In the same fashion as they've done it all year, Des Moines Menace picked up a victory in a high-octane offensive showing against Kings Hammer FC in the 2022 USL League Two Central Conference semifinal round Sunday evening.
Valley Stadium once again saw Des Moines win a crucial playoff battle, as two late first-half goals took the wind out of their opponents to set up a simpler second period.
As with their 4-0 win over Kaw Valley FC in the opening playoff round on Friday, Menace struggled to respond to early pressing from their opponents.
Fresh off an emotionally-charged win on penalties, Kings Hammer were raring to go at the start, chasing Menace off the ball early in midfield.
The first thirty minutes saw limited chances for both sides, but each goalkeeper had a pair of efforts to deal with before 30 minutes were up.
Keeping their patience, however, Menace broke through in the 40th minute with a brilliant individual effort from captain Ryley Kraft.
The California-born attacking midfielder found himself in space on a missed pass and did the rest himself. Kraft dribbled 15 yards forward before launching a low effort to the goalkeeper's left, beating him at his far post and scoring his fifth of the season.
Menace weren't done in the first half, though; an erroneous back pass fell fortuitously to striker Eliot Goldthorp, who happily latched onto the ball and slotted it into the Kings Hammer net on the stroke of 45 minutes.
Goldthorp's eighth of the season followed a brace on Friday, giving him three goals in three days and giving Des Moines a 2-0 lead to bring into the break.
SECOND HALF (Menace 2 - 0 Kings Hammer at half)
Following the familiar script of 2022's home matches for Menace, the second half was a brighter start for the defending champions than the first.
The home fans at Valley Stadium were only made to wait 16 minutes for the third goal of the match, coming via a pair of pinpoint passes from midfielder Luka Nedic and wing back Gianluca Fiorini.
It was Fiorini's cutback from the right edge of the box that found Brandon Bermingham lurking, and the Irish striker scored off the bench for the second straight match.
With Bermingham's seventh goal of the campaign in the back of the net, Menace grew more comfortable and dominant on the ball.
Kings Hammer, for their part, sent on attacking substitutions and kept up a high work rate to try and affect the final result.
Their effort would pay off with under 10 minutes to play, as a throw in from right back Quinn Thompson was met by Ben Damge's head at the near post.
Damge flicked the ball behind him across the face of goal, and there to knock it home was Sam Robinson in the 84th minute.
With the game still in the balance but time running thin, Menace made sure to secure the result with one final dagger.
This time, a fourth goalscorer appeared on the evening. Brazilian attacker Felipe D'Agostini caught a Kings Hammer defender in possession. With no one in front of him, he sauntered down the left-hand side and beat the goalkeeper at the far post for the finishing touch in the 88th minute.
"We've kind of realized now that whenever anyone comes to play us, it's a massive game for them. Everyone comes out really fast with us, and we just have to get through those first twenty minutes before we can settle down and play our game.
"Survive and advance; we're really happy with the result and hopefully we can keep the trophy here in Des Moines."
- comments from Menace head coach Dean Johnson
Starting XI (3-4-1-2): Grant Makela, goalkeeper; Connor Langan, Zeron Sewell, Kori Cupid, defenders; Gianluca Fiorini, Neville Morgan, Luka Nedic, Lance Rozeboom, Ryley Kraft, midfielders; Eliot Goldthorp, Shaft Brewer Jr., forwards
Leading goalscorers Goldthorp and Bermingham combined to contribute five goals across the two playoff matches this weekend.
Bermingham has now scored in seven of his last eight matches despite coming on as a substitute in his last three appearances.
With his goal, Kraft becomes the first and only Menace player to reach five goals and five assists on the season.
KICKS AND GIGGLES
Flint City Bucks won the opposite semifinal in the Central Conference earlier Sunday, setting up a third playoff meeting in three years between the League Two mainstays.
Menace have scored four goals on seven occasions this season, five of which have come in home matches and two of which were playoff matches.
With Kings Hammer's goal, Menace lost the potential for a three-match clean sheet streak.
Menace assistant coach Adam Kay received a yellow card in the second half. After a sending off directed at Kaw Valley head coach Alex Nichols Friday, Menace have now played in two straight matches that featured a booking for a staff member.
In a repeat of last season, Menace will host the Central Conference Final, bringing Flint City Bucks to town this time around.
The Western Conference final will also take place in West Des Moines and will be contested by 4-seed Ballard FC of Washington and 5-seed Ventura County Fusion.
Ballard and Ventura County will do battle at 3 p.m. on Friday, July 29 before Menace and Flint City fight for the Central Conference crown that night at 7 p.m.
The winners of the two matches will meet for the national semifinal on Sunday, July 31 at 7 p.m. All matches will be held at Valley Stadium and streamed live on YouTube and Eleven Sports via CISN.