The Madison 56ers, leading the National Premier Soccer League Midwest Region standings, needed a win over the last-place Minnesota Twin Stars last Saturday to claim the top seed and home-field advantage for the regional playoffs.
If supporters or other observers were expecting the 56ers to cruise through their final regular-season match, they were sorely mistaken.
"There are no easy games," 56ers coach Jim Launder said after his team pulled out a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Breese Stevens Field to earn the right to play host to this weekend's Midwest semifinals and final.
Venezuelan midfielder Carlos Martinez scored what proved to be the game-winner with a delightful chip in the 62nd minute as Madison (9-2-1) rallied to win its sixth consecutive game and post its 100th victory since starting its NPSL program in 2005.
The 56ers created several chances in the opening few minutes, but after that, it was the Twin Stars (1-9-1) who were in control. With temperatures in the high 80s – surely higher on the artificial surface – they were content to possess the ball, looks for openings to attack and stoutly defend when needed.
"That was our game plan," said Minnesota coach Alex Bunbury, a former Major League Soccer and Canadian international forward. "It's really hot out there and we only had two subs, so we wanted to slow the game down a bit and keep possession."
And they stunned the 56ers by taking the lead in the 14th minute.
After a foul 28 yards out, midfielder Karim Darbaki sent a tremendous free kick over the wall and past 56ers goalkeeper Joe White to the right side. White didn't even move as the ball sailed in off the foot of Darbaki, who played at Northern Illinois.
"I've seen him since he was a kid. I've never seen him play like that. Karim was huge," Launder said of Darbaki, who was in high school when he started playing for the Twin Stars under his father, former Moroccan international Youssef Darbaki. "I've got to credit Alex, because I think he's getting a lot out of them."
The home side, missing four regular starters – including leading scorer Drew Whalen (11 goals) – crafted a few chances in the final 10 minutes of the first half as they searched for an equalizer, a trend that would continue after the break.
First, though, Launder had to settle down his team.
"They were concerned because we were down, and that's good," said Launder, who was bombarded with unsolicited advice from many players as they walked to the locker room. "But they were all talking to me at the same time."
Launder's main points at halftime: Attackers Tony Amolo and Wira Wama needed to make more significant runs at the right times. Josh Thiermann (Stoughton/UW) would come on to help stretch the defense. They needed to do a better job on Darbaki. And perhaps the biggest thing was to make sure Martinez stayed central.
"He's very good in the middle, controlling, making plays, combos," Launder said of Martinez, a former professional who has become more and more influential in the 56ers' attack as the season has gone on. "It's no good when he's out (wide) – everyone is faster than him. And the other guys aren't as good in the middle."
It took Madison just 4 minutes to pull level. Amolo shook free on the right side, got to the endline and found Wama for the finish at the back post, tying the score at 1 with his second goal of the season.
Amazingly, Minnesota nearly got the goal right back. Darbaki lofted a free kick from 20 yards out on the right side into the box and center back Nate Engel's header beat White but clanged off the crossbar. A follow-up shot was blocked by a 56ers defender.
The speedy Thiermann came on in the 55th and quickly made an impact, as he did in the previous two matches, bursting past three defenders and forcing a save from Twin Stars keeper Peter Runquist in the 60th.
Two minutes later, 56ers left back Miguel Izquierdo was up in the attack and found Martinez on the right side just inside the box. The Venezuelan, who is still learning English, said he saw Runquist off his line and decided to chip him. But he didn't see his first goal for the 56ers actually go into the net, as he turned immediately to the referee because the ball clipped the arm of a Minnesota defender.
"It wouldn't have mattered that the guy hit it or not, it was done," Launder said of Martinez's delicately placed shot. "That's why I want him there, in the middle, so he can make that play. He meant that. He's not great at finishing with blistering shots in the box, but when he gets a chance, he can put the ball on a dime."
Martinez said it's been an adjustment as he gets used to playing in the U.S.
"It was really different, because in my country the ball is on the floor – pass, pass, pass. But in America it is really different, the people, they are strong and they are fast," he said. "But I like it, because the coaches and the team play me at No. 10, I run, I try to pass. It's good."
Bunbury was certainly pleased with his team's performance, if not the result.
"I thought the scoreline wasn't indicative of how well we played. Unfortunately, that's the game of soccer," he said. "I thought my boys did everything they could and they were very unfortunate they didn't come out with a positive result.
"All credit to the 56ers ... they bent, but they didn't break and they got the result they needed."
From the touchline
The 56ers are 100-48-24 overall since starting their NPSL program. Saturday was their 15th win over the Twin Stars, the most of any opponent. Madison is 15-6-4 all-time against Minnesota, the only team the 56ers have played all 11 years. ... Whalen was out after suffering a knee injury in training during the week, joining left back Jordayne Henry and right back Junior Boaventura on the 56ers' injured list, while UW center back Zacc Roelke (Madison East) and midfielder Gideon Asante missed the match due to personal obligations. ... This is Madison's second six-game NPSL winning streak, but the first time the 56ers have won six straight league matches in one season – their other such streak spanned the 2011 and '12 seasons.
July 18, 2015 NPSL Midwest Region match
At Breese Stevens Field, Madison
Minnesota Twin Stars – Karim Darbaki 14
Madison 56ers – Wira Wama (Tony Amolo) 49
Madison 56ers – Carlos Martinez (Miguel Izquierdo) 62
MADISON 56ERS: Joe White; Miguel Izquierdo, Jack Hagstrom, Felipe Mattar, Brian Bultman; Taylor Pill (Jacob Scotte-Hatherly 63), Keenan Newallo; Sam Novak (Callum Glen 83), Carlos Martinez (David Martinez 90), Wira Wama (Josh Thiermann 55); Tony Amolo. Substitutes not used: Scott Sibik (GK), Jed Hohlbein, Max Campos.
MINNESOTA TWIN STARS: Peter Runquist; Brian Chapman (Angelo Silione 68), Danny Daniels, Nate Engel, Hafid Darbaki; Mounir Darbaki, Oscar Cendejas, Kevin Hoof, Karim Darbaki, Dante Largas (Matthew Nyuah 72); Brian Grand. Substitutes not used: None.
Shots: Mad 15, Min 7. Saves: Mad 1, Min 7. Corner kicks: Mad 5, Min 7. Fouls: Mad 13, Min 12. Offsides: Mad 1, Min 1. Discipline: Mad – Mattar (yellow, foul) 28; Mad – Izquierdo (yellow, foul), 52; Min – H. Darbaki (yellow, delaying a restart), 75.