Four Unforgettable Matches

Photo courtesy of Minnesota United.

With the beautiful game in a constant state of change, writing about football has been an interesting pass time over the course of 2020. While I usually aim for larger articles looking to investigate a story, I’ve also decided post the occasional blog post while I seek out other projects. The following is one of those blog posts.

In search of a way to write about football while there’s no football being played, I’ve decided to take on a little thought exercise and write about five football matches I’ve attended that stand out as unforgettable moments for me. They’re listed in no particular order and each one has a special place in my heart.

Minnesota United host Portland Timbers (2019) – US Open Cup Semi-Finals

Played on August 7th, my birthday, this match was a historic one for Minnesota United in its MLS era. The club, after two years of struggling in the league, making virtually no progress in the domestic cup, and calling a college (American) football stadium home, had suddenly made a deep run in the USOC. Hosted at Allianz Field, the club’s beautiful new stadium, the semi-final against the Portland Timbers was the last key to qualifying for the final, which would be hosted in Atlanta.

Having attended only a few matches at Allianz that year, I had yet to see Minnesota win at home. The stakes were a little extra high this time around, for a few reasons: It was my birthday and I’d made a trip to see the game, the result would have a major effect on the team’s season, and (in addition to my parents being there) I had brought my girlfriend to see her first ever professional live match of football.

Darwin Quintero scored a penalty to give us the lead, before Brian Fernández equalized right before halftime. A long ball and glorious strike from Mason Toye would hand Minnesota the lead in the 64th minute and the scoreline would go unchanged for the rest of the match.

After singing wonderwall, we left the stadium and I was able to bask in an amazing day of football. I’d watched Minnesota United win one of their biggest-ever matches, and was able to share the experience with my parents and girlfriend along the way.

Duluth FC at AFC Ann Arbor (2018) – NPSL Midwest Region Final

2018 was the first of my two years working with Duluth FC as a staff writer and part of the travel staff. That year was a long journey of ups and downs. I had my car break down on an away day, saw us got a hard point on the road, a victorious three, and sometimes none. The staff were all volunteers for the club, so the long trips and work were all out of passion more than anything else. We qualified for the playoffs in our last regular season game against Med City and were then sent off to drive two vans from Duluth, MN to Ann Arbor, MI.

The ten hour trip was a long, entertaining, and strange one, but we finally arrived at our hotel the day before the first match. We would play a semi-final for the region the next day. If we won, we’d play in the final the day after. We beat Minneapolis City 2-1 in AET and logged a night of sleep before the big day.

Julian Villegas takes on an AFC Ann Arbor player in the Midwest final. Photo courtesy of Alex Ganeev.

The match against Ann Arbor in the final was a crazy one, ending 3-3 after 90 minutes with Kyle Farrar, Ryan Tyrer, and Joe Watt scoring for Duluth. AET resulted in chances but no goals, leading to a penalty shootout. Alberto Ciroi saved two penalties to put us a winning position if Liam Moore scored his. He did. The not-playing players and staff (including me) had lined up at the sideline with arms around each other for the entire affair. When Liam’s goal went in, we (and the players on the pitch) went insane.

It was one of the most fun nights of my life. We took pictures with the trophy, got our medals, and prepared for a long journey back home (and an eventual trip to Miami for the national semi-final). I’d enjoyed a lot of soccer games in my life, but this was the first time it felt like I’d been a part of something big. That was special.

Minnesota United host Real Salt Lake (2017) – First Win in MLS Regular Season

The 2017 season was a rough one for Minnesota United, especially early on. Countless matches ended in steep defeats and the club was holding tightly on to the occasional draw for signs of hope. Having attended the first home game, a horrible loss, I trekked back to the Twin Cities with the help of my dad to see the second home game against RSL.

The match started tough, with Luke Mulholland scoring for RSL just four minutes in. For many fans, it seemed like the same old same old was on the way. My dad and me stayed hopeful and our hopes were repaid in the 16th minute when Kevin Molino equalized. It was 1-1 at the half but over the last 45 minutes, Christian Ramirez would score twice and Johan Venegas would add a fourth to give Minnesota an eventual 4-2 win.

Singing wonderwall for the first time in MLS, the entire stadium was alive with pride and passion for their club. The season may have started horribly, but that win against RSL was a sign of the progress to come. It was a special night for the club and a special night for me.

Duluth FC at Miami FC (2018) – NPSL National Semi-Finals

Having won the regional final, Duluth FC now needed to travel to Miami for the national semi-finals to face former NASL members Miami FC. The team flew there this time around, arriving the day before our match, the first time the club had made the final stage of the NPSL playoffs.

The team trained at the field the day before the match, earning an absolute sweat storm along the way. This warranted a trip to a laundry mat, which I took on. In all honesty, it was a bit of a fish out of water situation.

We finally reached the match, having explored a few places to eat and South Beach, and faced off against the essentially-professional Miami FC. Issues with power to our locker room and a lack of materials promised by the hosts led to a slow warm up, while I stood out front giving tickets to various Duluth fans attending for the club and/or players they had connections to.

Eventually the game kicked off, with me now operating as the photographer due to our usual photographer, Alex Ganeev, not being able to come with the team. Using a camera rented from my college’s media lab, I did my best to take photos of the action while Duluth faced Miami. The match ended 3-0, with the hosts proving too good for our band of amateur all-stars. There was pride in the result, however, because we had made it this far. It was an important lesson in the value of a loss and three days of travel, preparation, and football that I’ll never forget.