Jackson Lions pose for a team photo before their 2022 US Open Cup qualifying match against EFA Metro. Photo: Jackson Lions FC
2022 Open Division Local Qualifying Schedule / Results
Like most things in lower league US soccer, the match between EFA Metro and Jackson Lions FC was anything but normal. The game went from being reportedly forfeited, to back on, to nearly forfeited again, before finally being played at a new venue … with a live DJ on the sidelines.
In the end, the Lions advanced, 3-0, over the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) side on Friday night.
Goals from Daniel Pizzimenti, David Nigro, and an EFA own-goal were the difference. Jackson moves on to play Westchester United FC in the next round. The road match against the UPSL side will be the Lions first qualifying match outside of New Jersey since their first one during 2017 Qualifying (against Pennsylvania side Vereinigung Erzgebirge).
The Lions came into the game with only 13 players available and it was nearly less. Team co-owner Mike Durazzo explained many of his guys had a wedding to attend and neither of his goalkeepers were available.
Natural forward Jacob Rubinstein had to play his first game between the sticks since his days at Ocean Township High School. Despite not having played goalkeeper in a little more than a decade, he earned a clean sheet, making at least seven saves and earning praise from his team.
“He really stepped up for us,” Nigro said after the match. “He’s usually one of our number nines or up top. To get a clean sheet in that first time in there it’s a testament to him. He played awesome.”
The tone of the match was set early when EFA keeper Michael Mejia came out of the box to play a ball and challenge a Jackson midfielder. The collision earned him a yellow card and the physicality escalated from there. The referee’s whistle was a constant as both teams battled for the ball and played the length of the field.
The EFA offense took the edge in the first half but both defenses were tested and bent.
Around 25 minutes in, the Lions struggled to clear an EFA attack. Rubinstein and the back line had to handle multiple corner kicks and five minutes later a near break away needed to be saved. Every time the offense challenged Jackson it felt like a goal was coming. The 67 fans in attendance, mostly there for the home side, were on the edge of their seats.
Durazzo noted that this sort of action actually benefitted his group more. When the scoreline says 0-0 and a team like EFA is so close to scoring it can mess with that group. Despite not being fully rostered he knew the XI on the field just needed to be patient.
“Our guys are all veterans, they’ve been in these games before,” Durazzo said. “The longest score stays [even] the more comfortable they get. The other team, I think, you know, I think they were a little bit younger and they were a little bit more antsy. We took advantage of our chances.”
The Lions best early chance came in the 11th minute when Walter Calderon struck a curling shot toward the top right corner. A quick jump and extension by Meijia preserved the scoreline.
However, the mood shifted in the 39th minute. Calderon ran down the left side and crossed into the box. None of his teammates would have gotten this ball but did find EFA defender Thomas Miazga who redirected the ball into his own net.
“You could see though as soon as they put in that own goal, they’re morale kind of dipped,” Lions defender Andrew Gee said after the game. “So we took advantage of that and then pushed our advantage.”
Durazzo echoed that point, noting that Metro has done well in the UPSL since joining last year. However a team with a median age in the lower twenties, and a 16 year-old defender, is still lacking in experience unlike the Lions.
“I like everything that they’re starting to do and they’re going to be something to be reckoned with in a couple of years,” Durazzo said. “But I think when they play a team like us, they come out with more energy. So when we get that own goal and the momentum swings our way, I think with the veteran guys that we have, we just take advantage of that momentum.”
The young EFA team and their coach became far more vocal after this and emotions ran high. By the end of it, Jakub Golabek, EFA’s director of coaching on the sideline, was shown a yellow himself and warned to keep quiet. As the second half kicked off the back and forth slowly slid in favor of the visitors. The major turning point came in the 57th minute when Miazga pulled down a Jackson player by his collar during a counter attack. Originally he was only shown a yellow but after discussing it with the linesman the ref altered it to a straight red.
Miazga, the brother of United States men’s national soccer team player Matt Miazga, didn’t hold back against referees as he increased the number of fans in the stands to 68. As one person between the benches eloquently put it; “We have a DJ, but no VAR.”
Pizzimenti converted from the spot to make it 2-0 in the 61st minute.
Despite being down a man, EFA challenged the Lions like they were at full strength. Ball possession slid more in favor of Jackson but Metro punched up. Winger Almir Kariqi was finding space where there shouldn’t have been any and made quick, clean passes into the Lions’ end. But that came to an end when Nigro sealed the match in the 73rd minute.
“It’s always nice to get a (goal) in the run of play,” Nigro said, with his goal being the only “standard” one during the match. “We were knocking around, we were looking dangerous [and] needed that third one, just to kind of ice the game out. They were looking threatening. (I) just got the ball at the top of the box and knew that the keeper wasn’t expecting the shot and just tucked it in the corner.”
Metro seemingly got one back in the 89th minute but was called back for offside.
The game itself almost took a backdrop to the drama surrounding it. The two teams were originally scheduled to play on Saturday Sept. 18 at Athenia Steel Park in Clifton, N.J. However the day of the match, EFA posted on Instagram that the game was cancelled due to “registration issues” and the Lions would advance. It wasn’t out of place, unfortunately, as five other games were forfeited for similar reasons during the weekend. However, over the next few days things EFA deleted that Instagram post.
When U.S. Soccer emailed the advancing teams the match-ups for the next round; it listed EFA vs Jackson for a new date and venue. According to team sources, EFA appealed and the Lions agreed to play the match instead of taking the forfeit win.
On the day of the reschedule, the Lions, who had been told to re-submit all their players for registration, only had ten players accepted. At 3 p.m., Durazzo was emailed by USSF and told two of his players, Derek Luke and Jacques Francois, were ineligible because they were considered “professional”. Luke last played for Rio Grande Valley FC in 2018 and Francois hadn’t played professionally since 2016 with San Antonio FC. Both men were previously cleared to play for the team during 2020 qualifying as well. In the email, the federation asked Durazzo to have both Texas-based USL Championship sides sign a form to secure both players’ eligibility, with less than six hours to go before kickoff.
“This is the last year we are doing this,” Durazzo said during the ordeal. Eventually after contacting the federation and USASA President John Motto both players were allowed to play around 5 p.m. After the win, and with emotions less-heated, his thoughts were less on the issues this year and more hoping to get his group two more wins.
“A lot of the veteran guys on this team know that this might be, some of them might be their last chance to play,” Durazzo said. “So we hope that these three years we’re learning, you know, learning lessons and we could get in finally this year.”
Around 10 a.m. on the originally scheduled match day, Saturday, September 18, EFA Metro posted the above to Instagram stating they had forfeited the match due to “registration issues”. This post was later deleted.