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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Minnesota United came into Sunday's game with Edmonton knowing that a win - and, preferably, a two- or three-goal win - was the only way they could stay in the running for the NASL spring championship.
That's why their performance in a 3-1 loss to Edmonton was all the more baffling; United went down 2-0 inside the first 24 minutes of the game, before they'd hardly even had a scoring chance themselves. They did manage to climb within 2-1 in the second half, Miguel Ibarra scoring his first goal of the year to cut the deficit, but defender Justin Davis conceded a late penalty with a needless foul in the area, and former Minnesota midfielder Neil Hlavaty slammed the kick home to make the final 3-1.
In a game that Minnesota knew they needed to score early and often, it took them 40 minutes to get a chance on goal from open play. In a season in which United expected to challenge for the title, they now sit in sixth place out of seven teams, with nothing left to play for against Atlanta next week except pride.
It was a set piece that did United in once again, early on. In the 11th minute, Hlavaty's original corner was sent right back to him, but his second try floated over every Minnesota defender, where Mallan Roberts rose above the flat-footed defense to head home his first goal of the year.
13 minutes later, Hlavaty was once again the creator, skipping through the Minnesota defense on the left side of the field and picking out Shaun Saiko on the right wing. Saiko steadied the ball, then chipped it into the middle of the field, where striker Daryl Fordyce was completely unmarked, rushing in and right in front of goal. It was a simple finish, giving Minnesota keeper Matt Van Oekel no chance once again.
Pablo Campos did wrangle a couple of shots near the end of the half, but apart from the last five minutes of the first, Minnesota had no real scoring chances in the half. Ibarra's introduction as a substitute midway through the second half added a little spark to the Minnesota attack, but even once he'd scored, Minnesota never really looked like they would get the two additional goals they needed to keep hope alive.
When Davis shouldered aside striker Michael Cox in the area in the 85th minute, Hlavaty made sure that his penalty would be the final nail in the coffin for his former team.
There's no doubt that there's plenty of frustration in the Minnesota camp, from fans, players, and coaches alike. In a season that promised so much, with one game to go, United is back in sixth place - right where they finished both 2011 and 2012.
Though they have one final game against Atlanta, next Thursday night, they will already be confronting the question that they'll be asking themselves all summer: what went wrong?