By Kyle Eliason

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis City SC tallied its eighth-straight win to open the second half of its North Conference schedule with a 5-0 victory over visiting Sioux Falls Thunder FC. The contest’s particulars carried echoes of several of this season’s prior Crows victories. Specifically, Minneapolis spending a majority of the first half looking for a way to break through a compact defense sitting deep, and then augmenting its lead once a trailing opposition was forced to chase the game and stretch its shape.

“I’d like to see us score sooner than 40 minutes into it,” said Crows head coach  Matt VanBenschoten. “The idea was to come out quickly. We’re always going to have opportunities in the second half, but you’d like to see us start a little bit quicker.”

Not resting on his team’s record or the night’s lopsided scoreline, VanBenschoten speculated on his quest for continual improvement, and early first-half goals.

“This is the hard part. With so many guys, is it the starting lineup? Are there other guys that need to get looks and see if they do a bit more in the beginning? It’s a lot of theoreticals.”

Minneapolis would find a way onto the scoresheet just before halftime, via a familiar route.

Attacking midfielder Lionel Vang tallied the Crows’ first goal for the third-straight contest, after also having done so at Dakota Fusion on June 9 and at Joy St. Louis Park on June 12. And where VanBenschoten may look to tinker with his starting XI, Vang’s five goals and five assists in eight appearances speak loudly for themselves.

Another pair of Crows stating their cases were midfielder Brayan Lopez and winger Kevin Andrews.

MINNEAPOLIS, June 19, 2021 — Minneapolis City SC midfielder Brayan Lopez surveys the field against Sioux Falls Thunder FC. Image Credit: Daniel Mick Photography

Lopez started the season opener when City last met Sioux Falls, did not feature in Minneapolis’ next two NPSL games, and then came off the bench to score a crucial, game-winning goal against rival Duluth FC on May 26. Going the full 90 minutes on Saturday, Lopez notched the Crows’ second goal of the evening, pouncing on a blocked shot before snapping the ball low and into the corner of the Thunder’s goal.

“It’s really about patience with this group,” Lopez said of his role this season. “What’s important is finding the right chemistry between us. We have really good players. Honestly, training is sometimes tougher than games.”

VanBeschoten noted he was looking for Lopez’s pace and directness when picking the latter to start against Sioux Falls.

“I think as much as anyone else on this team, he can be a game-changer,” the head coach said. “Whether it’s starting or coming in off the bench, he’s always going to be effective, one way or another.”

An open question is whether Kevin Andrews’ role will be adjusted. Returning to play for his native Minneapolis after a couple years abroad in Portugal, Andrews has wreaked havoc on North Conference defenses by putting tired legs to the sword. The winger has tallied three goals and an assist in his last three substitute appearances, that combined, totaled just 78 minutes.

“To watch him come off the bench and score two goals [tonight], is… he’s a game changer,” said six-year veteran Crows midfielder Samuel Ruiz-Plaza. “He’s also a really good person. A humble kid who just wants to get after it, work hard, and do his thing.”

Asked if Andrews’ recent form put pressure on VanBenschoten against another start on the bench, the coach responded with a bit of conflicted laughter.

“He’s making it hard,” VanBenschoten said. “He’s making it really hard.”

“Everyone asks, ‘How can I get more playing time?’ My response is always, ‘How are you going to beat out the guy in front of you?’ I have to go to that guy and say, ‘Hey, you’re not as good as this guy,’ so give me those reasons and we’ll make the switch.”

MINNEAPOLIS, June 19, 20201 — Minneapolis City SC winger Kevin Andrews takes on a pair of Sioux Falls Thunder FC defenders. Image Credit: Daniel Mick Photography

Lest all the attention on a first place team go to its attack, the success of the Crows’ defense has warranted its own mention. Saturday’s clean sheet against Sioux Falls was Minneapolis’ fifth in eight games, and the Crows have only conceded six times on the year.

Having started each of the Crows’ last six contests, centerback Max Kent has had a first-hand view of his team’s stoutness at the back.

“Everyone is coming into this season having one, two, maybe three seasons under their belt — some even more. And with that comes an understanding of how to defend as a group,” Kent said.

“Sometimes it comes through possessing the ball and not giving [opponents] space on the ball. But quite frankly, it’s also the maturity of being able to say there are going to be times when we need to buckle down and just defend hard. So that’s really what’s behind it.”

Ruiz-Plaza — who has been with the Crows since their inaugural 2016 campaign — shared Kent’s thoughts on the importance of that collective experience on the team’s success this year.

“We really like each other. We love spending time with each other. We get along on the field and we understand what we’re doing,” said Ruiz-Plaza. “Seeing how the club has progressed is amazing and I’m excited for what’s to come. I really think this is only the beginning. What Minneapolis City can become is truly special.”

Kent matched Ruiz-Plaza’s high hopes for City’s long term growth with immediate demands on its current season. Having won back-to-back North Conference titles, but still yet to advance beyond the Midwest Region playoffs, Kent was also setting his sights for City high.

“That’s the expectation. That’s the bare minimum,” said Kent on going undefeated in North Conference play. “There’s nothing else other than going undefeated. I told the guys before the game, we are our own worst-enemy, and we dictate how far we go and not anyone else.”