By Jordan Spratt
Shreveport,LA -Minus the inner monologues of the coaches and players of the Rafters, Saturday night’s game had the burdening label of pressure written all over it. Looking at the table, it looked as though the team hadn’t heard the starting whistle of the race, as the GP column massively outweighed the PTs column. Every game without getting points makes the next game that much more important. No offense to the hosting Tyler FC Kings, but this game was only about the Rafters no matter the opponent.
“During the week Gary and Bret, they helped take the pressure off, but they still let us know today was a massive game. Friday, I said in the dressing room when we were leaving- some of the guys were saying we’re gonna miss the Champions League game [Saturday], when tonight was really our Champions League game,” said Mark Hammond.
Coach Barker rolled his team out in the 4-1-4-1 formation that was previously used in the last game against the Fort Worth Vaqueros. The Rafters flexed their player versatility with familiar faces in new positions. Mark Hammond(RCB) and John Pollifrone(RB) moved from the midfield positions to create a back four partnering with Myron Duffy(LB) and Riley Unger (LCB). Jah’lon Johnson manned the 6-role while Jacob Cunningham and Zachary Breaux patrolled the central midfield.
“We had little over a week to prepare and in the that time we took a look at player positions, roles, and tactics. We kind of discovered some gems and put players in more comfortable positions for ‘em,” said Coach Barker.
The part of the formation that would give the Kings so much trouble were wingers, Steven Bush(L) and Lucas Pereira, who worked well with forward Leandro Cid Fernandez. The thing that stood out immediately was the top portion of the 4-1’s ability and willingness to take on players of the Kings- all of which being able to dribble past defenders and create chances out of nothing.
The rain seemed to stop as the referee blew his whistle, however, the wet field effect had already taken place. The slick turf and wet ball affected the fluidity of the back line of Tyler, as they seemed much less fluid in comparison to the preseason match up. Early on, a couple heavy touches and wayward passes from the back-four would set the tone of the match as the Rafters smelled blood. The Rafters were keen on making matters worse for them. Every successful transition pass from defense to midfield would be halted immediately with the Rafters not allowing anyone to turn with the ball. And those occasions with the ball would be rare for the Kings, as they only managed one shot 23-yards out, inside 18 minutes.
In contrast, it would only take the Rafters 13 minutes to score after a myriad of chances. Pereira would receive a long aerial cross from the left side with miles of space on the right-hand side. While his touch didn’t need to be perfect with the amount of space he had, it was more than both Tyler defenders could handle. Pereira would slalom through both defenders until it was just him and the keeper as he would confidently strike the ball in the lower left corner without an inch to spare. Dating back to the Fort Worth game, it would be his second goal in only 35 total minutes. Rafters up 0-1.
A goal to the good, the Rafters seemed more comfortable and confident with every part of the game. Usually in an away game getting one goal is more than enough incentive to sit back and protect the lead, but the Rafters’ game plan was to get more assurance as insurance. While Bush and goal scorer Lucas were terrorizing the Kings defense, it was Cid Fernandez who seemed to be the biggest threat for another.
In a span of ten minutes, the Brazilian would put fear in the Tyler crowd. The first, coming off a cross inside the 18-yard box from Breaux to Cid Fernandez whose attempt was inches wide from finding the good side of the net. The second, one of individual brilliance where the forward wrong footed 4 defenders for a shot directed right where Pereira had scored, producing the best save of the night by Tyler’s keeper.
In the 34th minute what seemed inevitable finally manifested. With Pereira on the left after he and Bush switched flanks, again the winger would best two defenders going toward goal to manufacture a near-post cross. Finding the end of the cross would be the incumbent goal scoring Cid Fernandez as he would poke the ball past the keeper, giving the Rafters a 0-2 lead.
The Rafters would put together a fantastic half of football with hogging the possession and the most impressive thing, stifling nearly every attack of Tyler before it got to the defensive third. Rafters up 0-2.
With the 3 points only 45 minutes away, the second half game plan remained the same: come out and attack. Keeping the Kings on their heels seem to be the best defense. The Kings came out with even less of a focus on defending the wingers, as Bush or Pereira were always open for a big switch and seconds later bearing down on the 18-yard box.
The Kings did come out with more of an offensive potency than the first half but with the high line of the Rafters, most of the chances were nullified with off sides calls. After keeper Tom Fuller remaining clean in the first half, his services had a slight larger demand- mainly coming out of his 6-yard box to clean up hopeful through-balls. It wasn’t until the 78th minute, 40-yards out, Tyler had a shot on goal.
With so many men committed forward, Tyler’s defense left tons of space for every attacking player of the Rafters- something that would cost them. In the 80th minute, Cunningham received a ball from the right from Nick Hammond. After a couple of touches and nobody coming close to remotely closing him down, the midfielder took one look at goal, picked his spot and blasted a shot in the bottom left corner, 25-yards out.
The Rafters would have their first conference in the books with plenty of time to grab a spot in the top two. The men now sit 3 points adrift of top two with 6 games left to play.
“We worked pretty heavily on the tactics and the roles we wanted the players to play this week- both on and off the ball as well as what our movement looked like in defense. It was one of those things that we felt, if we kept driving it home the results will come,” said Coach Barker.
While this game didn’t signify they’ve arrived where they want to be, it was definitely a boost in confidence to perform like a top team. With so many changes in the lineup, it was an exceptional performance from back to front and sustaining it will be the real question. Whatever the changes maybe the squad seems together- and whether on or off the pitch, everyone is there for one common goal. Winning.
The Rafters will hope to replicate their form against top tier opponents and the first up on that list will be the rematch against Midland Odessa FC this weekend, June 10th @ Graf Orthodontics stadium.
By Jordan Spratt