In most soccer leagues, conventional wisdom is that winning at home and tying on the road is enough for teams to challenge for the title. But the National Premier Soccer League Midwest Region is anything but conventional this season.
Which is why Madison 56ers coach Jim Launder was left frustrated Saturday when his team gave up two goals off set pieces in the final 8 minutes and settled for a 2-2 tie with the Minnesota Twin Stars in a league opener in Minnetrista, Minn.
"I was disappointed to lose two points, because we were the better team on the day," Launder said, noting that conventional wisdom doesn't apply in the 13-team Midwest, in which some teams don't play each other and others play three times.
"You can't do it in this league. We play (the Twin Stars) twice on the road and once at home. ... So you can't go by that same thought process, because it's not an even schedule. You've got to try to win every single game you can win."
For much of the day, that looked like the most likely result.
Maranatha Baptist's Taylor Pill (Watertown) scored off a feed from Josh Thiermann (Stoughton/UW) in the 39th minute and Thiermann doubled the lead in the 75th as the 56ers seemingly were set to take all three points back home with them. But the Twin Stars made the most of two free kicks in the final quarter hour to earn a point.
"We didn't do a good job of just keeping the ball," Launder said. "I'm saying 'Keep the ball, keep the ball,' and we're not doing it. I think part of that is nobody knows what that means. We haven't had any time in training on how to kill a game."
After "terrorizing" Minnesota on the left flank, according to Launder, Thiermann set up the opener. He received the ball out wide and started going forward, then spotted Pill and played it across. "He just smoked it one-time from about 22 or 23 (yards) out," Launder said. "The thing was still rising when it hit the net."
Jed Hohlbein (Middleton/UW), the 56ers NPSL all-time leading scorer, came on with about 30 minutes left and helped create the second goal. His pass was the last one of a great sequence and led to Thiermann scoring for the second straight match – he also had a goal in Wednesday's 3-2 victory over Bavarian SC in a friendly.
"That goal was brilliant," Launder said. "It was an assist from Jed, but there were like four one-touch passes before it that were spot on. Josh played in and finishes."
The Twin Stars pulled one goal back in the 82nd off a crafty free kick. Launder, though, was vehement that center back Jack Hagstrom (Middleton) shouldn't have been called for the foul that led to the set piece.
"It shouldn't have been a free kick. It shouldn't have been anything, there wasn't a foul," Launder said of the play. "Hagstrom made a really good tackle and he got a yellow card for it. It wasn't even a foul."
Nonetheless, Minnesota clearly had prepared for such a set piece, which was about 20 yards out. "They had a guy run offside, then run back and another guy ran behind, got the ball, blooped it over and then they headed it," Launder said.
Madison goalkeeper Joe White got a slight deflection on the ball and the Twin Stars' Mounir Darbaki was able to direct his header on goal – 56ers midfielder Keenan Newallo (Madison) tried to clear it off the line, to no avail.
Then in the 87th, Minnesota got another free kick out wide. "Another head ball," Launder said. "They hit a great cross in, a lot of pace, but we weren't marked up. So shame on us."
The 56ers still had three more chances to win, as Hohlbein and fellow subs Ryan Shogren (Madison La Follette) and Johnnie Longmore had shots go off the post, over the crossbar and spectacularly saved by the Twin Stars keeper.
From the touchline
UW-Whitewater's Sam Novak (Milton), normally an attacking midfielder or forward, played the full 90 minutes at right back for Madison. "I just asked him, 'I've got a hunch you could play it. What do you say?' He said, 'Oh yeah, I can do it,' " Launder said of his discussion with Novak. "OK, good. That's enough confidence for me. He actually did really well, but he got worn out because he tried to make too many runs." ... Launder considered shifting English center back Callum Glen out to right back, but Brazilian Felipe Mattar – who would have taken Glen's spot in the center of the backline – wasn't cleared to play because his international clearance hasn't been received by the league. Launder said Mattar should be eligible for the 56ers' next league match Sunday against the Minnesota United FC Reserves in Woodbury, Minn. ... Madison plays host to Franklin club Croatian Eagles in a friendly on Wednesday night at Breese Stevens Field. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
MADISON 56ERS: Joe White; Sam Della Monica, Jack Hagstrom, Callum Glen, Sam Novak; Taylor Pill, Keenan Newallo (Johnnie Longmore), Wira Wama (Miguel Izquierdo); Jacob Scotte-Hatherly, Tony Amolo (Jed Hohlbein), Josh Thiermann (Ryan Shogren).