By Tyler Andreas/Jackson Lions
In many ways, what Philadelphia Lone Star has been able to accomplish through its history represents what the Jackson Lions also aim for as a club. In 2001, the club that was then known as Junior Lone Star Football Club had a single team with only 13 players. Two decades later, the organization started by a group of Liberian immigrants now boasts over 150 players featuring at various levels of competition. This is the very same trajectory that the Lions have rapidly been modeling themselves towards since their founding in 2014 and even before then, when they were playing in various Central Jersey Sunday leagues.
From the very beginning, the Lions have positioned themselves as a stage for young and ambitious talents to showcase themselves and play highly competitive soccer, and have prided themselves on their ability to help those players reach their potential. Most recently, midfielder Giuseppe Barone was able to parlay his impressive performances with the Lions into a deal to play in the Slovenian second division for NK Rudar Velenje, a club that competed in the UEFA Europa League as recently as 2018-2019. Barone is just one example of how both clubs have been able to provide a platform that allows players to achieve new heights, while also continuing to grow and expand in their own right.
Wednesday night’s Keystone Conference matchup was a must win for both clubs, who sat in fifth and sixth place in the table with significant ground to make up on West Chester United, who sat in fourth going into the day and would remain there, with a game in hand, no matter the outcome. Before the game, Lions assistant coach Sal de Simone was clear about his club’s need to win.
“We need to win all three remaining games. It starts tonight,” de Simone said. “We need to get all nine points. We can’t control what happens in the rest of the conference, but we can control how we deal with things.”
The Lions set out early in the match looking to press very aggressively and high up the pitch in a 4-3-3 formation that shifted to a 3-5-2 when they were in possession. This style of play that involves the utilization of wing backs to create an overload on the flanks is becoming somewhat of a trademark in the NPSL for manager Brad Fraley. Jackson saw some early success with this as Mark Walier and Kevin Kappock, the traditionally defensive players that were chosen to replace the missing pair of Joel Quist and Dan Russo in the forward line, continually used the numerical advantages the team was making to get in behind the Philly defensive line.
Before the game, Fraley was full of praise for Walier’s versatility.
“Mark is very versatile,” Fraley said. “He can play on the wing, he can play outside back. If we are in a pickle, he can even play center back. The kid is just an engine.”
The Lions’ high press combined with the work of Dave Nigro, Jacob Rubinstein, and young standout Leo Montesinos in the midfield made it very difficult for Lone Star to play out of the back. So they were forced to go directly to their forwards who worked to receive the ball in the channels and drive straight at Jackson’s full backs. If it were not for Jhan Paul Mayorga, who made three massive saves by the 15th minute, Jackson may have succumbed to the counter attacking threat of Philly’s forwards and seen their dominance go to waste yet again. However, Mayorga was impenetrable in the first half.
David Nigro finally got the party started in the 19th minute. After having seen the Lions already have two goals pulled back due to offsides, he drove towards the penalty spot after a ball headed into his path by Jacob Rubinstein and used his left foot to tuck it cleanly into the side netting to make the score 1-0.
Nigro was absolutely the standout performer of the half. His workrate, technical ability, vision, and maturity are that of a true professional. He is the linchpin of this entire Lions team almost every time he features.
As the half pressed on, the Lions remained defensively sound and continued to make life difficult for Philly’s back line. In the 39th minute, instead of serving his corner kick directly into the area, Joey Zalinsky found Tommy Johnson at the top of the box who was able to deflect his effort from distance off of a Philly defender and into the net as their keeper was caught wrong-footed. This made the score 2-0, and the Lions would maintain their vice grip on the match going into halftime.
For the second half, Jackson took the field having made only one change. Miguel Alves took the place of Kappock. It took less than 90 seconds for the Lions to triple their lead through Nigro once again as he got on the end of yet another deliciously delivered cross from Zalinsky who would finish the night with three assists.
Just moments later, in the 48th minute, Walier scored just about the most beautiful goal you will see all season on the back of an equally impressive through ball from Alves. After a turnover in Jackson’s defensive third, Alves was able to beat about half of Philly’s entire outfield with a driven diagonal ball that landed directly in the path of Walier who was making a run down the left flank. Walier collected the ball, drove at Philly’s right back, cut onto his right foot, and curled the ball far out of reach of the keeper and into the top corner of the goal. This made the score 4-0 just three minutes after the restart.
After this, Jackson was happy to sit deep and absorb pressure for a period of time. However, Philly proved that sometimes it is too early to park the bus because. In the 62nd minute, they were able to score after a spell of possession. It took Jackson only five minutes to respond when Walter Calderon was able to lay a ball across an open net for Walier to finish off with ease to retake their four-goal lead.
With the score now 5-1, and it now being nearly the 70th minute, one would think that the visiting team would have thrown in the towel at this point. That is not how Philadelphia Lone Star operates. In the 71st minute, Philly continued bombing forward and were able to pull another goal back. Jackson happily took their invitation to a wide-open contest for the remaining 20 minutes, and for the remainder of the match were able to net three more goals. Calderon was involved in all three, scoring two and assisting Zalinsky in between. The match finished 8-2.
A win like this leaves fans with a sense of longing for what could have been when looking back at the Lions’ performances throughout this season. Had they been able to perform with the type of consistency with which they have in their past two NPSL outings for the whole season, they might not be talking about them needing to win their remaining two games to have a chance at playoff qualification. They might have even been debating if they have what it takes to finish first in the Keystone Conference. Regardless, as de Simione mentioned before the match, this team can only now focus on what it can control.
Jackson’s march towards fate continues on Saturday in Manheim, PA when they travel to face off with the Pennsylvania Classics.
Photos Courtesy of Jackson Lions FC