Western Conference Championship, Match #2
Weather: Cloudy, Cool, 58 degrees
In what had been expected to be the 'Border Battle - Part II', Minnesota Thunder fans were treated to what they know their team can do best: Play as a unit, strike without warning, and frustrate a multitude of opponents on their home turf.
After Thursday evenings physical and tenuous match in Milwaukee, the Minnesota Thunder came out at home, in a match that would decide whether they would get the opportunity to defend their 1999 A-League Championship crown in 2000, and put on a clinic.
Milwaukee, to their credit, played a wide open, fair tackleing, end to end game that their fans should be proud of. Despite the final score line, the Milwaukee Rampage never gave up. Milwaukee also learned that Minnesota has taken the art of knowing how to get up for the big games to a fine art. While Minnesota has disappointed during short spurts during their regular season, losing or tieing games most thought they should have won, when it all hinges on a single games result, they all show up, on the same page, and get the job done.
I have to honestly admit that after going to Vancouver and losing 3-0 to the 86ers, I thought the Thunder had dug a hole they would not be able to dig themselves out of. I could not have been more wrong. In chatting with players at the after match party last night, I learned that former Thunder stand out, Tony Peszneker, had written a single magical word on the blackboard of the Thunder locker room prior to match number 2 against Vancouver:
Last night Minnesota proved they are ready to defend last years title, against whoever, where ever. And also that they 'Believe'. In their run to the championship match last season, I saw a confidence on the field that I had not seen before, and knew well in advance of the final that we would get there and win it. Going into this post season, I have seen a completely different kind of confidence. Not one like last season where they played as if they knew they could come back, but were never really placed in the position of having to prove it. No, this season, the competition was stiffer, the matches much more difficult, and teams played up to them and MADE them prove it!
Last nights match saw Milwaukee play a good match against an opponent who was clicking on all cylinders. Again, let me say that Milwaukee played a tough match last night. Long mid-field battles went on for control of the ball between both sides, and defensively, Milwaukee played very solidly for long stretches. Dan Popik, Milwaukee's starting keeper had an outstanding match last night making several excellent saves.
Minnesota on the other hand, had other plans for the outcome of this huge match. With patience and precision, Minnesota worked the full width of the field, and with slicing and penetrating runs, were able to open spaces to exploit and then made the most of opportunities they created. Morgan Zeba kept the Milwaukee defense guessing the entire night as each time he would get the ball on the flanks, Popik and his defense never knew whether Zeba would take the ball to the corner for a pin-point cross, or make a last minute cut straight on goal looking to take someone one-on-one. Zeba used this tactic effectively all evening, keeping Milwaukee on their heels waiting to find out what Zeba would do with the ball. This deceptive ability last night helped Zeba play a key role in setting up Johnny Menyongar in the 15th minute for Minnesota's first goal, and again in the 45th minute finding Chugger Adair to make it 2-0 at halftime.
The 2nd half saw Milwaukee come out playing hard to get back into the match. At this point Milwaukee was down 6-3 on aggregate, and would need a huge second half to stay alive. Minnesota would have none of this however, and continued to play solidly as a team, waiting for a Milwaukee mistake. Some other things became apparent as the game wore on. First, for the second straight game, Minnesota had effectively taken scoring sensation Digital Takawira completely out of the match. When Takawira got touches on the ball, he was under immediate pressure and his passes were regularly off target. The other notable was that MLS imports, Yuri Lavrinenko and John Wolyniec, from the Chicago Fire, did not spark the Milwaukee to offensive greatness like they had in past meetings. Wolyniec was nearly invisible most of the match, while Lavrinenko had two outstanding shots generating two of the three saves Thunder keeper John Swallen was forced to make last night.
In the 62nd minute, Chuggar Adair got his second goal of the match off an assist by Brian Winters, and essentially shut the door on Milwaukee. Again, to Milwaukee's credit, they did not give up, but it was clearly a different type of game now. One of pride, not necessarily of winning. Goals in the 74th by Stoian Mladenov from Nate Winkel, and in the 89th by Johnny Menyongar from Paul Schneider, showed the Thunder had no intention of letting Milwaukee get back into this match. Being complacent and sitting on a lead can be the most dangerous thing a team can do to it's mentality in a big match. The Thunder never took their foot off the gas in this match.
The Thunder are ready to defend their 1999 A-League Crown against the winner of this evenings Rochester v. Toronto match. Next weekend they get one more chance to 'Believe' in themselves as a team, and put it to work on the pitch.
13th minute - Josh Timbers (MIL) breaks thru on the left side, drawing Swallen to the near side of his goal. Timbers quickl shot goes JUST wide to the right.
