By Julian Basena
ST. PAUL, Minn. — For a moment, the Minnesota sports curse felt real. Facing deficits is a frighteningly novel experience for this Minnesota Aurora FC team. Just as new as the sellout crowds, playoff stakes and sharing the field with an undefeated opponent, the Indy Eleven.
The Aurora’s resilience felt rather familiar, however. And being down 1-0 coming out of halftime offered them a prime opportunity to showcase it. Eventually, two unanswered scores in the second half propelled the home side to a 2-1 victory at TCO stadium, advancing them to the semifinal round of the USL W League playoffs.
“It feels really good,” head coach Nicole Lukic said. “To be down going into the second half — we haven’t faced that before, not that deep in the game — and for our players to respond the way that they did I’m just so proud of them.”
A record-breaking 6,200 fans packed the Vikings’ facility to support the Aurora in their inaugural postseason match, a culmination of weeks of successful outings and an eye-catching playstyle that peppers opposing goal posts.
One fan, Madison, who’s attended every Aurora home game, has noticed how the fan support has continued to improve after each win.
“Each game gets more and more popular,” she said, “and they also continue to improve each game … it’s fun.”
As a former high school and collegiate soccer player herself, Madison recognizes how rare this level of excitement for a women’s team is.
“It’s actually wild the stadium is full here,” she said, “like I’m assuming that every girl on the field is like, ‘Oh s—, this is incredible.’ We have a full stadium and it’s not a bleacher full — it’s a whole stadium.”
Stephan, a member of Revontulet, an Aurora fan group, and owner of shares of the soccer club, has a similar sentiment, particularly when it comes to what the Aurora means for women’s sports.
“It’s so important and so special that we’re able to put together this almost professional experience for both the fans and the players to show that women’s sports is a legit thing that [Minnesota was] ready for,” he said. “That was needed in this city. [I’m] just super happy that we’re able to do this.”
Record-breaking crowds have quickly become a norm for this Minnesota team. In their penultimate home game in June, a then record-shattering crowd of 6,016 attended. Each game has seen a new set of fans clamoring to witness the historic campaign.
One fan and his daughter, who had never previously been to a home game, were excited to see a Minnesota team compete at such a high level.
“[Minnesotans] don’t get that a lot in sports,” he said. “It’s fun to have a team that’s really good.”
As the Aurora trudged through the first half, it looked as though they had lost touch with nearly everything that made them so alluring and successful and stumbled to a 0-1 start. The defense of Minnesota was lacking and the Eleven’s pressure introduced an array of promising chances for the visitors — mistakes mounted for the Aurora.
Fortunately for the Aurora, goalie Sarah Fuller, the player of the game, cleaned up a good portion of those mistakes, saving one penalty kick at the 25th minute and two other well placed shots in the box during the opening period.
“She was super locked in, as soon as she saved that [penalty shot] we knew she was gonna have a phenomenal game,” Lukic said. “We couldn’t have won without that game she played today.”
After conceding their first goal just before halftime thanks to a defensive mishap, the Aurora came out of the gates playing a cleaner, more aggressive game. They were promptly rewarded with equally energetic fan support, favorable calls from the refs and, of course, goals.
The 50th-minute equalizer was a result of pure skill. A deep chip shot, slotted perfectly out of the opposing keeper’s reach, from Morgan Turner emboldened the home team and forced Indy to respect her presence on the pitch. No Eleven defenders seemed to be prepared for the assignment of guarding Turner, and the offense opened up even more.
Soon, an impatient shove on Turner in the box gave the Aurora a penalty kick — an opportunity they did not squander. In her first start with a chance to score her first goal, defender Mayu Inokawa was sent to take the place kick and give her team the lead. With a flair for the dramatic, she casually tip-toed her way into a shot that improved the score to 2-1 — a lead they held tight to the end.
Meanwhile, the Aurora defense started to put things together and assisted Fuller in ensuring the second half run was unanswered. Defenders Kelsey Kaufusi and Rachel Preston were key in quelling the Indy attack and keeping the comeback alive.
“Oh my God, they’re so solid,” Fuller said. “They make my job so much easier … probably the best backline I’ve worked with in my entire career.”
For at least another few days, the Aurora seems to be invulnerable to Minnesota’s sports curse and destined for another week of perfection.
They passed their first competitive test with flying colors.
Wherever this galvanizing team happens to end up after the end of the playoffs, as this new, fledgling club hopes to grow into a successful staple of Minnesota sports, it’s clear there’s something special to appreciate now and for years to come.