For all intents and purposes, the National Premier Soccer League playoffs are starting early for the Madison 56ers.
A 1-0 loss to the previously winless Minnesota Twin Stars on Saturday night at Breese Stevens Field in which the home team was clearly second best left the 56ers figuring they'll need to win their remaining seven league games to repeat as Midwest Region Central Division champions.
"We've got to win every game, that's all. Playoff time," Madison coach Jim Launder said. "That's how you've got to look at it right now unless someone else (messes) up, but you can't count on that."
UW-Green Bay's Lawrence Talery scored the lone goal in first-half stoppage time, driving a left-footed shot from the top left side of the box past UW-Milwaukee goalkeeper Ryan Onwukwe to the far post.
Minnesota (1-4-0) played the final 17 minutes – and seven minutes of stoppage time – with 10 men after 17-year-old center back Adama Keita was sent off for his second yellow card. The 56ers (3-2-0) threw everything forward but couldn't come up with an equalizer against a Twin Stars team they routed 5-0 six days earlier in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
"I knew they'd be really motivated because of the way we took them apart up there," Launder said.
That was evident from the opening whistle.
Minnesota fired off 11 shots in the first half, forcing Onwukwe into four quality saves before Talery's strike, while the Twin Stars always looked to be a step ahead of their counterparts. Madison had just two shots in the opening 45 minutes and its lone shot on target, a free kick by Sam Etim from 25 yards out in the 32nd, was right to goalkeeper Erik Hundevad.
"They were more aggressive to the ball, getting to everything," Launder said. "At halftime I said, 'Hey, we haven't won a second ball.' Partly we weren't getting close enough together, we weren't reacting quickly to balls. They were much faster mentally."
As the halftime whistle neared, Minnesota attacked again down the left flank. Talery got the ball from Martin Browne and worked toward the middle before unleashing a low, hard shot that eluded the diving Onwukwe.
"I think he is a very high-quality player, I've always liked him – when I saw him at Green Bay, he was very good," Launder said of Talery. "He's quick, he's dynamic, he's a good player."
The goal was a just reward for the Twin Stars' hard work, even if their enthusiasm did get a bit out of control with 10 fouls in the first half and 20 in the match.
"That's all we need – the intensity, the effort, because that's just what we lack sometimes," Talery said. "We have the technical players, we just need to put in the work and effort each and every game and we'll be a better team."
Talery's goal was just the second goal the 56ers have allowed in five league matches, but resulted in their second loss and left them nine points behind the Central-leading Quad City Eagles (6-0-0) with one game in hand.
"We came out a little lethargic. I don't don't know what exactly was wrong with us," said midfielder Keenan Newallo, the only player to play in all nine of the 56ers' seasons in the NPSL. "We really weren't hungry enough – they came out really hungry. They were anticipating the ball much quicker than us, they were getting on top of us.
"They played completely different. The last time we played them, they were really disorganized – not today."
Madison had some opportunities to pull level, including a header by Derek Pitts (Middleton) that flashed just wide of the right post off a long free kick by UW teammate Carl Schneider (Madison La Follette) in the 71st. Two minutes later, Keita was dismissed for his second yellow after taking down Carlos McCrary just outside the box on the left side.
Down a man with the slim lead, Minnesota didn't just sit back and defend, though, and nearly doubled its advantage in the 80th only to see Onwukwe make a big save and have a defender clear a second shot off the line.
"Coming to Madison is always tough," Twin Stars coach Youssef Darbaki said. "Madison 56ers is a good team, but we came with a strategy and we played well. The discipline always comes into play for us.
"I wasn't too worried, because we had control of the game until we had the red card, and then they started to come through. But we hung in there, we played well defensively."
It was one-way traffic for the final 10 minutes of regulation and the significant amount of stoppage time as the 56ers attacked in waves trying to salvage a point. Perhaps the best chance fell to midfielder Jack Keeling, whose shot through traffic in the 91st was tipped over the crossbar by Hundevad.
"We just played a bad game of soccer," Launder said of the evening. "For this team, that was just bad."
Now the focus turns to next Saturday's home match against unbeaten Quad City, which had this weekend off.
"We must win next week," Newallo said. "If we don't come out hard and win that game, that's going to be our season."
From the touchline
Adding injury to insult, Launder and assistants Jed Hohlbein (Middleton/UW) and Toni Minoldo likely will have to make changes on the backline against Quad City after left back Dominic O'Connor had to leave Saturday's game after a challenge by Emmanuel Brown in the 44th. Launder said O'Connor likely has a medial collateral ligament injury and will be out for a few weeks, and his natural replacement, Chris Brown (McFarland/UW-Platteville), is sidelined because of a quad injury. Against the Twin Stars, Trevor Banks (Madison Memorial) shifted back from midfield to play left back. ... Brown was booked for his tackle on O'Connor, one of six yellow cards issued to Minnesota on the night. ... Darbaki said the team released 13 of its older players during the offseason and is focused on developing younger players this season. "I knew this was going to be tough," said Darbaki, who has four 17-year-olds on the roster - including his twin sons Mounir and Hafid. "It's just a matter of getting some games under our belt, get some experience, and it showed today. I'm very happy." ... While the 56ers beat Eau Claire Aris 3-0 on Friday night at Breese Stevens, the Twin Stars were playing their first game of the weekend. "We're not going to use that as an excuse. We're better than that," Newallo said when asked if Madison was tired against a rested Minnesota team.
June 8, 2013 NPSL match at Breese Stevens Field
Minnesota – Lawrence Talery (Martin Browne) 45+
MADISON 56ERS: Ryan Onwukwe; Dominic O'Connor (Luke Jenner 44), Matt Balshaw, Bryan Minogue, Carl Schneider; Ryan Buda (Derek Pitts 54), Keenan Newallo, Luke Goodnetter (Jade Johnson 66), Trevor Banks; Carlos McCrary (Jesus Miranda 79), Sam Etim (Jack Keeling 59). Substitutes not used: Claudiu Aionesei, Michael Prudisch.
MINNESOTA TWIN STARS: Erik Hundevad; Ahmed Bah, Adama Keita, Maussa Toure, Emmanuel Brown; Whitney Browne, Lawrence Talery, Michael Greene, Martin Browne, Mounir Darbaki; Garga Matthew Nyuah. Substitutes not used: Juan Montealegre (GK), Oscar Cendejas, Hafid Darbaki, Giovanni Perez.
Saves: Mad (Onwukwe) 6, Min (Hundevad) 5. Shots: Mad 8, Min 16. Corner kicks: Mad 6, Min 6. Fouls: Mad 9, Min 20. Offsides: Mad 6, Min 3. Discipline: Min – Nyuah 20 (yellow, foul); Min – Brown 44 (yellow, foul); Min – Keita 56 (yellow, foul); Min – M. Darbaki 57 (yellow, unsporting behavior); Min – Keita 73 (yellow, foul); Min – Keita 73 (red, second yellow); Min – Talery 86 (yellow, foul); Mad – Banks 90+ (yellow, foul)