By Kyle Eliason

MINNEAPOLIS — Cleveland SC leaned on veteran guile to craft a 2-0 win over host Minneapolis City SC in Sunday’s regional final. In doing so, the men from the shores of Lake Erie retained the Midwest Region crown they secured when it was last contested in 2019.

Playing its second road game of the weekend, again in 90-plus degree heat, with only a four-man bench, the task of facing a formidable Crows team that was spared the rigors of travel was a difficult one. But not one that rattled the visitors.

“We stick to our strengths,” said acting head coach Samuel Seibert, who filled in for a suspended Lewis Dunne on the touchline. “We don’t necessarily manage to other people’s strengths or weaknesses. We know what we can do well, we stick to that, and we just kind of fill in the gaps.

Cleveland survived a quick start by the hosts as the Crows hit the crossbar twice, and in the 20th minute, punished a Minneapolis mistake to take the lead.

Eli Goldman on the ball. Photo: Daniel Mick

Pouncing on a turnover in the attacking third, Admir Sulievic sailed a shot from the top of the arc inside Minneapolis goalkeeper Matt Elder’s left post.

It was Sulievic’s third goal in as many days, having converted a pair of penalty kicks against FC Milwaukee Torrent in Friday’s semifinal. Absent due to injury for most of the regular season, Sulievic’s return has come at a crucial time for a Cleveland side that has earned the right to represent the Midwest in the NPSL’s national semifinals once again.

“I’ve been on and off [the field], so I’m still a bit out of shape. But I’m happy to score, I’m happy we won, and all that matters is getting that title,” Sulievic said.

Ten minutes after Cleveland’s opening goal, the Crows would hit the crossbar for a third time. Minneapolis kept the pressure on through the end of the first half, and picked back where they left off, controlling possession after the restart.

Controversy followed in the 47th minute when a Will Kidd cross was parried by Cleveland goalkeeper Conor Cable. Colliding with Minneapolis forward Nick Hutton, Cable lost the foot race to the ball as Eli Goldman slotted the rebound home. The referee, initially, signaled goal.

Cleveland thought Cable had been impeded. As and after the referee conferred with his assistant, Hutton protested that he had been pushed into Cable by a Cleveland defender. In the end, the official reversed his call and awarded Cleveland a free kick.

Nick Hutton argues a very strong case with the referee. Photo: Daniel Mick

Minneapolis continued to chase the game as the clock counted on. In the 69th minute, Cleveland struck again.

Using an alert quick-restart after a Minneapolis foul, the visitors surprised the Crows’ defense with a quick pass to winger Corban McAvinew, a moment before defender Jack Barry lost his footing. The sequence allowed McAvinew an open look at goal that he did not squander, doubling Cleveland’s lead.

In his team’s semifinal victory over Detroit’s Carpathia FC two days prior, Minneapolis head coach Matt VanBenschoten cited the Crows first goal as key in turning the tide in Minneapolis’ favor. On Sunday, VanBenschoten saw the opposite.

Will Kidd was dangerous throughout, but it wasn’t to be. Photo: Daniel Mick

“They got two chances, that we gave them, and finished. And that’s just the difference,” said VanBenschoten. “It’s those big moments — the momentum swings. If you can capitalize on them, you’ve got to do it. If you can’t, then the game opens up and you end up the worst team on the day.”

Over the course of a 2021 campaign that saw the Crows enter Sunday winning 11 of 12 and leading all 90-some NPSL teams with a plus-36 goal differential, Minneapolis had been accustomed to controlling play by controlling the ball. But a two-goal deficit weighed heavier as the game’s final minutes passed and the Crows pressed for to salvage what remained of their season.

“This whole year, we weren’t scared to play down by one or two,” said North Conference Best XI winger Lionel Vang. “I think today, when we were down one-zero, we were playing catch-up. Instead of playing our game, I think we started booting the ball more, and giving them the ball. They’re a great team, too, who aren’t going to give back the ball that easily. I think that’s what hurt us the most.”

After the final whistle and medal presentation, Seibert and Sulievic echoed one another on the importance experience had played in the result.

“Our experience is what got us here,” said Seibert. “Through adversity, in the moment, we know we can trust each other. That’s honestly what helped us beat a very strong Minneapolis side.”

“We have a lot of older guys on our team. A lot of the core guys have been here for a while — before, when [the club] was [known as] AFC Cleveland,” Sulievic said.  “We have a lot of guys that stayed in touch, stayed good friends. We hang out outside of soccer. That has a lot to do with it. We’ve been together for a long time, and when you add these young guys, it’s been amazing.”

As Seibert eyed a potential match with FC Baltimore Christos in the national playoffs, whom he described as “an adverse peer”, pending the outcome of Christos’ match against FC Motown later that afternoon, VanBenschoten was forced to turn his gaze to 2022.

“It’s hard because the feeling is such a gut punch, based on where we thought we could be,” said VanBenschoten. “On any given day you can be the worst team, but it doesn’t change the rest of what you did all year. So, hopefully, we’ll look to it and use it as motivation for next year to say, “Hey, let’s keep going further.’”