Minneapolis City SC was launched with much hype in 2016 but, two trophy-less and underachieving seasons later, serious questions were being asked of the club. Was it all hype? In 2018, it was all coming together on the field but it would be for naught if the Crows couldn’t get past their arch-rival.
This is the oral history of the first title-clinching victory over Duluth FC.
Chapter 1: Disappointment
The problem with being big, bold, and out there is that it puts a target on your back
People are just crabs in a bucket, especially when they have set-up up competitive teams and are purposefully gunning to take you down. Going into the 2018 season, those competitive efforts were successful. For a club of City’s profile, swagger, and expectations, 3rd was a real disappointment. And it had happened twice in a row.
Jon Bisswurm (Co-Founder): City, from the first kick of the ball as a club, has been so much fun, but on the flip side it has also been a total bitch with some pretty bit let-downs.
Dan Hoedeman (Co-Founder): We had finished third our first two seasons and, while that’s not a disappointment to most teams, it was for us. Especially the 2017 finish. Nothing really worked for us that season.
Jon Bisswurm: And of course getting the boot from the U.S. Open Cup. That one still stings as we had a team that was primed for a tournament run and could have made some waves.
Dan Hoedeman: We went into the 2018 season looking to make amends. We are rabid about making amends.
Chapter 2: Pre-game
After a slow start to the season, just two wins and two draws in the first four games, The Crows had caught fire. A 5-1 demolition of Dakota Fusion, who had made the playoffs the season before, started an unprecedented run of wins and goals.
The Crows just would not stop scoring. They hung 5 on Dakota. And 5 on VSLT, which before then had the country’s best defense. 5 on Aris. 6 on Sioux Falls.
There was one stumble. The Crows drew against La Crosse Aris, but they were still unbeaten, still top of the conference, and, with two games to play, they had a chance to seal the title. To do that, they would have to beat a team they had never beaten before: Duluth.
Med City FC had thrown away the title in 2017. Would that happen to City too or would the Crows get over the line?
Matt Elder (Goalkeeper 2016-present): Typically, when the schedule for the season comes out the games against Duluth are circled. It’s a great rivalry. But the week leading up to the match didn’t really allow us to focus much on it because we were in the middle of a ten-day stretch that featured four games.
Dan Hoedeman: I remember when the schedule came out that we had a tough end to the season, but so many games happen so quickly in the ten weeks of the season it’s easy to lose track. You look up and—bam—next up is a chance to win the conference against last year’s champion.
Matt Elder: We had played VSLT just three days before the Duluth game. The team battled and got the result against VSLT with a late winner. Focus shifted to Duluth.
Adam Pribyl (Goalkeeper Coach 2016; Head Coach 2017-2018; Technical Director 2019-present): At the time, I didn’t fully realize important the game was. I didn’t look at standings or the results of other teams all that much.
Will Kidd (Winger 2016-present; City’s all-time leading scorer): After going through the whole season undefeated and scoring tons of goals I felt that we were unstoppable but knowing the fact that the title was still up for grabs that game made me feel uneasy. Don’t get me wrong, I was still confident we were going to win but I just was surprised we hadn’t locked the title up yet.
Dan Hoedeman: We could have locked up the title by beating La Crosse. Somehow we only managed a draw and that made this game matter more.
Matt Elder: A lot riding on it. It’s a home game, we are undefeated, win the game and we win the conference for the first time. The boys were plugged in.
Jon Bisswurm: Like in my playing days, when I drive to a match I have a routine and on the day of this match nothing was different as I suppressed the butterflies: Put on my left sock before my right sock following the same pattern with my shoes, dawn my ratty luck shirt under my game day armor, tune into a 90’s hip hop play list and take no phone calls or texts.
Dan Hoedeman: I woke up, put on my lucky shirt, had a sensible breakfast, sent some tweets that people probably complained about, and then was really too busy to think much beyond the tasks at hand. The day felt good though.
Jon Bisswurm: I dropped into the locker room to wish the players good luck then headed to my broadcast perch to do the necessary pregame prep to call the match.
