Duluth traveled to Miami on Friday to face Miami 2 in a historic match for the club and the North Conference as a whole. The BlueGreens, largely consisting of collegiate players, would be facing one of their most historied opponents of all time, with Miami featuring star players like Daniel Vega. Vega, a goalkeeper and the club’s captain, has over sixty reported appearances for River Plate, one of the top clubs throughout Argentine and South American history.
The match received extended drama as a series of miscommunications regarding the visiting and hosting clubs led to the away side having to wait until less than half an hour before the game to warm up with the soccer balls and cones commonly used to do so, along with a sudden shutting off of the lights in the away locker room which did not in itself have a light switch for the team to use to get them back on.
With the obstacles finally put aside, the two sides lined up to meet on a historic Saturday night and a matchup between two very different types of NPSL clubs. In one corner the college-based semi-pros and in the other a collection of pros with connections to the MLS, USL, NASL, and other international leagues.
Duluth would field the same starting line up that had faced Grand Rapids, Minneapolis City, and AFC Ann Arbor throughout the regional playoffs. Santiago Castro, Brooks Rice, Julian Villegas, Gonnie Ben-Tal, Kyle Farrar, Sora Wakabayashi, Ryan Tyrer, Joe Watt, Soham Kathuria, Tom Corcoran, and Jan Hoffelner approached Saturday’s match having already made history for the club but hoping to earn more.
The first half, as many expected, was largely possessed by Miami 2, with Duluth earning a few strong chances off of counter attacks. Miami, strong with possession and crisp with every touch and pass, consistently created chances for themselves. Duluth keeper Jan Hoffelner and his backline managed to keep the score sheet clean for the first 36 minutes only to fall short as Miami earned a penalty at the edge of the box. The penalty, a well-earned one it should be noted, would be scored with a clever stutter run by Ariel Martinez and carry Miami 2 to a 1-0 lead at the half time mark.
The second half would be similar to the first in tone and pace with one change being a slight increase in Duluth’s offensive chances as the Minnesotan side became more and more aware that they had everything to play and attack for. Unfortunately for the BlueGreens, this opened up the game for Miami, who scored two more goals in the 75th and 90th minutes. The first was a well-aimed glancing header via Sean McFarlane while the second was a cleanly executed counter attack, with Jeff Michaud getting the killing blow after a series of strong passes and runs by various members of Miami’s squad.
Duluth would make all seven of their available substitutions during the match, including switching Jan Hoffelner out in the last ten minutes for Alberto Ciroi due to injury concerns following several collisions. Attacking substitutions like Dana Kowachek, Ricardo Ramos, and Liam Moore also refreshed Duluth’s attacking edge, with Ricardo Ramos earning some of Duluth’s best chances as his free kicks floated just above the cross bar twice.
The BlueGreens’ 3-0 loss would bring the end to Duluth’s Cinderella run through the NPSL. It should not be forgotten that at the half way mark of their 14 match season Duluth had only won two games, lost one, and drawn the rest. Even as they’re second season form began to improve, culminating in a five game win streak, the BlueGreens only earned their playoff spot toward the end of the season as VSLT’s season began to collapse. Though they just barely grabbed that playoff spot, the north shore club made it worth it with their rough regional run of three 120 minute games and the lifting of the club’s second trophy.
The match against Miami 2 represents the final competitive match of the NPSL North in the 2018 season, an eventful and memorably one by all accounts and one that this site along with many others will surely have more to say about in the near future.
The NPSL League Final will now be played between Miami 2 and FC Motown, a New Jersey based club that won the Keystone conference and managed to beat the New York Cosmos B in an eventful upset the same night Duluth beat AFC Ann Arbor. It will be the first time either club has won the NPSL title.