By Kyle Eliason

MINNEAPOLIS — On a night when Minneapolis City SC raised the NPSL North Conference trophy for a third-straight season, and celebrated fifty club appearances for both goalkeeper Matt Elder and fullback Charles Adams, it also suffered its first dropped points of the year. Visiting Joy St. Louis Park, playing the final game of its inaugural NPSL campaign, took all three on the strength of a 3-2 final scoreline.

The Crows’ average margin of victory across its five-previous regular-season home contests was a healthy 3.4 goals per game. But on Saturday, City never gained the lead, falling behind in the 50th minute, and then, twice inside the final 10 minutes of regulation, found itself chasing from two goals behind.

Late heroics punctuated by a debut goal from Steevenson Lamarre as well as a tally from Luis “Gato” Magana Cisneros were not enough to salvage a draw, having thrice been struck on the counter by Joy.

The tension proved thrilling for the 1.137 spectators who passed through the gates at Edor Nelson Field on a beautiful Minnesota summer evening that cast long shadows under a golden-hued sky. The result, for the hosts, was a down note on what was otherwise a celebratory mood at the Nelly’s regular-season sendoff.

“Yeah, it’s definitely bittersweet. Better now than in the playoffs.” said Elder on the Crows’ first defeat of 2021. “[A] perfect regular season is great, but if we beat Med City away next week, we still get that first-round [regional playoff] bye and tonight’s result doesn’t matter.”

July 10, 2021 — Minneapolis City SC goalkeeper Matt Elder celebrates 50 career club appearances alongside the 2021 NPSL North Conference Championship trophy during postgame ceremonies. Image credit: Daniel Mick Photography

Team co-captain Max Stiegwardt reflected on the reminder not to take any opponent too lightly, even one that could not manage a full bench for an intrametro derby and saw its players arrive at different intervals, some less than 30 minutes before kickoff.

“Maybe our guys thought some of their players had quit. Maybe thought it would be an easier game. But it’s a local rivalry and they came after it and did a good job,” Stiegwardt said. “We’ve got to respect the guys they have up top with speed, do a little more scouting and keep pushing.

“Lesson learned. Let’s keep going.”

The first half was a tense exchange that saw Joy seize the initiative early. Though City managed to grow into the game and keep possession heading into the half, the scoreboard remained barren at the break.

“Fair play to Joy, they came out and defended us well. Which to be fair, I haven’t seen that from Joy all this year — glad they figured it out,” said Crows head coach Matt VanBenschoten. “It threw us off, for sure. I got into the guys a little bit at halftime and said, ‘Look, we can’t let a wrinkle in how we play dictate what we do,’ because it started to erode our confidence.” 

Five minutes after the restart, it was Goats dangerman Emmanuel Iwe who opened the scoring, putting City to the sword with pace on the counter and a precisely-placed shot that found the near upper-corner.

“We talked about it before the game; speed kills. We’ve got to find a way to slow [Iwe] down,” said VanBenscoten. “We didn’t do it, and he put the ball in the net.”

July 10, 2021 — Joy St. Louis Park forward Emmanuel Iwe watches his shot strike the back of the net to open scoring against Minneapolis City SC. Image Credit; Daniel Mick Photography

It was a return to form for Iwe, who opened the season with a seven-game scoring streak, but had not seen his name on the score sheet in any of Joy’s last four contests. His 50th-minute tally on Saturday brought his season total to an impressive nine goals in 12 appearances. At time of publication, that count ranked second in the conference and 10th among the league’s 90-plus teams, nationally. It capped an impressive NPSL campaign for the No. 9, albeit one only slightly overshadowed by luck of sharing a conference with the NPSL’s leading goalscorer — Duluth FC’s Sidney Warden and his 15 goals.

Former Crow Whitney Browne would double Joy’s lead in the 79th minute after being sprung by Abduselam Regassa, with the Goats again striking on the counter.

Looking for a response, it was circumstance that in-part provided an answer for the Crows. With Matthew Gibbons, Justin Oliver and Will Kidd unavailable, City turned to mid-season addition Lamarre off the bench to bolster its attacking corps.

“I like Steevie. He’s very confident, he’s come in, he’s made a name for himself in practice and integrated really well,” VanBenschoten offered. “Scored his first goal — it’s not a coincidence.”

That goal was set up by a somewhat unlikely source. Crows co-captain and all-time minutes leader Aaron Olson had also come on, though in Olson’s case it was to replace Adams with the latter having taken a knock. Not long after his introduction, the veteran defender turned back the clock with a show of pace, getting in behind the Goats’ back line to square the ball for Lamarre for a back-post tap in.

While Lamarre was shepherding the ball back to the center circle, the assistant referee flagged for the referee, and after a short discussion, VanBenschoten was shown red. Upset with how the budding local rivalry had expressed itself on the field, the Crows’ head coach took umbrage with the lack of action on the referee’s part, and expressed as much in a manner that earned him a sending-off.

“[The referee] wasn’t making calls,” said VanBenschoten. “I asked him to control the game, but should have asked differently.”

July 10, 2021 — Minneapolis City SC head coach Matt VanBenschoten leaves the field after receiving a red card during a game against Joy St. Louis Park. Image Credit: Daniel Mick Photography

For the following four minutes, Minneapolis played just a goal away from salvaging a result.

Then, Minneapolis Club Legend Martin Browne, Jr. — now plying his trade for Joy — was played in on Elder by his brother Whitney, forcing a lightning-quick, left-handed save from the keeper. The ball bounced softly through the Crows’ penalty area until Zinedine Kroeten poked the rebound past Elder before the latter could retake his angle.

Kroeten followed what would prove the game-winner by collecting a yellow card for unsporting behavior, removing his shirt before running to the stands to taunt the home crowd.

July 10, 2021 — Joy St. Lous Park midfielder receives a yellow card for unsporting behavior after scoring against Minneapolis City SC. Image Credits: Daniel Mick Photography

In the second of eight minutes of added time, Goats keeper Tucker Mann added to his count of impressive saves by getting a hand to a close-range header from Olson. But like Kroeten for Joy minutes earlier, Magana Cisneros was first to the rebound with the opposing keeper still recovering his position, and slotted the ball home to draw the Crows within one.

No more goals were coming, and Joy evened the season and all-time series with Minneapolis at one-game-a-piece, with both sides winning their away leg.

“You could see it in the ending moments of the first half, when we started to stretch them a little bit. We started to get our good attackers on the ball, we were having success,” said VanBenschoten. “We needed to make that little adjustment, and we didn’t, tonight.”

“It’s always a bit of a trap game,” said Elder. “You go up and you have a big one against Duluth, you beat them 6-1, you have the trophy here tonight, and we’re cycling through some guys. Joy put some good balls in the net, we missed some chances, and soccer is a crazy game like that.”