Adam Pribyl: With injuries to key players like Mark Heydt, Martin and Whitney Browne, and Brandon McGarrity, I had to be creative in our starting lineup. Tim Wills, typically a striker, I dropped back into the 10. I did this for two reasons: 1. Tim was excellent at tracking back defensively and finding pockets to receive the ball, and 2. I wanted the speed of Nick Hutton to get in behind Duluth and initiate quick counter-attacks.
Jon Bisswurm: Duluth FC were in an interesting spot in the 2018 season. Gone were some big names that carried them to success in 2017 and gone was the head coach that seemed to get the most out of his players in big matches.
In their place was a new group of players brought in from all over the globe and a new coach who changed things on and off the field. At this point they were really starting to hit their stride, making a push to be the first ever back-to-back winners of the NPSL North—if they did their jobs.
Will Kidd: Before the game I just kept my cool and tried to manage my emotions so they peaked at kickoff.
Adam Pribyl: I remember the pre-game speech I gave that day. I spoke of my fiancees brother who had passed away suddenly at the age of 33 a couple of months beforehand. The message was to take your chances, and never have regrets. Leave everything on the field, and play for one another. Because ultimately we never know when we lace up our boots and take the field if that will be for the last time.
Will Kidd: I remember everyone before the game being very confident that we were gonna take home the title that night.
Chapter 3: The First Half
Will Kidd: Once the game started the offense was clicking. It felt very fluid the way we were combining with each other and moving off the ball.
Matt Elder: I remember thinking while standing in goal, the first goal will be more critical in this game than any other game of the season.
Jon Bisswurm: Duluth dropped into a 3/4 line of pressure as City settled into the game and started to turn up the heat.
Will Kidd: We found out early that with our pace up top the counter was on and we went at them. Chance after chance with just the final ball missing left me nervous that they might get the first goal.
Adam Pribyl: The pairing of Max Stiegwardt and Ian Smith that summer had been prolific. Sitting both at the base of a 3-man midfield was a thing of beauty. Their understanding of how each other wanted to play and their subsequent movement was fantastic. To counter them in this particular game, Duluth decided to attempt to man-mark them. I didn’t know this going in, but quickly figured this out within the first 15 minutes of the game. However, DFC did not see Tim Wills coming.
Dan Hoedeman: Tim Wills is probably the most underrated player of the 2018 team. It’s probably because his game isn’t physical, it’s mental. He finds little pockets of space to receive the ball, pulls defenders out of position, and is a great hinge for the offense.
Adam Pribyl: Tim was dropping in deep from the 10 to find passing options in our build-up. This meant their 6 either had to follow him and create a gap between their midfield line and the back line, or let Tim receive the ball in space and create. Tim’ movement and quick passing created havoc.
Matt Elder: I remember thinking it would take a great individual effort [to get the first goal]. It would not come from a mistake from either side. The goal would be earned. And indeed it was.
Jon Bisswurm: Abdallah Bah got the ball in space and put it in fifth gear, going on a mazy journey with the ball seemingly an extension of his foot until, from 30 yards, he unleashed a laser that blew past 2018 NPSL Goalkeeper of the Year Jan Hoffelner.
Will Kidd: Bah’s strike late in the first half gave me a huge sigh of relief because now I knew it was game on.
Adam Pribyl: Everyone remembers Bah’s 30-yard worldie.
Dan Hoedeman: That was a great goal.
Matt Elder: After the goal, it was cool and calm. As if we almost expected to score the first one as a team. Shortly after that, Justin Oliver was able to sneak another one past them. Again, I remember thinking, of course we’d get the next one too. This is our year, this is the team to win to conference.
Adam Pribyl: Tim Wills’ movement and quick passing was undoing Duluth. It allowed the front three of Justin Oliver, Nick Hutton, and Will Kidd the space to create—they could check in half-spaces and get in behind and interchange roles. It truly was the story behind the story of the game.
Jon Bisswurm: There was no player on that day more excited to play than new City man Justin Oliver.
Justin Oliver (Winger, 2018-present): I had joined City [after spending time in the preseason with Louisville City in USL and then Kaw Valley in USL2 before coming back to Minnesota] with four games left in the regular season. It was a confidence building moment for me that Adam decided to give me the start in the biggest game of the season to that point.
