By Jordan Spratt
Shreveport, LA – Sometimes winning the games you’re expected to win can be just as hard a matchup as the ones you are expected to lose. Based on the Rafters’ recent form and the lack of success the Tyler FC Kings have had in their inaugural season, the Rafters had to make sure a potential upset did not derail their postseason pursuit.
This game would be a welcomed reminder to the Rafters of how much progress they’ve made, as most of the midseason changes came from the first matchup against Tyler in early June. The same lineup used against Tyler in the first conference matchup was deployed again. Staying true to what has recently produced 4 goals and conceded only 3, Coach Greg set his men in the conference unique 4-1-4-1 against Tyler’s 4-4-2. The movement of the Rafters has been fluid for the past 3 games and is now like clock work as they trust each other to be where the system dictates. The most notable moment of the system at work was in the 10th minute, ball on the left-hand side with Zachary Breaux, Steven Bush checked to the ball from the lone forward position. This opened the middle of the field for a diagonal back-side run from right winger Jackson Darnell who had plenty of space, as Tyler stayed occupied with the ball. Making things more difficult for the away side was the shifting of players as any given player could switch roles, making it hard for Tyler to account for who was doing what. Exhibit A, attacking-mid, Cid Fernandez switched with the defensive-mid, Jah’lon Johnson, and at another time, Jacob Cunningham would swap his central-midfield position for the left flank with Zachary Breaux.
Midfield is not something the Rafters have been too concerned with as far as possession goes. The team was out-possessed in the middle of the pitch but it showed no sign of giving Tyler the upper hand, as the back four of Ariza(LB), Unger(LCB), M. Hammond(RCB) and Pollifrone(RB) were rarely tested with any real white-knuckle threats. While the defense worked as a well-oiled machine, it was made possible by the customary outstanding goal keeping of Lance Quini. Numerous times he cleaned up any ball-in from the Tyler midfield, as the space between defense and keeper was always “keeper-ball!”. Pollifrone had his best game and probably the best defensive display any defender has had all season. His positioning is what made him so effective, as balls played to his opponent’s feet were stepped in front of and balls over the top were easily dealt with as he would occupy the space to behind his opponent. If he quit playing in the 30th minute, he would have already locked up man of the match honors.
In past matchups, the cohesion and precision of the Kings’ back-line has been an issue and the Rafters have shown a propensity to punish when it manifest. In the 33rd minute, keeper Sergio Gardea took a goal-kick that found the head of none other than Steven Bush. Bush headed the ball back inside to the diagonal run of Darnell. Darnell settled the ball down and clearly taking note of the keeper coming out, hit a soft chip that was just under the crossbar for the first goal of the game.
Selfishness as a forward is expected and sometimes encouraged but what is universally praised are the times where a striker is willingly unselfish making the correct decision. In the 57th minute, Darnell would spearhead a counter attack at midfield with two defenders scrambling to stay in front. On his right was Bush, who would draw one defender with his wide run. The through-ball played to Bush by Darnell could not be understated, as it gave Bush the perfect amount of space to draw the defender, yet keeping the ball out of reach. With an exquisite chop-touch to his left, Bush sent his defender to another galaxy opening up the back-post. With a left foot strike, Bush curled the ball inside the left post, as the keeper stood bewildered. The sequence was poetry in motion, as Bush capped off an 84 minute 3 goals 1 assist stat-line players only dream of. Rafters double their lead, making it 2-0.
Although the Rafters lost the possession battle in the first half all was made right in the second half, as they soared on the wings of a two-goal lead. With the midfield of Tyler frantically pushing forward in hopes of salvaging a goal, the Rafters midfield remained calm on the ball, not rushing any passes. However, the effort of the team was still there, as substitute Walcott came on delivering 2 signature clattering (yet clean, as he always makes known) tackles in the waning minutes of the matchup.
The Rafters would win the game they expected to and had to win catapulting them into the 4th position with 10pts on the season. The team looks confident as ever, with their first back-to-back wins of the season. With much to fight for this late in the season, the men in Blue and Gold are a team that have finally come to fruition and are ready to go at the top teams in the conference.
“We’re down to 18 [men] and it’s important to get the guys to buy-in. We’re a young team but as you can see tonight we made some good substitutions and everyone played a part- we used all seven subs. For me, getting [the system] across to the players has been a little difficult, but you can see it’s coming to a head. I think we’re a dangerous team in the league table with two games to go. I wouldn’t want to be Dutch Lions and play against us after our little run…I think we’re the only team that’s really picking up some important points at the final 1/3 of the season. Teams dropping points has really opened the league table up for us, so it’s important for us to keep the vision in mind and take each game as it comes. Being there for each other and fighting for the same purpose is important to us,” said Coach Palmer.
The schedule for the first time has shown the team favor playing back-to-back games against the conference leaders, which could serve as a litmus test pre-playoffs. The first leg of the match will be this weekend July 1st versus the Lions in Conroe, TX.
Substitutes: Plumbar and Alvarez for Breaux and Johnson 50th; Walcott and N. Hammond for Darnell and Bush 58th; Okeke for Cunningham 71st; Alvarado for Cid Fernandez 80th; Williams for Pollifrone 89th.