On a sweltering Banner Field in Baltimore, less than a mile away from Ft. McHenry, Izee Auto FC hosted NLS Graduates in the first qualifying round of the 2018 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, defeating the visitors by a 3-1 scoreline after extra time.
The two rivals from the Maryland Major Soccer League (MMSL) seemed oblivious to the 90 degree temperature at kickoff on the turf field. NLS topped the 2017 MMSL table which earned them the honor of being the No. 1 lower division team in the country according to by American Soccer Pyramid in June. Meanwhile, Izee knocked them off to take the league tournament championship in July. Within the first ten minutes, both teams had launched multiple forays at the opposing defense resulting in shots, but neither team could break through. In one of those attacks, NLS thought they were due a penalty kick after an Izee player broke down the right wing only to be upended by the goalkeeper 10 yards from the goal. The referee ignored their pleas for a foul.
Shortly after that, NLS identified Izee midfielder Sheriff Suma as the team’s main offensive threat. Grayson Schmelzer, a high school all-state selection for Maryland in 2005, began tracking the Sierra Leonean international when Izee held the ball. Suma responded by floating to back into the midfield and out to the wing to find the ball, blunting the Izee penetration for the rest of the half. Meanwhile, NLS consistently tried to find winger Marquez Fernandez, a former Tampa Bay Rowdies player, in isolated positions near the right touchline, but with less success.
The game became more physical in the second half as NLS gained control of midfield possession, and Izee’s Lukman Akinsanya was assessed a yellow card in the 47th minute for a hard challenge on the Graduates’ Kristap Bezbailis. Izee reasserted itself after 10 minutes had elapsed, and their pressure paid off in the 67th minute as Roanoke College alum Michael Rouhana slipped Suma into the penalty area. Suma broke to his left only to have his jersey tugged from behind by NLS’s Bernard Fatusin, who was awarded a yellow card. Willy Yapewuou lined up the penalty for Izee and drove the ball to the left of Brian Greuter for the goal.
NLS Graduates, with their backs to the wall, responded with pressure of their own. In the 75th minute, Fernandez weaved into Izee’s 18 yard box, twisting two Izee defenders to drive a low shot on goal. Izee’s keeper, former Sierra Leonean international Christian Caulker, sprang off his line to deflect the shot, only to watch it pop up off his shoulder and onto the head of NLS’s Cubay Wilson, who nodded the ball in for the goal. Both teams had several chances before the end of extra time but neither was able to score.
Izee took control in extra time but wasn’t able to score in the first period. In the 107th minute of the game, though, Suma flew down the left wing and crossed to find Elijah Ukpong in front of goal for the score. Izee took a slightly more defensive posture at that point, with Christian Ofili taking a yellow for delay of game after stalling on a throw in, but in the 119th minute, Suma once again notched an assist with a pinpoint pass to Tobi Abiola for the third Izee goal.
After the match, Sheriff Suma said that Izee was looking to play him through with long balls past the tired NLS backline. His experience, gained through professional stints in Sweden, Norway, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Denmark, and Russia and tryouts with D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City.