Jon Bisswurm: He was a handful for Duluth, buzzing into pockets of space, terrorizing defenders, tackling hard and talking trash like a man with a mission.
Justin Oliver: My first big involvement in the game, I was attacking from the left side of the 18 angling towards goal but I took a slightly heavy touch and the goalkeeper came out and took the ball off my foot. I made some contact with him while reaching for the ball. He went down on the ground, rolling around trying to get me booked. I know this because after he got up he started exchanging some ‘pleasantries’ with me. I love it when people talk shit to me, nothing gets me more motivated than someone challenging me individually. When this happens I take my game to another level and I think it just comes down to a mentality thing for me where I don’t care who you are, I am not going to let the person across from me beat me.
Jon Bisswurm: Next chance Oliver got, he used his pace to beat four Duluth defenders to a ball into space at the top left corner of the box and launched a full side volley that one-hopped, making the best goalkeeper in the country look pedestrian. 2-0 43 minutes in.
Justin Oliver: I had found myself playing up top in the middle. Max Kent had the ball, I took a couple steps towards him to create space and get their centerback to come with me and when he followed I made a run in behind to the space I just created. Max played a perfect ball over the top. It was bouncing on my left side and I hit a left-footed volley that dipped and bounced right before the goalie, which caused him some problems.
Matt Elder: Shortly before half a ball floated into our box, into a dangerous area. There were a lot of bodies around and a few of us got stuck in “no man’s land.” Their forward was taken down and it resulted in a penalty. In my head, I knew I was part to blame. I should have cleaned the ball up before it dropped.
Dan Hoedeman: The emotion in the stadium was palpable. Everyone held their breath as Joe Watt went to take the penalty.
Jon Bisswurm: Joe is the type of player that a club at our level builds their teams on. Steady, technically sound, size, speed and plays with passion.
Matt Elder: Joe Watt was familiar face for me. I had seen him for three years of college soccer and two more after that in the Minneapolis vs. Duluth showdowns. The last time it was him versus me at the penalty spot, he hit one to my low left side and I got down fast enough to make the save. I knew he remembered it the same way I did. In this moment, he tried too hard to send me back to my left, so I went right. And again, two palms on the ball for a save. There is no better feeling than getting a strong two hands on a penalty.
Adam Pribyl: I internally knew we had the game when Elder made that penalty save.
Will Kidd: I felt like this was the best start to a game we’ve had. It felt like they had no answers. They couldn’t even put the penalty away. Once the first half ended we had all the momentum.
Chapter 4: The Second Half
Will Kidd: Going into the second half I felt we were gonna be fine as long as we could absorb the initial wave from Duluth.
Matt VanBenschoten (Assistant Coach 2018; Head Coach 2019-present): Duluth just has a knack of finding ways to stay in games and keep battling even when it seems like they should be down and out.
Jon Bisswurm: Typical City not ever able to do things the easy way, came out of the break flat.
Will Kidd: Three minutes in I gave it away in the midfield which led to a goal for them. I felt like I let the team down there.
Jon Bisswurm: A scrum at the top of the box lead to a well-placed shot by winger Dana Kowacheck, skipped through the crowded 18-yard box giving Elder really no chance to make the save. 2-1 and a lifeline was given to a half-drowned opponent.
Dan Hoedeman: Obviously not the start that we wanted, but there was a different mentality this year. The goal was just more motivation.
Matt Elder: We were a team that hadn’t lost yet. We regrouped, and scored again.
Jon Bisswurm: Remember Justin Oliver? Duluth sure does.
Will Kidd: Justin ended up bailing me out three minutes later with a goal, thank God.
Justin Oliver: We had won the ball in the midfield and my initial movement was a diagonal run starting from the right side of their backline to the left side and I didn’t get slipped in, but the ball found Nick Hutton out wide right. Then, I made another run. After pulling off the weak side centerback, I made a run on his blindside and Hutton whipped in a perfect ball just past the top of the 6-yard box where I met the ball with the inside of my right foot.
Jon Bisswurm: Oliver tucked that shot into the roof of the net over a perplexed Hoffelner to make it 3-1 to the good guys.
