected on City’s progress.

“We’ve gotten so much better since then. The experience on this team has really been shining this season. We know each other’s tendencies, we know how this league works, and we’re firing on all cylinders.”

Having seen out the final minutes of an oft-chippy game, three points on the road are always a welcome outcome, regardless of the route to them.

“That game right there was massive, because now we are halfway through the season and we are at 21 points,” said Garcia. “Usually it takes 21 to 22 points to seal up the league, so we’ll see where we go from here.”