It might be a oft-used cliché, but during his lengthy coaching career, Jim Launder has found it to be true: It's tough to beat a team three times in a season.
Which is why he was a little apprehensive heading into the Madison 56ers' match against the Minnesota United Reserves on Friday night at Breese Stevens Field.
"I was really worried about this game, because it is hard to beat a team three times," said Launder, whose team knocked off the reserve side from the North American Soccer League club twice in a six-day span in late May. "Psychologically, it's just one of those things that's hard to do."
But the 56ers turned in a "business-like" performance as forward Drew Whalen recorded his second hat trick of the season – both coming against the Reserves – in a 6-3 victory that moved Madison to the cusp of clinching a spot in the National Premier Soccer League Midwest Region playoffs.
UW-Whitewater's Sam Novak (Milton), center back Jack Hagstrom (Middleton) and Maranatha Baptist's Wira Wama also scored for the 56ers (7-2-1 NPSL), who won their fourth consecutive league match.
A win over the Cincinnati Saints (4-5-1) on Sunday at Breese Stevens (4 p.m.) would assure Madison of a top-four finish and a berth in the regional playoffs, which will be July 24 and 25. The Midwest regular-season champion will play host to the event; the 56ers likely need to win their final two matches and have Detroit City FC (7-1-2) drop points in one of its two remaining games to finish atop the table.
Novak gave Madison the lead in the opening quarter hour, pouncing on a back pass that was left short and scoring his second goal of the season. The midfielder, celebrating his 21st birthday, turned in an impressive opening 45 minutes.
"He'd already gotten in behind them twice and gotten crosses in, he was just harrassing the left back the whole time," Launder said of Novak. "He played really, really well in the first half."
Whalen made it 2-0 in the 32nd, powering a header home off a corner kick served in by veteran midfielder Keenan Newallo. Things got worse for the visitors just before halftime when a Reserves player was issued a straight red card.
"The guy tackled Carlos Martinez and then while he was down, just kicked him," Launder said. "The linesman was right there and the referee wasn't far away. There wasn't much else he could do."
Despite being down a man, Minnesota United (3-5-2) pulled one back in the 58th but the 56ers had a quick reply – thanks to a well-timed sub by Launder, who brought Josh Thiermann (Stoughton/UW) on for Novak around the hour mark.
"Sam had put in an incredible first half, and it's part of our strategy to have certain guys on different days work at a rate that they purposely can't sustain and know that we're going to bring a sub in for them at some point," Launder said.
Thiermann, making his first appearance since suffering a calf injury while warming up before a 1-0 home victory over the Reserves on May 29, made an instant impact.
"He practiced all week, he's feeling good, but I didn't want to play him more than 30 minutes, so it was the perfect opportunity," Launder said. "I said to him, 'You make sure you get behind these guys every chance you get, I don't want you resting back here.' ... And the first ball, he just took a great touch and was off to the races.
"He just bombed past everybody and outran one guy, then another guy started closing and he outran him and got in. Everybody thought he was going to shoot, but he just slipped it over to Drew to finish. It was a big-time athletic play and really good soccer, too."
Two minutes later, Hagstrom finished well after picking up a ball that popped out to him after a corner kick. The lead grew to 5-1 in the 67th as Whalen capped a 4-on-3 break with his team-best eighth goal of the year to complete his hat trick – seven of his goals have come against the Reserves.
A pair of goals in short time brought Minnesota United back within 5-3. "They were throwing guys forward," Launder said. "We got behind them a bunch of times, but missed a couple opportunites to put in goals."
Wama, though, settled things down with a fine strike with about 10 minutes left.
"Wira had a great run," Launder said. "He got the ball out wide left with them kind of in disarray, chopped it a couple times, cut across them and just hit a bomb of a shot in from the top of the box. Very nice shot, clinical and powerful."
From the touchline
Junior Boaventura, who played for the 56ers last season and rejoined the team two weeks ago, suffered a hamstring injury during training. Launder is hoping the Swiss right back can return for the playoffs. ... With Boaventura and Brian Bultman (UW) on the right side and Spaniard Miguel Izquierdo and Englishman Jordayne Henry on the left, Launder is thrilled with his options at outside back. "We're blessed with two outside backs on each side," he said. "These two-game weekends, they're just made for that, because our outside backs go forward a lot." ... Midfielder Jacob Scotte-Hatherly was on the bench Friday but didn't play as he deals with a groin injury. Launder said he could play Sunday. ... Martinez played the full 90 minutes for the first time. "He did really well," Launder said of the Venezuelan. "He's fitting in better and better and just plays some really quality balls at times. He's good at switching the field and he's starting to play hard but sensible, too." ... The nine combined goals were the most in a 56ers game since they beat the Milwaukee Bavarians 8-2 in an NPSL Midwest match on June 10, 2012.
July 10, 2015 NPSL Midwest Region match
At Breese Stevens Field, Madison
MADISON 56ERS: Joe White; Miguel Izquierdo (Jordayne Henry), Jack Hagstrom, Felipe Mattar (Zacc Roelke), Brian Bultman; Keenan Newallo (Taylor Pill), Callum Glen; Sam Novak (Josh Thiermann), Carlos Martinez, Tony Amolo (Wira Wama); Drew Whalen (Lucian Pârvu).