By: Jordan Spratt
Shreveport, LA – Undoubtedly the Rafters have improved from this season to last. Its noticeable from the coaching staff, the players, and even from the stands. But one place the improvement has yet to manifest, has been the conference table. Luck and misfortune play a huge part in our beautiful game and in key moments the Rafters have been the victims of the latter. With the second matchup against Midland Odessa FC the Rafters would attempt to build on recent conference success and hopefully begin to have good fortune on the side of the Blue and Gold.
With Coach Palmer only just arriving back with the team on Wednesday, as any good leader would do on short notice, he again yielded the reins to Coach Barker. Coming off a commanding victory over the Tyler FC Kings, Coach Barker employed the same 4-1-4-1 formation that has produced a 1-1 record, scoring 4 goals. The only difference in line up was John Plumbar inserted at midfield paired with Zachary Breaux.
“Being away for 2 weeks I can’t come in and change things. They got a good result against Tyler and they worked very hard leading up to this week. The staff have done a fantastic job. So I didn’t want to come and tweak things when we’re on a roll,” said Coach Palmer.
From the start, Midland played with the confidence of the top team in the conference. In their 4-4-2 formation, they sought to play their forwards in through diagonal runs against the back four of the Rafters. After being the most bored person on the field in Tyler, keeper Tom Fuller had to be on full alert from the first whistle. In the 6th minute, a Midland midfielder looked up to spot Fuller off his line. The chipped shot was thankfully just to the left of the goal avoiding an early concession for the home team. Only a minute later would the Rafters goal tender be threatened again as from the left side came a low shot to the keepers right. Inside 10 minutes, Midland would have 3 legitimate opportunities at goal and would certainly be ahead were it not for Fuller.
The Rafters would answer the barrage on goal when, active as always Steven Bush, was able to ignite attack from front to back. In the 8th minute, Bush played a ball to center forward Leandro Cid Fernandez who held the ball just long enough for Bush to receive it back from his overlapping run. Bush played a wonderful ball in to the back-post finding his counterpart Lucas Pereira who would just miss wide left of the goal.
In the 20th minute, Midland’s missed chances would come to an end to the Rafters disappointment. Gathering the ball at midfield was Zach Penner who would spot Jamie O’Grady making a back side run on the left. Inside the 6-yard box O’Grady would shoot across goal, while Fuller would redirect the shot, it wasn’t enough to keep it from rolling inside the post. Midland 0-1.
The Rafters first effort for an answer would be in the 24th minute. Plumbar would wall pass to Bush giving him a channel to run through down the middle. With his back to goal, Fernandez would receive Bush’s second pass as Bush continued his run toward the right corner flag. Rewarding the winger’s effort, Cid Fernandez would slot a ball through to Bush inside the 18-yard box as his off-balance shot would be launched over the cross bar- producing the most attractive attack thus far for the Rafters. Andrew Moullin did an admirable job of cleaning up most of the Rafters build up plays. As a center-back, he often stepped up as a holding-midfielder stopping the attack before it got to the Midland defensive 3rd.
The first foul wasn’t given until about halfway through the first half- the foul would also set the tone of the game as there were constant stoppages for referee conferences. The Rafters were the first to be
cautioned, with a card after a missed timed tackle from Cid Fernandez in the 40th minute. Only seconds later was the next card given to Pereira for a tackle right outside the Rafters penalty box, and for some reason that only the referee knows, a free kick was not given as the Midland player proceeded to take the throw-in.
After a low amount of possession in the first 40 minutes, the Rafters did well to hold the ball and methodically move the ball from front to back in the last 5 minutes. With Fuller producing great saves with 6 shots on target by Midland in the first half, the men were only looking at a 1 goal deficit at halftime. 0-1 Midland.
In the second half, the Rafters were finally given what’s been scarce all season: a dose of good fortune. After a yellow card given in the 50th minute for a foul on right-back, John Pollifrone, roughly 10 minutes later a second would be brandished to assist-man of Midland Zach Penner, meriting a red card. After pleading his case to no avail, the midfielder was relegated to the long walk of jeers from the crowd as the Rafters were given hope for a comeback on home turf.
