With a semi-final in Ann Arbor against Minneapolis on the line, Grand Rapids traveled to Duluth to face the BlueGreens for the first meeting of the two in NPSL history. Duluth faced Grand Rapids with the memories of their last playoff game against a Michigan side being their 5-2 loss to Detroit City FC in 2017. The two sides sported similar records, similar goal difference, and similar rollercoaster seasons as they marched out to meet each other at Duluth’s Public School Stadium.
The first half featured quality football from both sides, with periods of possession for each and key saves by the keepers (Jan Hoffelner and Noah Fazekas) keeping it all 0-0 at the halftime whistle. Both sides picked up a yellow in the first half, though this did little more than highlight the physical nature of the game, in which both sides kept an edge to their tackles.
The second half would bring strong periods of attack for both sides, Duluth’s coming first. Ryan Tyrer scored off of a Tom Corcoran corner in the 46th. His thunderbolt of a header made its way past several players and put his side up 1-0, along with ascending him to the top spot in the race for Duluth FC’s top goal scorer with five. Needless to say, the center back has contributed to Duluth in more than just defensive duties.
Duluth’s Brooks Rice, the 2017-2018 Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year and a recent high school graduate, made it 2-0 for the BlueGreens after using a clever touch and blistering speed to put himself past several defenders and slotted in his fourth of the season. At the 52nd minute, Duluth looked in control and ready to slide past the quarter finals with ease. Grand Rapids had other plans.
From the 82nd to 92nd minute, Matthew Whelan and Kenny Howell (who was elected Grand Rapids’ Man of the Match) found the back of the net and got their side back into the match. After a long period of stoppage time following the full 90 (the exact number isn't known but in the end it was roughly ten minutes added), the two sides found themselves tied up and heading into the dreaded AET.
With both sides having made several adjustments throughout the match, Duluth made two key substitutions in extra time. First, they brought on Ricardo Ramos. The Portuguese winger had made his club debut in Duluth’s U.S. Open Cup (USOC) match against the Dakota Fusion, in which he scored two goals. He also got seriously injured during said match, and would not play again for Duluth until his substitution on July 14th. He would contribute to side in minutes and during the penalty shoot out soon to come. Duluth also brought on Alberto Ciroi for keeper Jan Hoffelner, who had had a strong game. Ciroi was, and after Saturday will possibly forever be, considered Duluth’s PK specialist, having saved one in the USOC to help win the match against Dakota.
AET brought little more than a few decent chances for both sides and we found ourselves about to watch yet another penalty shoot out. Both sides would make their first three penalties, only for drama to kick in at the fourth. Alberto Ciroi, living up to his legacy, saved Grand Rapids fourth shot, only for Brooks Rice to hit the crossbar on his attempt. Tied at 3:3, Alberto Ciroi made another big save, opening up a chance for Duluth captain and all time lead goal scorer Kyle Farrar to win the tie for his side. Somewhat unsurprisingly, he did. Ciroi was awarded Man of the Match for Duluth due to his penalty heroics. In conclusion, Caleb Postlewait, Kenroy Howell, Noah Fazekas scored pens for Grand Rapids FC, while Santiago Castro, Ricardo Ramos, Aidan Hill, Kyle Farrar scored pens for Duluth FC.
Duluth’s win means they will face the NPSL North’s reigning champion, Minneapolis City SC, in the Midwest Region Semi-Final, the other match being Ann Arbor against Cleveland SC. Both matches will be hosted in Ann Arbor, Michigan on July 20th. With the oddity of two Minnesotan clubs traveling to Michigan to play one another in mind, the match will be the third between the two clubs this season, with Minneapolis winning and drawing the previous two. Minneapolis and Duluth’s overall record, short but eventful, is one win to each side and two draws.