By Kyle Eliason

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The stage was set on Friday night for an intense North Conference tilt. Minneapolis City SC headed south to Rochester on the heels of its first loss of the season, and still in need of a result to secure a first-round bye in the Midwest Region playoffs. Host Med City FC was fighting for its playoffs life, needing to pick up more points on the evening than Duluth FC could manage in its match with Sioux Falls Thunder FC.

A hard-fought game contested primarily in the middle of the pitch had its moments of magic as the Crows’ Aidan O’Driscoll and Mayhem’s Joshua Balsiger swapped brilliant second-half goals, both taken from outside the 18-yard box. But a first-half penalty kick, scored by Max Stiegwardt, gave Minneapolis a lead in the 37th minute that it would never relinquish en route to a 2-1 road victory.

Though the final scoreline went against them, it could be argued the Mayhem gave the conference champions as challenging a game as Minneapolis has seen this season, from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. One that forced the Crows to rely upon sweat and determination as much as they have typically preferred to focus on controlling possession.

Tori Burnett and Adam Pribyl were at the helm for Minneapolis, with head coach Matt VanBenschoten serving a one-game suspension for being sent off against Joy St. Louis Park six days prior. After the game, Burnett offered her thoughts on an intense 90 minutes via phone.

“That was a really gritty win for us,” Burnett said. “They put us under a lot of pressure, and honestly, [Balsiger] hit a banger. That made for a tough last 10 minutes to go against, with a team that likes to play very direct. I’m proud of our defensive efforts, today. Obviously, we all like to play pretty soccer, but not all games can be pretty.

“But three points are always pretty.”

One of the keys to that strong defensive performance was quieting Mazeed Aro-Lambo after the Mayhem center forward had quite a time against last-place Aris FC on Tuesday. In that game against Aris, Aro-Lambo paired a goal with four assists, earning the exceedingly-elusive gentleman’s hat trick with an assist to spare.

Three days later, against Minneapolis, Aro-Lambo saw much less time on the ball.

“We came in with a gameplan to play tighter defense,” said co-captain and center back Aaron Olson. “After that [loss] against Joy, we were watching tape and determined that we were a little loose.

“Whenever we lost the ball, the team dropped in, got central. That was the game plan — make them play it around the wings. We were confident that if they were going to try to cross it in, [Matt] Elder is going to grab the ball or punch it out. We’ve got Jack Barry in the air, we’ve got Jonah [Garcia] in the air, and I think you saw, it worked.”

One surprise, for a team that likes to tout its lead atop the North Conference’s fair-play table, was a season-high four yellow cards earned by the Crows.

“A couple of those were a little soft. A couple were… not soft,” said Burnett. “We were talking about it, last game we probably could have used a couple tactical yellows to prevent some goals. Jonah [Garcia] had one tonight. That sucks to be the guy that has to hold onto somebody to prevent a transition, but you’ve got to do it.

“[Med City] were flying and had put in a bunch of challenges, too. We definitely matched that intensity and physicality. And our guys are smart enough to not get a second yellow to earn a red.”

Olson augmented his coach’s sentiments.

“Do we want four yellows in a game? No — we don’t want any yellows,” said Olson. “But if the game calls for it, then we have to make that tactical decision, and I stand by every single yellow that we took tonight.”

Over 200-plus miles north, Duluth eventually dispatched Sioux Falls by a comfortable 5-2 scoreline after trailing 1-2 late in the first half. With that result, the BlueGreens clinched second place along with a regional playoff berth. Duluth also ensured Med City’s spirited performance on Friday night could not have lifted the Mayhem higher than third place, regardless of the night’s outcome in Rochester.

Since 2017, when both Med City and the North Conference were founded, the Mayhem have helped to form a big-three in the Land of 10,000 Lakes — alongside Minneapolis and Duluth — that have slugged it out amongst one another each season for just two tickets to the Midwest Region playoffs. In 2019, the Mayhem finally broke through and earned their first postseason berth. Two years later, after the summer of 2020 was lost to COVID-19, Med City again battled as a contender until it’s NPSL-season finale’s final whistle.

For the Crows, their final 2021 meeting with the Mayhem provided an early introduction to the type of contest they’ll face in the second round of the regional playoffs, and hopefully beyond.

“We came here and did the job we wanted to do, and now everything is in front of us,” Olson said. “What we take from tonight is that we need to continue to bring this level of energy and intensity — and this level of technicality — moving forward. Because we’re going to face better clubs in the playoffs, and it’s only going to get more challenging.”