15th minute - GOAL Minnesota - Johnny Menyongar (Morgan Zeba)
A classic cross into the box by Minnesota's Morgan Zeba finds Johnny Menyongar who leaps into the air and heads the ball cleanly past Popik to put Minnesota up 1-0.
18th minute - josh Timbers (MIL) fouls Johnny Menyongar just outside the 18, then Brian Loftin (MIL) draws a Yellow card for desent. Free kick by Stoian Mladenov (MIN) goes high.
21st minute - Corner kick Milwaukee....blocked by Menyongar, then followup into the 18 cleared by the Thunder defense...play continuing on the right flank, then Milwaukee regains possession of the ball, then the quick pass forward catches Takawira offside.
28th minute - Thunder break thru the middle, Zeba beats Popik on the run to the ball, then turns and puts the ball back across the box, and Jahr clears it over the end line. Corner kick Thunder - cleared by Milwaukee.
34th minute - Thunder have regained a bit of control in midfield, but are lacking on the last touches as they approach the box under solid defensive pressure from Milwaukee.
39th minute - weak play by Milwaukee in the midfield allows a Minnesota steal, that Milwaukee defense forces wide...Thunder throwin...cleared by Milwaukee.
42nd minute - Zeba breaks down the right flank and goes in one-on-one against Popik...Popik is up to the task with an awesome save at roughly 6yds away...Cornerkick cleared by Milwaukee.
45th minute GOAL Minnesota - Chugger Adair (Morgan Zeba)
A beautiful ball sent from deep by Mike Gentile finds Morgan Zeba streaking down the right flank...this time Zeba chips Popik, but catches the post and Chugger Adair buries it in the net.
Halftime - Minnesota 2, Milwaukee 0
48th minute - free kick by Yuri Lavrinenko..stellar punch save by John Swallen...Corner Milwaukee...cleared wide...
54th minute -Mladenov gets a gift of a ball at his feet, putting him one-on-one against Popik and wiffs it.
62nd minute - GOAL Minnesota - Chugger Adair (Brian Winters)
Rocket of a shot by Brian Winters rebounds back out and Chugger Adair jumps on it and buries it! Thunder up 3-0.
66th minute - rocket of a shot by Yuri Lavrniemko, saved by John Swallen..
72nd minute - nice midfield play by Milwaukee, then a poor shot sent wide by Hrvoje Galovic.
74th minute - GOAL Minnesota - Stoian Mladenov (Nate Winkel Winkel)
Nate Winkel, who had just seconds earlier subbed in, feeds Stoian Mladenov who beats Popik low and to the left. Thunder up 4-0.
78th minute - Minnesota has a 3 on 1 breakaway, with Morgan Zeba against Dan Popik, and Zeba skys the ball.
89th minute - GOAL Minnesota - Johnny Menyongar (Paul Schneider)
A great two one one break for Minnesota sees Schneider feed Menyongar who pulls Popik out, side steps him and buries the ball.
Final: Minnesota 5, Milwaukee 0
MINNESOTA THUNDER 5, MILWAUKEE RAMPAGE 0 (Minnesota wins series, 9-3). Goals: Johnny Menyongar (Morgan Zeba) 15, Chugger Adair (Morgan Zeba) 45, Chugger Adair (Brian Winters) 62, Stoian Mladenov (Nate Winkel) 74, Johnny Menyongar (Paul Schneider) 89.
MINNESOTA - John Swallen, Mark Schulte, John Coughlin, Eric Otto, Don Gramenz, Mike Gentile (Aaron Leventhal, 67), Brian Winters, Morgan Zeba (Paul Schneider, 79), Stoian Mladenov, Johnny Menyongar, Chugger Adair (Nate Winkel, 73).
MILWAUKEE - Dan Popik, Josh Timbers (Hrvoje Galovic, 67), Josh Provan (Nate Houser, 49), Chris Jahr, Alen Soso, Yuri Lavrinenko, Jason Russell (David Marshall, 46), Jason Willan (Matt Tirschmann, 58), Brian Loftin (Mirsad Dzilic, 81), John Wolyniec, Digital Takawira.
SHOTS - Minnesota 14, Milwaukee 9.
SAVES - Swallen (MIN) 3, Popik (MIL) 3.
FOULS - Minnesota 15, Milwaukee 15.
OFFSIDE - Minnesota 3, Milwaukee 2.
CORNER KICKS - Minnesota 7, Milwaukee 3.
CAUTIONS - Loftin (MIL) 18, Houser (MIL) 51, Menyongar (MIN) 67.
EJECTIONS - None.
ATTENDANCE - 3,414.
OFFICIALS - Terry Vaughan, Tony Vasoli, Ken Lamb, Jeff Filipek.