United FC soccer players are encouraged to show off their personalities on the field. Trailing at halftime of a must-not-lose match on Saturday at Tampa Bay, players were both desperate and determined.
“Miguel [Ibarra] and I looked at each other and said, ‘We have to do something,’” forward Christian Ramirez said.
Ibarra’s second-half goal, courtesy of a laser-guided pass from Ramirez, held up as the tying goal in a 3-3 draw that clinched the North American Soccer League spring season championship.
Winning the title secures Minnesota (6-1-2) one of four spots in “The Championship” in November. United plays host to a semifinal match Nov 8. The fall season winner and the next two clubs with the best overall records from both seasons combined will complete the playoff bracket.
The spring season trophy presentation begins at noon on Tuesday at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis. Veteran defender Justin Davis remembers the feeling.
“It’s awesome because my first year here, 2011, we won the Soccer Bowl,” Davis said. “It’s great to be in the picture for that again.”
Davis scored only 12 minutes into Saturday’s match but his early lift became a footnote. Tampa Bay tied the score 1-1 in the 33rd minute and went ahead 2-1 on a goal scored in first-half stoppage time.
“A goal late in the half is hard to recover from,” coach Manny Lagos said. “To their credit, the guys made sure they would leave it on the field.”
Jamie Watson, who set up Davis’ first goal, showed similar patience and poise feeding Daniel Mendes for a goal to tie the score 2-2 in the 57th minute. The “massive” goal, Davis said, freed players from pressing late into the match.
Only four minutes later, Ramirez slid the ball just beyond the reach of a Rowdies defender to a streaking Ibarra.
“If their guy had 10½-sized shoes on, he might have gotten it,” Ramirez said. “He must have been wearing 10s, but we’ll take it.”
Injuries required several United players to fill vacated shoes and ensure success. Five of the starting 11 on Saturday were not in the opening-day lineup, including goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt and scorers Ibarra and Mendes.
Players accepted roles and made the most of their minutes. By comparison, injuries, infighting and inconsistent play dropped United to sixth a year ago.
“That pride and resolve has been the signature of this group,” Lagos said. “I don’t have a first-half MVP. This entire group deserves that award.”