Sunday, June 26, 2016

AFC Ann Arbor fight back with last minute penalty to earn a point

Sunday evenings match between AFC Ann Arbor and Michigan Stars FC had more implications than three points for the teams playing. The 1-1 draw had implications for each club in the table, which has become quite crowded at the top with Detroit City FC's two game winning streak.

An 88th minute penalty kick at the feet of Dario Suarez was enough for the Mighty Oak to leave Pontiac with an important point, putting pressure on DCFC, Stars, Grand Rapids FC, Kalamazoo FC and Lansing United to grab the number two spot and qualify for the post-season. 

"The first half was quite even and we obviously held possession, but meaningful possession was part of our issue in good areas within the attacking third," AFC Ann Arbor coach Eric Rudland said. "They dropped in, bunkered in and waited to counter on long throw ins and set pieces. I thought that we were superb. We created chances and I thought we were the better side."

The entirety of the match was controlled by AFC Ann Arbor, but the Michigan Stars had its chances on the narrow pitch inside of Wisner Stadium.  

The home team had a great chance on goal in the 12th minute, but the free kick awarded met the head of a forward, even though the header hit the crossbar, the ball stayed out of the net. The Stars tried to capitalize on the momentum with a corner, but the effort went over the ball and out. 

Ann Arbor's offense began to show glimpses of its power in the 21st minute, stemming from a corner kick that found the head of Hector Morales, which fooled the Stars goalkeeper but the shot missed the frame. 

Continuing pressure, Suarez took a go on goal from outside the 18-yard box, but once again the ball sailed wide. Less than a minute after the miss, Morales tried his own curling effort, but the chance was saved by Stars goalkeeper Elliot Tarney. 

"We knew they were going to sit in and try to counter attack by winning possession and trying to break out and fight for set pieces," Rudland said on managing the Stars game plan. "We were prepared for that and I thought we dealt really well with that other than the one goal they scored in the second half."

The 0-0 deadlock continued after the half, despite Morales getting another clear chance on goal, but once again AFC Ann Arbor's chance went off the post and out. 

The second half may have been controlled by the Mighty Oak, but it was the Stars that scored first and did so in an interesting way. 

Jon Rubio opened the scoring in the 75th minute by putting the ball past AFCAA 'keeper Fabian Veit, taking a shot that stemmed from a long throw in for the Stars. The goal shocked an Ann Arbor team that had been on the attack for close to 20 minutes. 

 "Hector's [Morales] diving header hits the inside of the post, Dario [Suarez] was in, Willie [Bayemi] was in; I thought we were the better side. But they get the long throw in, we clear the ball and we don't win the second ball so they score, in my opinion, a crap goal," said Rudland. 

But as the season has shown us for almost two months, Ann Arbor doesn't give up after conceding goals. After sending ball after ball into the box to force an equalizer, a high challenge from a Stars defender struck the head of Kevin Taylor. 

The high challenge allowed the center official to call a penalty against the Stars. Suarez stepped up calmly and put the ball past Tarney to tie the match at one-a-piece in the dying minutes. 

Because of the draw, the top four clubs at the top of the table is separated by only six points. Implications from the draw between AFC Ann Arbor and Michigan Stars FC go well beyond the two clubs that played on Sunday. 
Grand Rapids FC has the chance to force a tie at the top of the standings for the first time in this campaign with a win over Detroit City FC on Friday. Detroit could be essentially be knocked out of contention for the postseason with a loss to Grand Rapids as well. 

AFC Ann Arbor has held the top spot in the conference since the first day of the season, May 7th, and had the chance to pull further ahead of the second through fourth place teams with a win on Sunday. Life didn't work the best way for the Mighty Oak against the Stars, but its destiny is in its own hands because it still has the best odds to win the entire division with only one loss on the season. 

Ann Arbor doesn't play another competitive match until it hosts Detroit on July 3rd, which could prove to be the turning point in both Ann Arbor's and Detroit's campaign for the postseason. 

"Our guys had good perseverance to find a way to bounce back and find a way to draw the game," Rudland said. "Maximizing points in every match is critical, and it's obviously a close race to finish out the season here. 

"All of the teams at the top of the table still have to play one another so we'll analyze and build the team up again for next week [against Detroit City FC]. 

AFCAA has five teams waiting for it to slip up and take its spot. DCFC has its back to the wall, having to win to stay alive. While Grand Rapids and Michigan Stars are biding is time to hop into first. 

The season is getting interesting. 

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