Players from the Elm City Express and the Western Mass Pioneers battle for the ball in their 2018 US Open Cup match. Photo: David Henry | SweetDogPhotos.com
Anthony Asante knew on the second touch he might be in business. What followed was a goalkeeper’s worst nightmare: In the 82nd minute of an even match, Western Mass. goalkeeper Rafael Pereira received a routine backpass and figured rather than immediately clearing it, a hard-charging Asante would run right by him if he pulled the ball back.
Instead, the Elm City Express striker poked the ball away with his toe and tapped it into the open goal from three yards out. It was the game-winner, as the defending NPSL national champions won their inaugural Lamar Hunt Open Cup match 2-1 over the Pioneers in front of about 800 people at historic Lusitano Stadium Wednesday night.
“When the goalie made the second touch, I knew he was going to cut back,” Asante said. “I could see it. I was just gambling, but then I saw that touch and I was able to get a toepoke on it and that’s all I needed.”
Not bad for a team that didn’t even exist until January of last year. The Express finished last season 15-1-2, winning six straight games to capture the national title. And they dominated the early proceedings of the contest as the PDL Pioneers – who had only practiced three times prior to Wednesday – chose to conserve energy and try to counter through their veteran superstar, Brazilian Alencar Junior. While Junior got loose once, Elm City’s territorial advantage finally paid off in the 23rd minute.
After Pereira (5 saves), who unfortunately had a stellar match other than his one moment of infamy, denied Asante on a clear breakaway, the Pioneers never got themselves settled on the ensuing corner, and Asante was wide open at the top of the six-yard box to head home Lucas Sousa’s ball for the game’s opening goal.
“I told Rafael (Pereira) after the game I’ve seen that happen at the highest levels, so it can happen to the best,” Elm City coach Teddy Haley said. “You really don’t want to see a goal like that decide a game either way. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my keeper or their keeper. But the first half we performed better, but overall it was a great match, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
About 40 minutes in, Western Mass. coach Federico Molinari decided it was time to step up and challenge further up the field and the move almost immediately paid dividends. Junior got loose at the top of the box and was dragged down by Graciano Brito (who did not agree with the call). Junior followed with a perfectly placed free kick in first-half stoppage time to make it 1-1 at the half.
The Pioneers were the most dangerous team in the second half, and won a free kick in an almost identical spot as their goal in the 50th minute, but Maxi Viera blazed it high. The best chance for either team prior to the winner came in the 66th minute when a Western Mass. cross somehow made it all the way across the Elm City goal to Daniel Fabian, but Fabian couldn’t quite get his feet set and put it over the goal from six yards out.
From there, both teams tired, with neither having much of a preseason to speak of, U.S. Open Cup play allowing just three subs per side, and both coaches wary of a looming 30 minutes of extra time. But it was Asante, who is from Ghana but played for Syracuse and now hails in the Bronx, who was still running deep into the second half, and chasing one extra seeming lost cause resulted in the game-winner.
Both teams immediately made double subs after the goal and the Pioneers got the ball into the Elm City box a few times and got a couple of corner kicks in stoppage time (including one where Pereira went forward trying for the ultimate retribution), but never seriously threatened Matt Jones in the Express goal.
It was the second straight home first-round Open Cup loss for the Pioneers, who fell in penalties to Boston City FC last season.
“Going forward, I think we’ll keep getting better,” Western Mass. midfielder Edward Speed said. “It’s unfortunate because these opportunities (U.S. Open Cup) don’t come around all the time. But that’s the way it goes.”
While there are some significant changes to the squad that rolled through the NPSL last season (and a different home, as renovations at Yale means Elm City will have to play its home games at Southern Connecticut State), Haley is confident they will give their second-round opponent Seacoast United Phantoms of the PDL all they can handle.
“It’s certainly a different makeup of the side, so it’s a little more difficult to know where to put people,” Haley said. “It’s going to take some time to play good football for longer spells. In the second half, we fell off a little and lost our momentum, but I think we’ll still be pretty good in the long run.”