It was like the Rafters were given a second wind after the red card, as the team kept a higher line and were charged with the task of going at the defense of Midland. Midland’s only adjustment was to drop a forward in their 4-4-2, meaning the Rafters still had work to do on attack but less to be concerned with in defense.
Knowing when and where to pressure is paramount at this level of soccer. With each run to close a man down, there is a cost and hopefully a reward. If you close-down too quickly you could be exposed and exploited in an instant and in other cases you can cause absolute panic. In the 73rd minute, a ball cleared out by Jah’lon Johnson about 5-yards past midfield- for what should have been a routine clearance turned out to be a disaster for Midland. Midland Keeper, Linares-Ortiz, came out to support his defender as Bush darted toward the ball, but rather than kicking the ball into infinity and beyond the ball was kicked with beyond infinite power into his defender’s face. The deflection caused the ball to roll towards goal with the added effort of the crowd cheers and stomps. In a frantic sprint, a Midland defender would just prevent the ball from rolling across the goal-line, but not before long life battery powered, Steven Bush would slide in on the clearance to force the ball in off the defender, with the ball bulging the back of the net. It was a goal that had to go in so all would be right with the universe. Rafters would tie up the game 1-1.
The Rafters pressure on goal became almost insufferable for Midland, as the visitors were forced to live only by the counter attack. Twice, substitutes Sean French and Che Walcott would hook up for a long ball that stretched the defense of Midland, forcing last second clearances. In the 82nd minute, Walcott received a ball at the top of the 18-yard box directly from a corner kick taken by Pereira. Walcott would take one touch to settle and in an instant, placed a shot with pace to top left corner. The shot would beat the keeper; however, it would not beat the post as it ricocheted off the woodwork keeping the scored knotted at 1-1.
In the 88th minute, the Rafters hopes were all but evaporated. Amid the Rafter’s fusillade of attacks, a foul was committed on a Midland counter about 45-yards out. Midland free kick taker, Moullin would hit a back spinning near post ball that would find midfielder Hamish Ritchie. Ritchie’s first touch would turn him around to face goal and give him a chance to pick his spot. The midfielder would chip outcoming keeper Fuller, putting Midland back up 1-2.
Considering the fouls, the lengthy fiasco of the red card given, and the overall time wasting of Midland (knowing that defending away in a tightly contested game would be easier if the ball was out of play), the referee only felt led to add 4 minutes to the game when it should have been at least 5. The Rafters would suffer the late heart break, losing to Midland 1-2.
“Took us about 45 minutes to finally kind of get in the groove that we were looking for but that second half was exactly what we wanted out of them consistently. From the difference between [both games versus Midland] tactically and personnel, was quite a difference. You could see a little bit of fire coming out in the boys and the want to try to win that game showed. That’s what we’re hoping to get out of them for the remainder of the season,” said Coach Barker.
With basically taking on a mid-season system change to accent the team’s strengths, the men have shown vast improvements. The team looks comfortable in their positioning and show they are confident in the system.
“We’ve change it quite a bit so far this season. And I think the system we’ve put in place, we can stick with them. We’ve seen a lot of promise from them in the past two games. With the two formations we said we’d like to run, we’ve seen greatness out of both of them. I think we’ve finally found a little bit of our identity in them. If we can continue to train and put it together I think we’ve got a lot of promise for some great things,” said Coach Barker.
Against arguably the best team in the conference, the Rafters put together an inspiring performance that just came up short in the waning minutes- which was a far cry from their first outing versus Midland. With the toughest opponent out of the way, the men can now focus on chasing top 4 being only 4 points behind Dutch Lions and the Houston Regals.
“We had [goals] set a week before the Tyler game. The Midland game was a passive game for us, we would have liked to get the full three points or a point out of it, but not getting points is not the end of the world for us. We just have to focus on the remainder of the season- there’s still hope for us for either that third or fourth spot to make the playoffs. Tonight kind of showed us that we can go toe to toe with any team in the conference,” said Coach Barker.
The Rafters travel to Fort Worth this weekend, June 3rd, to take on the Vaqueros for their 6th conference game.