Desperate teams. Tight, physical play. Minimal scoring chances.
For a regular-season match, Minnesota United FC's 1-0 victory against Tampa Bay on Saturday featured the hallmarks of playoff soccer.
Minnesota United FC persevered, running its unbeaten streak to 10 matches as forward Christian Ramirez scored his 11th goal of the season before an announced crowd of 8,932 at the National Sports Center Stadium in Blaine.
The victory moved Minnesota (9-2-5) to first in the North American Soccer League combined standings, a spot significant to their playoff chances. The two teams nearest them in the standings, Ottawa and New York, play matches on Sunday.
"We put pressure on them so that's good," Ramirez said. "We did our job by getting the three points."
The match turned in a matter of minutes late in the first half. Tampa Bay defender Ben Sweat was ejected in the 41st minute after picking up his second yellow card of the match. The Rowdies (4-9-3) were forced to play a man down for the remainder.
"Right after they went to 10 men, we had our best moments in the game," Minnesota coach Manny Lagos said.
Minnesota made it hurt. In the 44th minute, defender Kevin Venegas sent a cross from the corner. The ball skipped off a Rowdies defender to Ramirez, waiting at the far post. His 11 goals this season rank second in the NASL.
"Once their goalie yelled, 'Keeper,' I thought the play was done," Ramirez said. "But he semi-collided with his defender and the ball landed at my foot. I just had to guide it in."
An injury earlier in the first half affected Minnesota throughout the match.
Starting midfielder Juliano Vicentini left the match with an injured hamstring in the 17th minute. He walked off the field, but Alejandro Vela replaced him at midfield. Vela later drew the foul that ended Sweat's evening early.
Lagos said losing Vicentini, a strong two-way player, meant the Loons "had to make adjustments the entire night."
Beyond the goal from Ramirez, the United played fast and connected on passes but only mounted one additional scoring chance. A second-half blast by Kalif Alhassan caught the post flush as Ramirez extended his arms in anticipation of a two-goal lead.
"The guys were a little frustrated that we didn't get the second goal," Lagos said. "We weren't playing just to keep the 1-0 lead."
Tampa Bay's best chance came in the second minute. Minnesota goalkeeper Sammy Ndjock dived left and deflected a Darnell King shot wide.