Levi Meruca’s 80th-minute goal was the difference for West Chester (PA) United SC in a 2-1 victory against host Northern Virginia FC on Saturday evening to qualify for the First Round proper of the 2023 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
The match was settled by a movement of real quality by Meruca on a chilly evening, pouncing on some loose play by the NoVa FC backline as he wriggled into a central shooting position and slid a shot from 20 yards in the lower left-hand corner.
“I saw was looking for a pass across, so I started dropping off,” Meruca said. “The ball came right to me. The defender started coming in, so I stepped in front, and then all I had to do was hit the shot to the far post.”
Assistant Coach Harry Ischiropoulos was on the sidelines for West Chester in place of Head Coach Blaise Santangelo. Santangelo had a great excuse for missing the game as he was attending the wedding of a former West Chester player.
“Because father had passed Blaise became like a father figure to him, so Blaise is celebrating the wedding with him,” Ischiropoulos explained.
He believes that the strategic shifts West Chester made were the key to the win.
“The adjustments we made in the second half changed the game,” he said. “We wanted to take away their ability to play certain ways, so we restricted them to play one side of the field only. Our press changed, so we allowed them to have only one half of the field to play which forced them to make mistakes. We were able to win the ball and score.”
The match was entertaining from the beginning to the end with both teams looking to play open, attacking soccer. The first five minutes of the match were particularly frantic, with clear scoring chances and legitimate penalty shouts at both ends.
Correction peeps..Jake Gosselin with the PK, & Levi Maruca with the game winner…4 straight away games…thank you USSOCCER! We are ” The ROAD WARRIORS” ???????? pic.twitter.com/ETCNT3zIYU
— West Chester United SC (@WCUSCPredators) December 18, 2022
In a prelude for what happened later, Meruca found himself one on one with NoVa FC keeper Tyler Back in the fifth minute. Meruca squandered the opportunity, striking his shot directly at Back.
After this initial frantic back and forth, NoVa FC gradually took control of the match and for the next 15 minutes or so were able to mount sustained pressure on the West Chester goal. Jean Ayoimbong was particularly influential in his astute hold-up play. NoVa FC won a well-deserved goal in the 13th minute with Kevin Nadeau hitting a perfect corner for Jaimie Quintanilla to head home.
However, despite NoVa FC holding the majority of possession for the rest of the half, West Chester was the more dangerous team, with Meruca continuing to make dangerous runs down the right flank. Back made several vital interventions, making some key saves as well as coming out to cut out long balls.
Although the half ended with NoVa FC up 1-0 there was no sense that this affair was settled. NoVa FC had a 180-degree turn in tactics, coming out in the second half playing defensively and West Chester looked increasingly confident and dangerous as the half wore on.
The second half began as the first did, with quick chances on both ends.
In an extraordinary series of events, NoVa FC was whistled for two penalties in less than five minutes. The first, awarded because of a foul on Meruca following a defensive miscue, was converted by Jacob Gosselin in the 55th.
A second Gosselin penalty kick at the 59-minute mark — given because of a NoVa FC foul during a West Chester set piece — was denied with a fine save by Back, guessing correctly and moving quickly to his right.
West Chester’s equalizer, and its subsequent missed penalty, seemed to inject even more energy into an already quickly moving match. Neither team seemed especially eager for extra time, with both sides throwing numbers forward, sometimes at the expense of solid defending.
During a sequence around the 65th minute, Gosselin hit the crossbar for Westchester and NoVa FC turned right around and Ayoimbong did the same at the other end.
In the remaining ten minutes and now trailing, NoVa FC threw everything forward looking for the equalizer. The efforts included the keeper Back coming forward and narrowly missing a header off a corner in the 93rd minute.
With the win, West Chester advances to the US Open Cup for the third tournament in a row, and the fourth time overall.