Saturday, July 9, 2016

Grand Rapids FC first to qualify for playoffs with comeback over AFC Ann Arbor

Photo by Robert Sherman of For the Love of Fútbol
Story by What If It Rains, special to For the Love of Fútbol

A club record crowd of 6,845 watched Grand Rapids FC turn around a second half deficit to secure the number one seed playoff spot in the Midwest Great Lakes region, with a 3-1 win over AFC Ann Arbor.

The loss for AFC Ann Arbor may spell disaster, having gone up on Grand Rapids early in the second half, the Mighty Oak conceding two goals late in the game, in an eerily reminiscent fashion.

A year to the week after both sides were eliminated from the Great Lakes Premier League title race, the top two clubs in the Great Lakes West conference did battle at Houseman Field with a rookie season playoff berth at stake for either, or possibly both.

Having started their schedule early and at home, AFC Ann Arbor jumped out to an early lead in the standings, but have never been allowed to run away with it, with every team in the conference playing competitive soccer.

A home defeat to Michigan Stars - their first ever in league play - started the branches of the Mighty Oak creaking, while Grand Rapids FC kept picking up points to gain traction on the league leaders. 

Seven games unbeaten and three straight clean sheets - including holding the league's best offense in Detroit City FC, goalless on their own pitch - led the Boys in Blue into the battle of the top two on home turf.

It was very much the home side entering this match with momentum. 

The first half was very evenly match with both teams seemingly feeling each other out, while not too many clear-cut chances were had on either side of the field. 

Yet the balance of chances was with GRFC. 

Peter Brown had a header strike the post in the 27th minute. Then, a long range effort from Jared Timmer was tipped over the bar by AFCAA goalkeeper Peter Tappenden, three minutes later. 

Ann Arbor responded with a similar long range try from James Vaughn that, GRFC 'keeper Noah Fazekas, gratefully watched over the crossbar in the 38th minute. 

Ann Arbor appeared to emerge from the locker room motivated for the second half, and early pressure led to a corner that Leigh Rumbold took advantage of at the back post, burying the effort past a scrambling Blues defense to give the visitors a lead and shock the home crowd, only a minute after the restart.

Grand Rapids head coach George Moni played his first card with a switch at the back, seeing Trent Vegter replace fellow 19-year-old Peter Brown at full back in the 54th minute.

The move by Moni proved to bear fruit only three minutes into the substitution, when a long throw-in by Vegter found Jared Timmer on the back post, who calmly buried the header past Tappenden.

Moni's next decision was the pacy midfielder Noble Sullivan, who replaced the carded Mark Barone in the 62nd minute. 

Sullivan's introduction certainly had Ann Arbor on the back foot, but few chances were created by either side as they jockeyed for supremacy.

In the dying minutes, the Ann Arbor defense got themselves in a tangle, which has been its story throughout the campaign, and Sullivan made off with the ball, slotting it past the visiting keeper to take the lead in the 75th minute.

Ann Arbor built the pressure in the final ten minutes, forcing saves out of Fazekas while creating some desperate defending en masse.

But that threat of pace had been increased by the late substitution of Nick Abdoo, who chested down a clearance to feed Gabe Mateo for a 90th minute insurance goal, nailing down the pole position in the conference.

As the full-time whistle went, the Grand Army and home side celebrated and AFCAA dejectedly headed straight for the locker room, reflecting on the former leaders' third straight game without a win and the possibility of the season-long leaders missing out on the playoffs.

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