By Kyle Eliason

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis City SC head coach Matt VanBenschoten has often attributed the Crows’ success this season to experience, patience and a deep bench. But a quick start propelled the Crows to a 3-0 victory over visiting Carpathia FC, and on into the Midwest Region finals.

The alleged cool of the evening in the City of Lakes hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff. But the sun-soaked turf at Edor Nelson Field radiated heat, lifting the temperature on the pitch.

It was the visitors that initially raised the mercury even further by creating the game’s first scoring chances, while the hosts got off to a disjointed, nervy start. But against the run of play in the 18th minute, Minneapolis’ Eli Goldman opened the scoring on the evening.

Center forward Medo Youssef headed into Goldman’s path the second ball from a pass played long. Put in on goal as his marker lost his footing, Goldman snapped a shot low to Finn Jurak’s left. The Carpathia keeper did well to get quickly down to parry, and quickly back to his feet. But Golman was even quicker to the rebound, bundling it into the net from close range to give the hosts an early lead.

Eli Goldman taps in the opener. Photo: Daniel Mick

The two head coaches ― on Thursday announced as the Great Lakes and Midwest Conferences head coaches of the year, respectively — both agreed on the importance of City having drawn first blood.

“To finally have our first goal come early was huge for us,” said Minneapolis head coach Matt VanBenschoten. “We can always do it for 90 [minutes], but it’s nice to come out and finally get an early one. For sure.”

“It was an unfortunate bounce for us. Our center back, Kieran Hayes, got his feet caught, and the game changed after that,” said Carpathia head coach Nick Kristock. “I really did think it was a good start, there was some good football from us. So, it was unfortunate, for sure.”

The early lead calmed Crow nerves and brought the near-capacity crowd to life. With momentum swung to their side, the Crows would double their lead in the 38th minute when Goldman recirculated the ball from the wing in the attacking third. 

The near capacity Edor Nelson Field crowd cheers another Minneapolis City goal. Photo: Daniel Mick

Center midfielder Aidan O’Driscoll received a pass 30 yards from goal, maintained possession while bouncing off a pair of Carpathia players, shook a third with a feint, then lifted the ball over Jurek for his third and best goal of the season.

In the immediate aftermath, Jurek sought to focus his teammates, while on the Minneapolis bench, VanBenschoten and assistant coach Tori Burnett stood arms around one another’s shoulders, quietly sharing a pair of grins.

“You just take what you’re given in those situations,” O’Driscoll offered. “When you’re trying to maneuver your way through the top of the box, a lot of it is instinct, and it’s muscle memory from doing it for years.”

Aidan O’Driscoll celebrates his goal. Photo: Daniel Mick

Asked if he had scored many similar goals before, O’Driscoll was frank.

“No. That was one of my better ones,” he said.

City would put the game out of reach when tired legs saw a ball leak through the Carpathia midfield to second-half substitute Nick Hutton. The forward played Will Kidd into space down Carpathia’s left flank, and the winger reciprocated by picking Hutton out for a side-footed goal at the back post in the 63rd minute.

The Michigan side did well to pick its spots and test the Crows defense, and Jurek put in yeoman’s work at the back with multiple one-on-one saves to keep the final scoreline within three goals. But the realities of regional travel combined with the added challenge of facing a formidable opponent on their home turf ultimately proved too much for the visitors.

“It’s such a boost for us to play in front of our supporters. They really enjoy coming out to the games and we love having them,” O’Driscoll said.

It was a noble effort from Carpathia, having arrived in Minneapolis at the end of a seven-day stretch that included stops in Chicago and Duluth. And in Duluth just three days prior, the BlueGreens took Carpathia a full 120 minutes before penalties sent the Michiganders on to Minneapolis.

Enduring life on the road was paired with the absence of Great Lakes Conference Best XI selections Ellis Jones, captain David Edwardson and leading-scorer Ryan Williams.

“Big-time misses,” said Kristock. “That’s right up the spine of the team.”

“It’s tough. Obviously, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Jurek said. “Played 120 minutes [midweek], traveled 12 hours back and then we found out in the middle of the night that we had to travel two-days later, 12 hours, again. But that’s football. Everyone’s got to do it. If [Minneapolis] were in the same position they’d have come out and given it their all.

“Props to the lads for winning today. Three-nil, they classed it from us. Well done on them. Great team to play.”

Every club that has qualified for the 2021 postseason, save one, will see its season end in defeat. But for Jurek, the end to Carpathia’s first NPSL campaign was also a stepping stone.

 “To come in here with new coaches, new setup, new players… you know, we blended in really well,” said the keeper. “We’ll be back next year and hopefully we’ll be in the same place, but on top this time.”

The victory, for Minneapolis, was another rung in its climb towards its preseason goal of being crowned Midwest champions for the first time.

O’Driscoll said the Crows would carry the night’s momentum with them into Sunday’s regional final against Cleveland SC. VanBenschoten concurred.

“I think we’re getting close to our best,” said the head coach. “Guys are playing well with each other. That second goal, that third goal from Will [Kidd] — we’ve struggled to find that goal all year. But that’s a perfect example of what we’re capable.”