Say this for Minnesota’s recent soccer games at Tampa Bay: The results aren’t boring.
In 2012, Minnesota lost the North American Soccer League crown to the Rowdies. The teams played a wild regular-season finale last fall, a 6-4 Minnesota victory.
Saturday’s game holds similar intrigue. Win or draw, first-place Minnesota (6-1-1) clinches the spring season title and guarantees itself a playoff spot in the fall. Lose and the Loons could be knocked from their perch by New York or San Antonio.
“We’ve put ourselves in a great situation,” captain Aaron Pitchkolan said. “We have a bit more to play for, so hopefully that will show on Saturday night.”
United won 2-1 at Atlanta last week to remain in first place despite missing several starters to injury or suspension. The less-familiar faces were up to the task. Reserve goaltender Mitch Hildebrandt stopped five shots. Midfielder Greg Jordan scored the game’s first goal. Brent Kallman drew kudos for his work on defense.
“Pretty much any obstacle that’s been thrown at us, we’ve come out stronger on the other side,” Pitchkolan said. “That’s huge for our confidence.”
Adding to the level of difficulty, Minnesota traveled to Atlanta fresh off a 1-0 victory last Wednesday at Des Moines in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament.
“The Atlanta game showed we are a team,” coach Manny Lagos said. “We asked a bunch of different guys to step up to win those games, and they did.”
Hildebrandt will remain in goal this week. Veteran defenders Tiago Calvano and Cristiano Dias return to the field. Their presence will further challenge a less-potent Tampa Bay team. Only one team has scored fewer goals than Tampa Bay (eight), a team Lagos nevertheless called “better than its record.” The Rowdies (2-3-3) won 1-0 at San Antonio.
Forward Christian Ramirez, a NASL rookie, played no part in Minnesota’s colorful games of late at Tampa Bay. But he understands what Saturday’s game means.
“Since the Fort Lauderdale game we’ve all been a little on edge,” said Ramirez, who scored his league-leading fifth goal of the season to defeat Atlanta. “We know that every game is so important, and we’re all hungry.”