Minnesota United FC took sole possession of first-place in the NASL Spring Standings on Saturday evening after a 3-1 victory over visiting Fort Lauderdale Strikers in front of 5,325 at NSC Stadium.
United controlled the early going, holding the ball in the Fort Lauderdale half and probing the Strikers defense for opportunities. Before they could generate any build, play was halted after a head-to-head collision between Cristiano Dias and Marius Ebbers left both men sprawled on the turf. Dias eventually got up but Ebbers was clearly much worse off. The German striker was replaced after just seven minutes of action by Aly Hassan. Dias would gamely continue until the 30th minute, when he was replaced by Greg Jordan.
Minnesota picked up where they had left off after the injury, and were rewarded soon after. A long ball to Christian Ramirez in the box was handled by Fort Lauderdale defender Darnell King as he tried to box out Ramirez. Simone Bracalello stepped up and buried his second penalty kick of the year into the lower left corner to hand the Loons a 1-0 lead just thirteen minutes in.
With the one goal cushion, the Loons didn't play passively, but Fort Lauderdale began to take a more aggressive approach and the control of the game was more even, although neither team mustered much in the way of goal scoring opportunities until a flurry of action in the 37th minute. A neat series of passes played Carlos Salazar in on goal. Aaron Pitchkolan slid to block the shot, and Salazar collapsed to the ground, perhaps anticipating that the United captain would continue his tackle. But the referee saw that no contact had been made and waved off the penalty appeal.
Moments later, on the opposite end of the pitch, Minnesota had a series of golden opportunities. A shot from outside the box was deflected and fell to Simone Bracalello, but the United goal scorer flubbed his shot across goal. Miguel Ibarra, then Christian Ramirez each got cracks at the ball as it bounced across, only to have their efforts blocked and the ball roll wide.
Both teams had a chance apiece at the end of the game. Carlos Salazar received the ball in space at the top of the right side of the box, but his curled effort went well wide. In extra time at the end of the half, Simone Bracalello blasted a free kick from outside the box on the left, but Nikolov cleanly caught the knuckling shot.
After halftime, the Strikers came out with renewed vigor and put the Loons under pressure early. United would move the ball forward and gain a corner kick, but that would prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Strikers. After Jordan's header went over the ball, Fort Lauderdale played the ball in quickly and rushed downfield on the counter. With their shape in disarray, Minnesota allowed Shawn Chin to cut inside along the endline and the winger played the ball across the net to Martin Núñez who easily put in his league leading fourth goal to tie the score.
The home fans did not have to wait long for a response from their side. Miguel Ibarra was played the ball on the right side of the field and took it along the top of the box before passing to Christian Ramirez. The United striker took a touch before cannoning a shot into the upper right corner that gave Nikolov no chance. Minutes after Núñez took the league lead in goals with his fourth, Ramirez responded with his own fourth.
The complexion of the game changed drastically in the 70th minute. United played the ball behind the Fort Lauderdale lines to Christian Ramirez. The assistant referee signaled for offisde, but the head referee disagreed and Ramirez put the ball straight in the path of the onrushing Miguel Ibarra, who struck for his second of the season and put the Loons ahead 3-1. Fort Lauderdale players swarmed the AR and head referee, but the goal stood up after the officials consulted and Ivan Guerrero and Carlos Salazar were booked for their trouble.
Moments later, goal scorer Martin Núñez slid hard from behind on Daniel Mendes and was ejected from the game after receiving his second yellow, and Darnell King joined the card parade after protesting.
Down to ten men, Fort Lauderdale was nonetheless obliged to push forward, but they could not find space behind the United backline. Late in the game, both sides again traded chances, with Darnell King striking the top corner of the frame after a heroic 1v3 individual effort, and Christian Ramirez firing a low shot just wide in extra time. But the back of the nets remained undisturbed and the 3-1 lead held until the final whistle.
“Christian (Ramirez) and Miguel (Ibarra) have a great partnership and they were working well tonight,” said United coach Manny Lagos. “Christian’s goal was unbelievable, really a great strike at a moment when we were maybe a little down or wondering if we could pull the game off.
“It was an outstanding goal and it picked us up and reminded us we are a good soccer team. Proud of him and our team tonight.”