The Atlanta Silverbacks had been winning games, but not very convincingly. That changed on Saturday night, as they cruised past Minnesota United FC, 3-1, in front of a sellout crowd of 5,000 fans at Atlanta Silverbacks Park.
Goals from forwards Ruben Luna and Pedro Mendes and midfielder Danny Barrera gave the Silverbacks their third straight home win and their straight triumph over Minnesota United.
“We’ve been having those chances all year and we haven’t taken them, so I’m happy that after all our hard work tonight, we got the goals,” said Silverbacks Head Coach Brian Haynes.“They are professionals and this is their job, which they take seriously. We can’t go into the final limping, so I will be playing the best eleven I have every week.”
Minnesota United, one of the four teams that sat seven points behind the league-leading New York Cosmos entering Saturday night’s game, were without the services of star forward and leading scorer Pablo Campos – not exactly what head coach Manny Lagos needed as his team entered a relative “must-win” situation.
The absence of Campos showed early on, as it was the Silverbacks who were the ones creating scoring chances and applying pressure on the visitors’ back line. Haynes’ club, hosts of November’s NASL Soccer Bowl 2013, started the game on the front foot, and nearly went ahead inside nine minutes. Forward Pedro Mendes started a blistering run towards the visiting goal before laying the ball off to midfielder Horace James. James’ shot forced a rebound from Minnesota United goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel, and it fell right to forward Ruben Luna. Luna probably thought he had scored, but his shot was cleared off the line at the last moment by Minnesota United defender Aaron Pitchkolan.
In the 39th minute, midfielder Alex Caceres was the next Silverbacks player to nearly put his team on top, but the Colombian’s effort from seven yards ended up on the wrong side of Van Oekel’s near post. Two minutes after Caceres came close, his teammate Mendes followed suit. The Brazilian curled a beautiful free kick off the crossbar from a very wide angle, coming agonizingly close to beating Van Oekel.
The Silverbacks would get the goal they deserved in the 42nd minute, however, and it was Luna who provided the finishing touch. Caceres sprayed the ball out wide to defender Mike Randolph, who sent in a pinpoint cross that found the head of Luna right in front of the goal. The tally was the Mexican’s seventh of the season, giving him the outright team lead.
While Minnesota United came out of the locker room after halftime looking a little more lively than they looked early on, the Silverbacks still had the better of the game’s scoring chances. In the 69th minute, Barrera was introduced as a substitute, and it didn’t take long for the former U.S. youth international to make an impact on the game. Defender Shane Moroney found space on the right wing and sent in a perfect cross that found Barrera, who headed the ball off the hands of Van Oekel and into the net for a 2-0 lead in the 74th minute.
Down two goals and in desperate need of three points, Minnesota United threw everybody forward, and it paid off in the 82nd minute. Defender Cristiano Dias was clipped by Silverbacks goalkeeper Joe Nasco, forcing referee Daniel Fitzgerald to point to the spot. Forward Simone Bracalello expertly dispatched the penalty kick, cutting the Silverbacks lead to 2-1.
It wasn’t to be for Minnesota United, however, as a nearly identical play happened on the other end in the 89th minute. Van Oekel fouled an onrushing Mendes in the penalty area, giving the Silverbacks a trip to the penalty spot. Mendes easily finished the job, firing the ball low into the net to give his team a 3-1 lead and seal the three points.
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|Minnesota United FC||14||6||2||6||2||20|
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|San Antonio Scorpions||12||6||2||4||4||20|
|Tampa Bay Rowdies||12||5||3||4||5||18|
|Minnesota United FC||12||4||2||6||-5||14|
|Fort Lauderdale Strikers||12||2||2||8||-14||8|