It was halftime on Friday night at Cass Technical High School and there was an unfamiliar feeling sifting through the air. A sell-out crowd of 3,338 supporters was growing restless as the thought of witnessing Detroit City FC fall out of the NPSL Midwest Region playoff race was becoming more realistic.
Even 10 minutes after halftime had ended, Le Rouge trailed 1-0 to Fort Pitt Regiment. The emotions were tense from the Northern Guard to the team benches to the family friendly grandstand. But finally, in the 56th minute, a strike from Latif Alashe (Michigan) rejuvenated everyone wearing Gold and Rouge and jumpstarted a comeback that comprised three unanswered goals en route to a 3-1 victory.
“That was a total team performance,” said head coach Ben Pirmann. “The scout on them was they’re going to be good defensively, and really, really good and athletic on the counter. I knew we would score one, but my hope was that we didn’t concede another in transition.”
Alashe cleaned up a scrum in the box by hammering home the much-needed equalizer before substitutes Shawn Lawson (Oakland) and TJ Van Slooten (Michigan) added a goal apiece to complete the energizing comeback. Lawson’s goal was one for the highlight reels, as he creatively cut left, then right to dust off a Fort Pitt defender and slip the ball into the back of the net.
“I got the ball, looked up and saw one defender, so I cut him back, then I saw another one coming and cut him back again, and then I looked up and put it under the keeper’s hands,” Lawson said. “I was happy to get that one.”
Added Pirmann: “Shawn’s told me that he likes coming off the bench, he’s more comfortable. He’s our super sub, per se. He flies around, he buzzes, and more than anything he’s a good player. He has a knack for goals.”
City’s win meant it would stay alive in the Great Lakes West Conference title chase, and simultaneously deny Fort Pitt Regiment a fine chance to clinch the Great Lakes East Conference and secure a spot in the Midwest Region playoffs. Ultimately, Fort Pitt’s one goal in the 25th minute was not enough to stave off the potent Le Rouge attack. Forward Lamine Balde netted the eye-catching goal in which he flicked a ball over a charging Bret Mollon (Temple) off a nice over-the-top ball from Sean Riley to grab the early lead.
The goal DCFC conceded to Balde marked the first time City allowed a goal and ended up winning the match. The previous five home victories were all shutouts, while the only result that didn’t end with a Le Rouge victory was a 2-2 draw against the Erie Admirals on June 6.
With Friday’s victory, Detroit City FC set up a date with Lansing United for a winner-take-all match on Sunday afternoon to determine who would be crowned conference champions and secure a spot in the 2014 Midwest Region playoffs.
The importance of Sunday’s match created a memorable atmosphere at Michigan State’s DeMartin Field in East Lansing, Mich., as a few hundred Northern Guard supporters made their way into the stadium and never stopped singing until well after the final whistle. With Lansing leading DCFC by one point in the conference table, a win or draw would send United through to the playoffs, while Le Rouge could settle for no less than a victory. In a back-and-forth affair, City was never able to garner the lead as the two clubs exchanged goals en route to a 2-2 draw.
“We moved the ball really well, we played a good game and got a little unlucky here and there, but it was fun,” Pirmann said.
Early in the first half, Le Rouge players and supporters were in good spirit, but didn’t have all that much to smile about as DCFC found itself trailing early yet again. In the 19th minute, Lansing broke the scoring open when a perfect cross from Brian Cunningham set up Matt Brown for a header that sailed past Mollon to give Lansing the 1-0 advantage. Brown’s goal was his tenth of the season, which leads all players in the NPSL.
After gradually narrowing the gap in scoring chances and the possession battle, Le Rouge began to find its groove by the 30-minute mark. As the pace began to pick up, an equalizer would qualify as a much-needed boost to Detroit City FC before the halftime whistle, and in fitting fashion Zach Myers (Saginaw Valley State) answered the call. He was brought down at the edge of the penalty area in the 35th minute, but got far enough inside for the referee to point to the penalty spot.
Captain Josh Rogers (Michigan State) lined up behind the ball for the penalty shot and calmly struck the ball into the bottom-left corner for the all-important equalizer. City was back in the game and the playoff hunt, and anyone within a few hundred yards of DeMartin Stadium would have heard plenty about it from the Le Rouge faithful.
But even with the match tied, emotions continued to grow wearisome by the 60th minute as Detroit City FC was desperately searching for the go-ahead goal that would send them into the NPSL playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Chance after chance came for City early in the second half, but Myers nor Shawn Lawson could finish a pair of glorious chances. Instead, in the 66th minute, Lansing United grabbed the go-ahead goal and began closing the door on Le Rouge’s playoff hopes. A turnover at midfield sprung a lethal counter attack in which Matt Brown slid the ball into open space on the right flank for Gabe Mateo, who took a couple steps and drilled a shot to the nearside post and past Mollon.
“Out of the 90 minutes, it was about 85 minutes ours, and we got beat on the break twice, but that’s going to happen when you know you have to win,” Pirmann said. “They knew they had to tie, so they could be patient and try to counter and they did a good job of that.”
More opportunities to find a second equalizer were present at resourceful times, but DCFC just couldn’t find the goal frame. Finally, Lachlan Savage (Saginaw Valley State) would smash home a loose ball inside the box during stoppage time, but it was too little, too late for a team who needed the coveted three points to claim a Great Lakes West Conference championship.
“We moved the ball well, but we were missing so many guys that we were missing a little bit of a final punch,” Pirmann said. “That was our fifth game in nine days, so I literally don’t even know how half these guys are walking around right now.”
Detroit City FC was forced to settle for a 2-2 draw and watch an inaugural NPSL team from its own state celebrate a memorable first season. Le Rouge was left wondering what could have been with previously winnable matches in which it fell just short of picking up the one or three point results that could have made all the difference when jostling for playoff position. Instead, DCFC will finish the regular season with an impressive 8-2-3 record and a +13 goal differential.
A final hurrah for the 2014 campaign will take place on Wednesday July 23 when Le Rouge hosts the Windsor Stars in a friendly at Cass Technical High School at 7:30 p.m. Numerous player awards will be given out after the match, and it will give supporters one final chance to savor an evening of soccer on Grand River Ave in the heart of Detroit. Tickets for the match are still on sale online at detcityfc.com.
- Jeremy Summitt, DCFC Staff Writer