The first round of the US Open Cup began with a bang as Dakota Fusion’s Miah Wills, playing his first game in over a season, poked a loose ball home after only 10 seconds. Having picked up a poor header and then capitalized on a rebound off the keeper, Dakota Fusion looked like they were ready to spoil Duluth’s night with ease.
Fusion bunkered in for a familiar counter-attack, but Duluth FC fired up their own engines and pressed forward before their own burst of finishing from the 18th minute onward - with 3 goals in 5 mins from Joe Watts, a debuting Ricardo Ramos, and Sean Morgan from a corner - to make the scoreline reflect the dominance they had in most aspects of play by that point.
A hectic start to the second half saw the 3-1 scoreline the BlueGreens carried into the half wiped out by two poached goals shortly into the 2nd half from last season’s NPSL Golden Boot winner Jade Johnson in a minute. However, immediately from the kickoff, the see-saw toppled back and Duluth FC had their lead back at 4-3, when Ramos’s second of the night sailed over a frustrated Steve Harris on a deflection.
With Fusion needing to push forward, the game opened up more and the game saw its final tie, when a corner kick in the 62nd minute pin-balled around and Fusion’s only Division 1 college player, Fargo born and bred Jacob Weiler, set up George Gauld for the leveler.
The new normal was open play by both sides, with few clear chances, before a bizarre set of circumstances led to both sides being reduced to 10 men. Akeem Prince Smith and Ivan Adika jumped together for a high ball near the halfway line, leaving Smith on the ground. While the West Fargo High product was being treated, the referee - to the vocal dissatisfaction of the home crowd - produced a red card for Adika. There would be no numerical advantage though, because with Fusion having already used all three of their permitted substitutions, Smith left the field - thankfully under his own power.
Extra time failed to break the deadlock, but soccer’s ultimate arbiter - the penalty shootout - went decisively the way of the hosts, who shut out the North Dakotans 3-0 from the spot. In the process they ended Fusion’s historical run as the first North Dakotan club ever to play in the tournament and continued their own, as the first Minnesotan amateur side to qualify for the Open Cup move on to hosting the professionals of St Louis FC in the 2nd round. Penalty takers Santiago Castro, Joe Watt, and Vladik Margolin would end up being the deciders in a game full of goals, fouls, frustrations, and time.
At the full time whistle both clubs had reasons to be happy, unhappy, and perhaps angry. Fusion, while unhappy at not moving onto the next round and disappointed at the nature of the loss, can be happy they are building a strong squad with the will to fight, and will hope that can take them far in the NPSL and possibly back into the USOC.
Duluth will be happy for positive debuts from several new players, perhaps most notably Ricardo Ramos who scored a double, but will feel robbed by Adika’s red card, which will prevent him from playing Saint Louis.
All of this, of course, will take awhile to set in as Duluth FC allow some time for the intoxication of a cup run to take hold over their club and their city. Things will need to change if Duluth want to make it past Saint Louis. They likely will not beat a professional side if they play like they did tonight. However, as cup competitions often are, Duluth will take it game-by-game and hope to fix what they can before the next challenge arrives. Until then, both clubs have NPSL matches to worry about, injuries to address, and squads to strengthen as college students become available once again.