In Sunday’s first 2020 US Open Cup qualifier, Cedar Stars Academy Westchester (known in tournament logs as CSA Westchester) defeated Jackson Lions FC, 2-1, off a late goal and a confusing red card. Ovan Oakley’s late run up the midfield and low finish past an advancing Charlie Cunliffe put the Lions up 2-1 before the team’s keeper made two critical saves in stoppage time to preserve the lead.
With the win, Westchester, a team full of players from across New Jersey and some from Connecticut, who rarely train together, will play three-time US Open Cup champion and fellow Cosmopolitan Soccer League side New York Pancyprian Freedoms in the Second Round next month.
In a record year for New Jersey teams, with three attempting to qualify for the tournament proper, Cedar Stars’ first-ever attempt to qualify got off to a rocky start before kickoff even began. The team, arriving 30 minutes before kickoff and under-manned, were forced to move to a secondary field at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J. due to a scheduling conflict, meaning the game would be played on a grass pitch with sloped sides.
“I felt the (field) surface didn’t really suit us even though it was our home game,” said Cedar Stars head coach Austin Friel. “We tried to have it on the turf but because we put 12 o’clock kickoff there was a clash with a college lacrosse game. We just had to adjust to it and play on the grass.”
Chris Katona, the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League, said he hadn’t really played on grass since high school, and that fact, plus the slopes, did play a factor in the game.
“It’s a lot different element because you’re not on turf, the ball’s not going as smooth,” Katona said. “(The players) have to concentrate a little more because it touches and they got to get used to it. It played a little bit of a factor but (we) were able to control the ball and play our style.”
Despite the setbacks and not having a key starters due to travel issues, Jackson came out of the gate fast. The Garden State Soccer League team taking part in its fourth straight Open Cup qualifying tournament and pulled out all the stops it could, including having one of their players fly up from Florida just for the game. It seemed to work in the early going as the Lions held a majority of possession early on but failed to finish any chances.
A late Cedar Stars push just before the half saw Ryan Adeleye head a long pass into the net but it was called offside. The centerback remained down as trainers and teammates rushed over before he left the game, leaving his team to play with 10 for the remaining few minutes. Adeleye was transported to a local hospital for a cut near one of his eyes. Despite him being cleared at the time for a concussion and only needing stitches, this forced CSA to use both of its subs before the second half kicked off, leaving no players on the bench.
Jackson once again led the pace early in the second half, with striker Ryan Bailey nearly getting a breakaway chance in the 49th minute before his left footed shot sailed over the crossbar and into the side of a passing van on nearby Route 202. But the team couldn’t hold control as long and allowed Max Garcia to feed Katona in the 52nd minute for the opening score.
For his part, Garcia played the full 90 minutes across the field, disrupting numerous Lions plays and feeding balls forward to Katona, Oakley, and others who were open with a chance to challenge Cunliffe.
“Maxi has worked hard over the past year in regards to getting in shape and getting into gameplay,” Katona said. “He’s setting the standard bar high … He’s been a huge impact player for us (and will be) going forward.”
The back-and-forth began to swing more towards Jackson favor after the goal, and the push paid off in the 58th minute when a poor pickup by the CSA keeper allowed Walter Calderon to slip the ball into the net and level the score. With the heat blaring down on the natural grass, both teams pushed for the late winner with the Lions looking out of gas as time went on. Katona and Garcia both missed chances for their team but a foul in the 87th minute changed everything.
A collision between two players, instigated by Bailey, saw the official initially pull a yellow card for the Jackson player. After a few moments, she returned with a red card for Bailey for what seemed to be for comments after the play. The man advantage gave CSA the break it needed and not long after play resumed Matt Nigro found a charging Oakley who scored the game winner.
“I still don’t think we’re even (at) 50%,” he said. “I still think we’re 50% away from where we should be whenever it gets to crunch time in the season.
“Obviously in any cup competition you want to progress as far as you want to go,” Friel continued. “Happy enough to get through to the next round. But the players know there’s a lot of hard work to do to go further. This team’s capable of going to the third or fourth round, like I as a coach have done before, so that’s the aim but we’ll take it one game at a time.”