By Aaron Tomich/NPSL.com
Following its strong performance against the Georgia Revolution in the First Round of the 2022 U.S. Open Cup, Southern States SC looks to stick to its core in the Second Round, with hopes to advance another match further.
For the Second Round, the Stars travel to face the Birmingham Legion of the USL Championship on Thursday, April 7 at the University of Alabama Soccer Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Kickoff for the contest is set for 8:00 pm ET (7:00 pm CT).
In the 3-1 victory over fellow NSPL club out of Georgia, Southern States dominated possession and controlled the flow of the match, just to its liking. With the opening goal from Jean Luca Rivera in the first half, forward Tom Shepherd added a brace in the second half to seal the deal for the Stars.
“We are looking forward to the opportunity of testing ourselves as a team against a higher opposition,” said Shepherd about Thursday’s contest. “Seeing what they [Birmingham] are like and playing on the bigger stage in this prestigious tournament, we know the importance of this upcoming match for our club.”
Shepherd evaluated his and the team’s performance in the First Round, saying that it was overall solid, but there are items that can be improved since it was the first time this season the squad had competed together in a proper match.
Southern States head coach Cal Reynolds again focused on the importance of doing what his side does best and controlling what they can control when looking ahead to facing the Legion, with timely new additions to the roster. The Stars look to gain and dominate as much possession as they did against Georgia Revolution, while also knowing they’ll have to defend more against their USL Championship opponents.
“We don’t want to go away from our DNA, which is to dictate the ball at all times, whether in or out of possession,” said Reynolds, who gave credit to the teamwork in goal-scoring buildups against the Revs in the First Round. “The forwards get seen for scoring, but there were also a lot of really good individual performances. Credit to Tom [Shepherd] though, that’s what he’s there for.”
On the opposing side, Birmingham Legion boasts an impressive USL Championship squad and features two NPSL alumni. Midfielder Jake Rufe (AFC Ann Arbor) and defender Freddy Kleeman (OSA Seattle FC) both see frequent action for the Legion, with Kleeman expected to miss the Open Cup contest against the Stars due to injury.
“I’m super excited to be a part of the Open Cup again,” said Rufe. “I love the concept of it and the inclusion of a lot of leagues. I know my teammates and I are placing a lot of importance on each game in this Cup.”
Rufe noted that his time playing NPSL soccer was impactful in many ways while also crediting his coaches and staff and the importance of their roles on his playing career saying, “The experience was the first taste of a professional environment and lifestyle. It was just what I was looking for in between my college seasons, and looking back, it was some of my best soccer at the time.”
Shepherd and his Stars teammates know they are facing a top-tier side in Birmingham Thursday night, but that won’t deter them in any way, as they see this match as an opportunity to improve as players while potentially making club history and advancing further in this national tournament.
“We know the quality that they’re [the Legion] going to possess, being the team and stature that they are,” said Shepherd. “They’re going to have quality players on the ball, but we know what we have and what’s in our dressing room, and we’re looking forward to the challenge of taking the game to them and seeing what we can do.”
On his message to his team before kick Thursday night, Reynolds plans to tell his guys to be themselves and enjoy the match as much as they can, encouraging them “to not take any moment of it for granted….we want to do everything we can to keep this run going.”
Photo Credit: Alex Blakeney