By Chuck Murr/NPSL.com
Every athlete wants a swift start and faster finish.
Denton Diablos FC got both Saturday night.
James Doyle scored in the first overtime and assisted on the game-clinching goal in the second 15-minute extra session to power the Texas team into the national championship game.
The Diablos (12-1-1) eliminated Cleveland SC, 4-3, and will host the national championship next Saturday against Tulsa Athletic (9-1-4). Tulsa, the Heartland Conference champs, eliminated the Mid-Atlantic Conference champion FC Baltimore Christos (10-1-3) in Baltimore, 1-0.
“To play at home in front of our families, friends and fabulous fans is just going to be so exciting,” said Doyle, a 23-year-old native of Liverpool, England, who came to America to play college soccer. “I can’t wait.”
The Diablos didn’t wait to score in the semifinal, taking a 2-0 lead before many fans were seated.
Cleveland (11-1-2) battled back, helped by two penalty-kick goals from Admir Suljevic.
“We’re disappointed, for sure,” Suljevic said. “But our only loss came to a very good team. They are quick on the counter-attack and we had to battle back all night. We expended so much energy that we had little left in overtime.”
Tied at 2, Doyle redirected a pass into the left corner for the Diablos, champions of the Lone Star Conference, three minutes into overtime. Eight minutes later, he sent a crossing pass into the box and Trevor Amann slotted the ball into the same spot for his second goal and 4-2 lead.
“James is so good about controlling play that when he got the ball, I made a run and knew he’d find me,” Amann said. “Great pass, great.”
Countered Doyle, “Great finish, great.”
The Diablos showed good, crisp passing throughout.
“That comes from our coach (Ramon Raya),” said Amann. “He insists on it. We play a team game, back to front.”
Suljevic’s second goal came in extra time of the second overtime.
Amann got the Diablos going in the game’s third minute. Cleveland goalkeeper Conor Cable never had a chance on the left-footed shot from 12 yards that found side netting to his left.
Five minutes later, Anthony Powell made it 2-0 by gently lofting a ball that found the low-left corner. The Diablos knocked the ball around the box for several seconds with Cleveland defenders chasing. McIntosh came out to try and knock it away, but there were simply too many Denton attackers around and they quickly countered.
The sudden strikes quieted a spirited crowd that came prepared to party, unfurling several large banners and setting off orange-colored flares in the stands to support their team – clad in white and orange.
Cleveland’s defense had been stellar since mid-June, yielding four goals in eight games with four shutouts on the way to winning the Rust Belt Conference and in the playoffs.
Corbin McAndrew’s electrifying left-footed shot from 25 yards curved over Denton goalkeeper Carlos Enriquez and into the right corner in the 30th minute and got Cleveland within 2-1.
Suljevic converted Cleveland’s first penalty kick in a home game this year in the 40th minute to make it 2-2. Vinny Bell had gained a step on the Denton defense and was fouled just inside the box to set it up. Suljevic stutter-stepped, then struck it to the right of Enriquez.
Cable preserved the tie in the 87th minute for Cleveland with a spectacular diving save of a well-struck free kick from 20 yards by Oscar Romero.
“We had a number of good chances in the second half, but couldn’t finish,” Suljevic said. “That’s how soccer is decided. They did, we didn’t.”
Cleveland came in having outscored opponents 33-10 including a 22-6 margin at home on the artificial turf of Finnie Stadium.
Denton is 8-0 since tying Midland-Odessa, 2-2, on June 10. The Diablos have outscored foes 51-22 overall in their second NPSL season.
“We could feel things coming together because so many of us have been together two years now,” Doyle said. “The last month, we’ve been very confident. We knew Cleveland was really good, but we wanted to come out quick. I guess we did.”
And they finished the same way.
Cleveland won the 2016 NPSL title as AFC Cleveland. Samuel Seibert then headed an ownership group, changed the name, but the program continued to succeed. Cleveland made it to the 2019 semifinals, losing to The Miami FC, 4-1.
Photo Credit: Ric Kruszynski/NPSL.com