Will Kidd: It was a lot of game management after Justin’s goal. I just tried to keep it simple and keep it down in their end.
Jon Bisswurm: As a vested onlooker this was the moment that the pressure valve in my chest released and it started to fill up with eager anticipation that could this really be our year, the year where it all comes together for us. All the planning to get this club off the ground, the hours of work to build our brand, could this really be the time where our on-field product had reached the level off what we built off of it?
Dan Hoedeman: Any other team would have been done after that Oliver dagger. Respect to Duluth, they never say die.
Jon Bisswurm: We have a saying in our club that soccer is a gift…a gift that has more than one meaning. When the highs are high it is one of the best things in life, but when at the low of lows it is a fickle bitch that rips your heart out.
Will Kidd: Eventually they got one back off of an unlucky deflection.
Jon Bisswurm: Insert David Rice, the Duluth man and former Alabama Mr. Soccer, into the day’s complex chess match. Rice is a fantastic player, a pacey winger with a bag of tricks that runs at a defense all damn day waiting for the crack in the wall that he can bust open. His strike in the 80th minute was not the cleanest but he did what a good goal poacher does, he found a way. The ball deflected off defender Max Kent’s out-stretched leg redirecting the shot past a diving Elder. Why does this always happen to us! What did we do to slight the soccer higher powers to cause them to play with our emotions?
Dan Hoedeman: I hate getting scored on.
Will Kidd: Now I knew a big push was coming from Duluth and we were in for a tough last 20 mins.
Matt Elder: The boys remained calm, possessed, created chances and again it felt like there was another one coming for us.
Will Kidd: Once the 85th min hit I could start to taste the title and was getting anxious but kept my composure. As the minutes kept going by and we kept getting throw ins in their half I was feeling relaxed knowing we can keep it down in their end.
Jon Bisswurm: For over 50 games there has been a constant at City, one that doesn’t say much, goes unnoticed until the right moment. That constant is Will Kidd.
Dan Hoedeman: With a 3-2 lead, we were playing within ourselves. Still on the front foot, but without attempting anything risky.
Jon Bisswurm: After five stressful minutes that saw Duluth throw everything but the kitchen sink forward to chase an equalizer, Will Kidd found a pocket of space at the top of the box vacated by a defender who had bombed forward.
Will Kidd: I was making sure not too many of us got forward so they can’t counter. Then I saw Sekou [Kromah] turn the corner.
Matt VanBenschoten: It didn’t start out particularly pretty, just a player battling for a 50/50 ball in the corner, but when Sekou emerged, took on a defender and made him commit…
Jon Bisswurm: Kidd received a well-slotted pass from Sekou, who came on as a late substitute to provide fresh legs, and BANG! Kidd’s shot sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and scored.
Matt Elder: From my angle, I knew it was going in immediately. Duluth’s goalkeeper was flat footed and the ball was too well placed. 4-2. Champions.
Will Kidd: When I put that fourth goal in I knew it was over and we were taking home the title.
Justin Oliver: The rest, as they say, is history.
Chapter 5: Champions
Dan Hoedeman: At the final whistle I jumped over the fence and started hugging our guys on the field. Big sweaty championship hugs.
Jon Bisswurm: It was party time!
Will Kidd: When the final whistle blew it was pure joy. It felt like a party and I didn’t wanna leave the field. The fans were amazing and gave me one of the banners they made for me (which is still hanging in my room).
Matt Elder: We knew what we had just accomplished, and everyone was enjoying it. We had put so much into the season, the last 10 days, and had beat Duluth on our home field to stay undefeated and win our first trophy. The club, the coaching staff, the players deserved it so much.
Will Kidd: It felt incredible finally accomplishing winning the title after three years. And to do it against Duluth was ever sweeter.
Adam Pribyl: What I remember from that day was how a group of guys came together to accomplish something great. And when we stood together and sang to our supporters, nothing else mattered.
Matt Elder: [As the celebrations calmed down,] I sat back and looked around the [locker] room. This his group had just accomplished something special. Not only did we win the conference, but we just raised the bar for everyone to wear the jersey after us.