It wasn't the regular-season finale they envisioned at the start of the season, but considering the situation, the Madison 56ers couldn't have been much happier about their last National Premier Soccer League game of 2013.
Jesus Miranda (Madison La Follette) scored the go-ahead goal in the 67th minute and Luke Jenner added an insurance goal in the final moments of stoppage time as the 56ers beat Quad City 3-1 last Saturday night at Breese Stevens Field, the first loss of the season for the Midwest Region Central Division champions.
"It was real good – it was pretty much what we hoped for," said Madison coach Jim Launder, whose team was eliminated from the Central race with a 4-2 loss to Quad City six days earlier in Riverdale, Iowa.
Trevor Banks (Madison Memorial) gave the third-place 56ers (6-3-3) the lead just 61 seconds in and Madison allowed the Eagles (9-1-1) just two shots on goal in the victory.
"I think we played some of the best football we've played this year, it's a good way to finish," said English midfielder Jack Keeling, who set up Miranda's game-winner. "We were saying that we wanted to finish on a high, so that's what we did – even missing a lot of guys. We've done well to get a result tonight."
One could understand if Quad City was lacking motivation, having already clinched the title. But if the Eagles get past Great Lakes Division champion Erie Admirals in the Midwest final next Saturday, the NPSL semifinal pairings are based on teams' points-per-game average in the regular season, so every point matters.
"It wasn't a dilemma about how we wanted to play – we wanted to go out and win the game – but unfortunately I think our players checked out a little bit and felt this was a meaningless game," said Quad City coach Scott Mejia, who made three changes from the side that beat Madison on Sunday. "The mental discipline was a bit lacking today, for sure."
The 56ers noticed that right away. "We were saying in the huddle at the start – 'They're not ready, let's go after them hard early, get a goal early,' and that's exactly what we did," Keeling said.
Madison got the opening kickoff and didn't give it up until Eagles goalkeeper Yves Dietrich picked the ball out of his net just after the minute mark. Keeling's drive from distance hit traffic in the box, the ball went up in the air and Banks zipped a shot past Dietrich on the half-volley from 12 yards out on the right side.
The home team continued to dominate throughout the opening 45 minutes. Dietrich made two great saves, diving to deny Miranda's 15-yard strike in the 37th and deflecting Jade Johnson's blast at the right post a minute later.
Quad City, which tied the 56ers 0-0 in its previous trip to Madison, was outshot 13-2 in the first half – the Eagles' first attempt at goal was Charlie MacInnes' speculative 35-yard shot in the 40th, one that was blocked by Banks.
"I don't know, they looked like they were in a weird place," Launder said of Quad City. "They were talking about how they needed to win this game, but I don't know."
Mejia made some changes at halftime, most notably moving Javier Bautista – the top goal-scorer in the Midwest Region with 10 in the first 10 games – from the right side to the left.
And the visitors got the equalizer in the opening minute of the second half, but it was due to an error by UW keeper Max Jentsch (Hartland Arrowhead) more than anything. Eduardo Garza shot from the left side and it looked like it would be a routine save for Jentsch, but the ball somehow got through the keeper's hands.
Keeling's fine work on the right side led to Miranda's goal just more than 20 minutes later. He took on Eagles defender Luke Ridgway, who went down and tried to tackle the ball away, but Keeling stayed with it, got to the endline and served in a cross that Miranda dove and headed past Dietrich for his third goal of the season.
"I thought (Ridgway) was going to take me out, but it went through his legs and I just hopped over him," Keeling said. "Everyone was (on the back post) shouting for it and then I just saw Jesus in the middle so I played him. He's a good striker, if he gets chances he's going to put them away."
Five minutes later, Bautista seemingly had pulled Quad City level again. The speedy forward got in on the left side and flipped the ball toward the net, past Jentsch and UW defender Carl Schneider (Madison La Follette), who both were down on the ground. But left back Chris Brown (McFarland/UW-Platteville) raced in and cleared it off the line.
"It was a great ball in and Javi got in well, too – he turned the corner and unfortunately if he hits that ball a little bit harder anywhere else with it elevated, it's in the goal," Mejia said. "He just didn't hit it with very much conviction and unfortunately we just didn't have anyone framing the goal. We all thought it was going to 2-2 at that point."
Instead it remaining 2-1 until the penultimate kick of the game.
The Eagles poured numbers forward looking for another equalizer, including sending Dietrich up to take a free kick near midfield. Eventually, a mis-hit ball sailed into the air near midfield and came down to Jenner, who raced in alone and finished into the vacant net for his first goal of the season. The final whistle blew after Quad City kicked off.
"That's the way to finish them off," Launder said Jenner, who plays at NCAA Division II Florida Southern and grew up playing with 56ers defender Matt Balshaw in their native England. "He came in injured, it took him like two-thirds of the year to get back and then it's hard working him in. For him to finish with a goal is nice."
It was a night of opportunities for Madison, which was without nine players who have started games this season. Derek Ott (Middleton), who is headed to Northern Illinois in the fall, was one of four subs for the 56ers and made his NPSL debut, while Johnson logged 90 minutes for the first time and was named the team's "Man of the Match."
"When I first got here, everyone else had a little bit more prestige than me, a lot more experience," said Johnson, who plays with Keeling, Balshaw and 56ers defender Dominic O'Connor at NAIA Jamestown (N.D.).
"Coming in new, obviously I didn't get so much time to start, but I worked my way up and finally played the whole game tonight and thought I did pretty well. Now it's time to go back to college and keep it going."
Launder said: "I thought he played a good game, very active. He held the ball for us – early in the game, he held the ball really well and got us that rhythm going."
July 13, 2013 NPSL match at Breese Stevens Field
Madison 56ers – Trevor Banks 2
Quad City Eagles – Eduardo Garza 46
Madison 56ers – Jesus Miranda (Jack Keeling) 67
Madison 56ers – Luke Jenner 90+
MADISON 56ERS: Max Jentsch; Chris Brown (Derek Ott 81), Matt Balshaw, Mike Prudisch, Carl Schneider; Claudiu Aionesei (Luke Jenner 73), Trevor Banks, Jack Keeling, Ryan Buda (Dominic O'Connor 55); Jade Johnson, Jesus Miranda (Max Campos 68). Substitutes not used: None.
QUAD CITY EAGLES: Yves Dietrich; Kurt Albrecht (Jordan Collins 65), Michael Davis (Luke Ridgway 63), Javid Wood, Simon Brown; Eduardo Garza (Grant Harter 65), Willy Kappy (Ryan Merideth 60), Emlyn Jacoby, Drew Edmond (Ryan McEvoy 72); Javier Bautista, Charlie MacInnes (Drew Merideth 73). Substitutes not used: Lucas Zicher (GK), Miguel La Ferrara.
Saves: M (Jentsch) 0, QC (Dietrich) 4. Shots: M 20, QC 7. Corner kicks: M 3, QC 1. Fouls: M 7, QC 12. Offsides: M 2, QC 4. Discipline: QC – Wood 78 (yellow, reckless challenge); M – Brown 78 (yellow, unsporting behavior); QC – Jacoby 80 (yellow, unsporting behavior); QC – Brown 88 (yellow, dissent).