Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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Carolina's Brian Shriver scored twice with less than ten minutes to go, sending Minnesota to a 3-2 defeat on the road - and likely ending United's chance to win the NASL spring season.
With 84 minutes played, it was all going United's way. Minnesota had scored twice in the first ten minutes, with Simone Bracalello and Pablo Campos banging in perhaps the team's two best goals of the season, and though Floyd Franks had pulled one back from the penalty spot for Carolina midway through the first half, all United had to do was hold on. League leaders Atlanta were even doing their part, having gone behind 2-0 against Tampa Bay. As it stood, Minnesota was going to lead the league, tied with Atlanta on 17 points, one ahead of Carolina with two to play. With a home game against Atlanta left, United was going to be the favorites for the league championship.
But then Shriver scored, and two minutes later scored again - and Minnesota went from the middle of the title picture, to the outside looking in.
It's the second time this year that United has dropped points late against the RailHawks. In Minnesota, they led 2-1, but a goal in the 84th minute tied the game. This time, it was the 86th and 88th minute. Six points for Minnesota turned into one, all in the closing stages.
Minnesota will rue a few missed chances. Bracalello hit the crossbar with an overhead kick, for one, and with twenty minutes to go, Carolina defender Jordan Graye scythed Miguel Ibarra down in the box. Though Graye may have got the ball, penalties have been given for less. RailHawks beat writer Neil Morris described it on Twitter as 50/50, which was probably fair, but given that Carolina's first-half penalty was similarly 50/50, it was slightly surprising to see the referee wave Ibarra's claim off.
That said, Carolina certainly had the run of play for most of the game - really all but the first 20 minutes. "We deserved to win that game," head coach Colin Clarke told the broadcast afterwards. Minnesota chose to try to hold on to their lead for most of the second half, and in the end it came back to burn them.
With two games to go, then, Minnesota has fallen to fourth in the standings (possibly fifth, depending on the result between San Antonio and Edmonton tonight), and would need a miracle to climb back to the top. They have to win their following two games, at Edmonton and and home against Atlanta, and then need one of the following two things to happen:
Even then, Minnesota would probably have to overturn a goal difference deficit. United's scored the same number of goals as they have allowed, but Atlanta is +2 and Carolina is +6.
For United, it's a heartbreaking loss - and, barring something amazing, the end of their spring championship hopes.