What a week it's been for Drew Whalen and the Madison 56ers.
Whalen recorded his second hat trick in three days as the 56ers powered past the weary Cincinnati Saints 5-0 last Sunday at Breese Stevens Field to clinch one of the four spots in the National Premier Soccer League Midwest Region playoffs.
Then on Friday night in Michigan, the Erie Commodores did Madison a huge favor, rallying past Detroit City FC 3-2. The result means the 56ers (8-2-1) can secure the top seed for the regional playoffs and the right to host next weekend's matches on their home turf with a victory over the Minnesota Twin Stars (1-7-1) in their regular-season finale Saturday at Breese Stevens. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m.
"It's just a great feeling – you've got a huge weight lifted off your shoulders," Whalen said Sunday after Madison grabbed a postseason berth. "Our biggest thing right now is being able to host (the regional tournament). ... It would be great if it was here."
Detroit City FC (7-2-2) and AFC Cleveland (7-2-2) also have clinched playoff spots heading into the final two days of the regular season, with FC Buffalo (6-2-4) and the Indiana Fire (5-2-3) in the hunt for the final berth.
The 56ers booked their spot in fine fashion, dominating a shorthanded, tired Saints side that had beaten the Twin Stars 2-1 the night before in Minnesota and had just one substitute available for a blazing hot late afternoon match on turf.
Whalen picked up where he left off in Friday night's 6-3 win over the Minnesota United FC Reserves, scoring in the 5th, 21st and 23rd minutes to essentially end any intrigue before a half hour had been played.
"It was a pretty good weekend," said Whalen, the first 56ers player to record three hat tricks in a season since the club started its NPSL team in 2005.
Wasting no time, Whalen got a ball from Maranatha Baptist midfielder Wira Wama on the right side, kept it despite a challenge from left back Mike Geiserhart and worked around center back James Thomas. From a tight angle, the Western Illinois striker beat Cincinnati goalkeeper Justin Salinga to the far post to open the scoring 5 minutes in.
Madison veteran midfielder Keenan Newallo started the sequence that led to the second goal, winning a ball in midfield and playing a through ball for Tony Amolo down the left flank. The speedster took aim at goal and mis-hit his shot, but it turned into a cross of sorts with Whalen all alone for a tap-in on the back side.
"Drew was just doing what you always tell forwards to do: Follow up back door," said 56ers coach Jim Launder, whose side won its fifth consecutive NPSL match – one short of the team's longest league winning streak.
But it was Whalen's third goal that drew the most praise from Launder and oohs and aahs from the crowd.
After a good spell of possession, the ball found right back Brian Bultman (UW), who had moved up into the attack. He played a pinpoint cross into the box and Whalen rose up between two defenders and powered in a diving header.
"That was a great cross," Whalen said. "I see Bultman get the ball, I make eye contact with him. I know the cross is coming, so I kind of creep behind the defender so he doesn't see me, dive around him, far-post header. I love diving headers – those are my favorite goals, by far."
It was the 400th goal the 56ers have scored in all competitions during their 11 seasons in the NPSL.
"The whole set-up – we switched the field, got a combo in, good cross, boom, goal," Launder said. "That's about as good as it gets."
Two weeks earlier against FC Indiana, Madison also had a 3-0 lead and seemingly was cruising to a victory, only to concede three goals before pulling out a 4-3 win in the final minutes. Was Launder concerned about history repeating itself?
"Not much," he said. "You could see the other team was beaten down."
The Saints (4-6-1), with their black jerseys with royal blue trim likely making the heat even worse, generated little going forward. 56ers goalkeeper Joe White made two saves in his third clean sheet of the season, but both shots were right to him.
"I'm proud of the effort today from the lads. It's hard on everybody. But we picked up three points out of six this weekend, so we've got to be pleased with that," Cincinnati coach Dave Wall said.
"The game plan was fairly simple ... sit in if we could and try to play on the counter, but they got an early goal, which deflated things. Mentally, that's difficult to take."
Launder took off Whalen in the 38th minute, after the forward picked up a yellow card after a series of what he called "lazy" fouls.
"He's got a sore neck, a sore back and sore shins," Launder said of Whalen, who had problems with shin splints during his college season last fall. "He got that yellow ... I thought, 'Let's get him out.' I was already thinking about it before that."
Gideon Asante came on for Whalen, and he and halftime sub Josh Thiermann (Stoughton/UW) teamed up to create multiple chances for the 56ers to extend their lead. Asante set up for a shot from the top of the box, then threaded a through ball that Thiermann finished after bursting in on the right side in the 62nd – it was Asante's team-best fifth assist of the season.
Two minutes later, Asante got in on the left and saw his shot saved by Salinga, but Amolo finished up the rebound for his third of the year to close out the scoring.
"I was more focused on us keeping a shutout, keeping our intensity defensively and moving the ball quickly, so we aren't getting bad habits," Launder said.
From the touchline
The 56ers have scored 15 goals in their past three NPSL matches – the only other time they have matched that output in league play was in 2012. ... It was the 25th time in team history that Madison has scored five goals or more in a match. ... Spanish left back Miguel Izquierdo didn't play due to a minor injury, while Launder said Swiss right back Junior Boaventura (hamstring) could be ready to play against the Twin Stars. ... Romanian forward Lucian Pârvu left the 56ers to pursue other opportunities in the Chicago area. The 32-year-old veteran professional struggled with injury and fitness early in the season and scored one goal for Madison – the 87th-minute game-winner in the win over FC Indiana on June 28.
July 12, 2015 NPSL Midwest Region match
At Breese Stevens Field, Madison
Madison 56ers – Drew Whalen (Wira Wama) 5
Madison 56ers – Drew Whalen (Tony Amolo, Keenan Newallo) 21
Madison 56ers – Drew Whalen (Brian Bultman) 23
Madison 56ers – Josh Thiermann (Gideon Asante) 61
Madison 56ers – Tony Amolo 64
MADISON 56ERS: Joe White; Jordayne Henry, Jack Hagstrom (Felipe Mattar 79), Zacc Roelke, Brian Bultman; Callum Glen (Driton Zyteja 46), Keenan Newallo (Taylor Pill 46); Tony Amolo (David Martinez 66), Jacob Scotte-Hatherly (Carlos Martinez 73), Wira Wama (Josh Thiermann 46); Drew Whalen (Gideon Asante 38). Substitutes not used: None.
CINCINNATI SAINTS: Justin Salinga; Mike Geiserhart, Gary Henderson, James Thomas, R.J. Best; David Glatt, Phil Haggerty, Jon Cottrell, Jake Moylan; Luke Spencer, Christian Montoya (Ryan Handbury 71). Substitutes not used: None.
Shots: M 13, C 6. Saves: M 2, C 2. Corner kicks: M 2, C 0. Fouls: M 9, C 9. Offsides: M 4, C 0. Discipline: M – Whalen (yellow, foul) 37.