The scene of the NTX Rayados vs. Little Rock Rangers FIrst Round game in the 2019 US Open Cup after the Rangers scored a goal. Photo: Little Rock Rangers
Mariano Fazio was the hero for NTX Rayados in their penalty shootout victory over the Little Rock Rangers in the First Round of the 2019 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup on Wednesday night.
The Argentine defender tapped in a parried shot from teammate Lucio Martinez five minutes into second half stoppage time — essentially the final seconds of the game — to tie the contest at 2-2. He then went on to score the deciding penalty in Rayados’ 4-2 shootout victory.
“We gave everything. We put a good effort together, and, finally, we were able to score,” Fazio said. “It was a good feeling to score and tie the game for us.”
Fazio’s late equalizer came after a 15 minute attacking onslaught from the visiting Rayados team. They often found themselves with ten men in the attacking third with only the goalkeeper standing at the halfway line to clean up any clearances. All hope looked lost in the 88th minute, however, as Rayados went down to 10 men due to a straight red card to Reyes Vargas, a second-half substitute. The visiting team stayed resolute and found their equalizer.
“We just had to make adjustments. That did hurt us,” Rayados player-manager Tito Salas said of the ejection. “The whole time I was on the sideline yelling ‘Let’s keep it positive.’ The boys fed off of it, and it went in. It was a lucky goal, but we’ll take it.”
The equalizer led to a pair of 15-minute extra time periods in which Rayados kept a tight defensive shape and sought to hold on to the deadlock and head into a penalty shootout. Little Rock had a few good chances, including a 115th minute curling effort from Ryan Blair which went just wide of the post, but ultimately failed to find the winning goal. Rayados goalkeeper Emmanuel Frias Ramirez saved Little Rock’s opening penalty from Trevor Reed, and Robel Dent sent the Rangers’ fourth penalty attempt wide to open up the opportunity for Fazio to win the shootout.
The win advances Rayados to play in the second round of the US Open Cup on Tuesday. This is the third second-round appearance in Rayados’ eight-year history in the tournament. In 2018, the North Texas outfit advanced to the Fourth Round of play before falling to MLS side and eventual cup champions Houston Dynamo by a score of 5-0.
Wednesday night’s competition began amidst a heavy downpour which caused for a wet and muddy playing surface. Rayados began the game on the front foot with an 8th minute goal which was the beginning of a thundering opening half-hour for the visitors. The goal came when Rayados striker Reece Wilson brought down a well-placed cross from right-back Carlos Valdez and slotted a right-footed shot past the keeper and into the bottom-left corner of the goal. The team then forced three acrobatic saves from Rangers’ Spanish goalkeeper Walid Barriou on long-range efforts before the Little Rock outfit shifted momentum with a 27th minute equalizer from Alex Guadron.
The young El Salvadorian forward found the ball amidst a flurry of blocked shots and passes and sent the ball past the Rayados keeper from just outside the box. The goal caused Rangers to settle into the game and find a few chances on goal. In the 40th minute, the Rangers found the back of the net again. This time, Guadron laid a pass off to winger Sabelo Hlongwane who chipped the keeper from outside the penalty box. Sabelo wheeled off in celebration, and his team took a 2-1 lead into the halftime break.
The second half saw an even amount of chances from each side until Rayados began their final push for an equalizer with about 15 minutes remaining in regulation. Despite putting nearly the whole team behind the ball, Little Rock missed a golden opportunity to seal the game when Robel Dent hit the post with a breakaway effort in the first minute of stoppage time. Just four minutes later, Rayados equalized and turned the game on its head.
“Our guys came out and didn’t sit back and watch. They came out and competed,” said Rangers head coach Will Montgomery. “They showed they can compete against a tough team. We were unfortunate that we didn’t get second and third chances in the second half. We had plenty of opportunities to kill the game off, and we just couldn’t do it.”
Despite the loss and stormy weather, it was still a special night in Little Rock for the Rangers. It was the first opportunity for the NPSL side to compete in the US Open Cup, and it was the first time in the 106-year history of the competition that an Arkansas-based team participated in the tournament.
“It is a tremendous honor to be able to coach the first team in the US Open Cup from Arkansas. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go on to the second round, but overall I am very honored to be coaching this team and to be able to say we achieved something and now we get to look forward to getting back here again.”