Tomas Gonzalez battles with Abdirahman Shariff for the ball. Photo by Dominic Jose Bisogno
First Half – Setting the Scene
Sunday, July 9 saw 18×26 Academy host Leon in the first-ever UPSL Division 1 Midwest-West championship game. It was a thrilling conclusion to the the UPSL’s debut of a second division in Minnesota, featuring two teams that were making their debut seasons in the UPSL.
18×26 entered the playoffs already promoted to the premier division for 2024, having won the regular season title. Third seed Leon earned promotion by making this game at all, beating number two seed Bateaux in the semifinals. While promotion was already guaranteed for both clubs, there was no lacking of energy in the final.
It was Leon who hit the ground running at St. Louis Park High School, creating big chances for the likes of Eric Contreras, player-coach Luis Angel, and Jesus Quiroz. Leon couldn’t convert, however, and 18×26 survived long enough to create chances of their own as the half closed out.
Both defenses managed the game well and interceptions were common in the midfield, particularly the goalkeepers (Kike Perez for Leon and Abdi Jama for 18×26) led well from the back. Strong connections to center backs Noe Trigueros and Shire Abbas respectively were clear to the eye. 0-0 at halftime, both teams had reason to feel hard-done by the blank scoresheet.
Second Half – Tensions Rise
There was a passion clear in Sunday night’s game, as both sides looked to add a historic trophy to their collections. While promotion was already decided, the clubs’ respective crowds of fans, including family and friends, were more than enough to push both squads to try their best. The cultural backgrounds of both clubs were also clear, with many Leon fans coming with their Club Leon (of Liga MX) jerseys and the night becoming a gathering of communities and languages as Leon’s Latino, particularly Mexican, and 18×26 Academy’s African, particularly Somali, supporters made St. Louis Park home for the night.
If the first half was Leon’s in terms of chances, 18×26 Academy made the second half theirs with a re-energized attack. Abdirahman Shariff Hassan, Ahmed Aden, and Aidarus Mohamed bringing momentum down the wings, while substitutes Wilmont Manneh and Mubashir Nour created more problems for Leon centrally.
Leon responded with resolute defending from the likes of fullback Lauro Murillo and the defensive substitute Jose Garcia. The visitors held on long enough, as a counter attack unlocked the hosts’ defense and gave substitute Milo Kadi a chance to slot home the game’s only goal. Suddenly ahead 1-0 against pressure, the Leon players ran to the fence line to celebrate with their supporters.
Extra Time – Deciding Moments
To call 18×26 Academy a Somali-American club would probably be an understatement. The club is part of an organization that actually runs an academy in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Its leadership includes professional soccer player Omar Mohamed, who has played for the Somali national team in FIFA World Cup qualifying. The club is a prime example of a team who’s cultural identity is absolutely core to what they do.
Having spent almost an entire game racing for the opening goal, the sudden deficit unleashed a late surge from 18×26 Academy, who put all their cards on the table to find an equalizer. The hosts earned several corner kicks late in the game, testing the Leon defense to its limits on several occasions. Perez made the saves required of him, however, and other chances simply didn’t hit the target as 18×26 Academy laid siege.
The set piece chances continued for 18×26 Academy, culminating in a shot from the edge of the box by Wilmont Manneh. It went wide and the referee blew full time. Leon had won the UPSL Division 1 Midwest-West title, beating the number one and two seeds along the way.
Full Time – Celebrations
Leon received their trophy that night, raising it high after first coming to the stands to celebrate with their friends and families. After a brief party with the trophy, bottles, including some of the water variety, were popped and the players shared their appreciation to each other and the coaches with a generous celebratory spray.
Just like that, on a quiet Sunday night in St. Louis Park, Leon FC had won their first ever piece of UPSL silverware, a perfect cherry on top of their first season in the league after years of play in local recreation and latino leagues.