By Tyler Andreas/Jackson Lions FC
If there is one glaringly clear takeaway from the Jackson Lions’ first NPSL season, it is that they are fully capable of competing at this level. Their professionalism, dedication, and passion for the game from top to bottom represent the rapidly growing grassroots landscape in the United States, and they have the talented players to match. Despite some frustrating losses and defensive performances, the new boys of the league were still able to finish their season with hopes of finishing in the top four of the Keystone Conference, however slim the chance.
The season did not start off as well for Jackson as they would have hoped. They started by losing three of their first four matches, and then dropping points to West Chester at home in a match that was only theirs to lose. After this rough introduction to NPSL competition, it would have been easy for them to just try to see the season out and reassess afterwards. However, the Lions don’t think that way. This is a club that is founded on the idea that no game is ever lost until the referee has blown the final whistle. This is a club that loves a challenge.
Jackson went into the final match of the NPSL season two points behind West Chester United, a team that would have two games in hand by the end of the night. Both teams were equal on goal difference. What this meant is that the Lions absolutely needed to win on the night to put themselves in a position where they were mathematically still in the top four race.
Jackson went out in a standard looking 4-3-3, clearly looking to do everything possible to end the night on the winning side of the score sheet. For the first 15 minutes they were slightly pinned back by Hershey’s young and energetic starting 11 and found it troublesome to play out of the back. However, Hershey’s high pressure left some big holes in their back line that the Lions looked to exploit.
In the 19th minute, it was almost Dan Russo who made the breakthrough after a brilliantly chipped ball from Walter Barreto left him with an open goal to volley into. Russo sent the shot high and wide, but luckily for him the assistant had already raised his flag to signal offside.
For the remainder of the half, the Lions continually gained momentum and forced Hershey’s Luke Snyder into several smart saves until finally getting the scoring started in the 43rd minute through club captain Dan Pizzimenti. The goal came after some incredibly slick ball movement that ended with Walter Calderon in behind and sliding the ball across the goal for Pizzimenti to hammer home. The first half ended 1-0 in Jackson’s favor.
The scoring in the second half got kicked off in the 56th minute when Joey Zalinsky picked the pocket of a Hershey winger and tore down the right-hand flank with his trademark speed to lay the ball into the path of Calderon about ten yards from the goal. Calderon took the ball in stride, cut the ball back onto his left to beat two defenders at once, and slotted home through traffic into the bottom corner.
Russo scored in the 63rd minute after another impressive sequence of passing that involved seven different Lions players touching the ball before Calderon backheeled it into the path of Russo six yards from goal. Russo finished low and hard, making the score 3-0. At this point, Jackson thought they had the game wrapped up but Hershey’s Brian San was determined to drag his team back into the game. Just seconds after the restart, San was able to head home from a dead ball situation that he created by driving straight at the Jackson midfield.
In the 73rd minute, Kris Maza was able to tuck home a Zalinsky corner and give Jackson a little more breathing room. It should not go unsaid that Zalinsky’s service during the Lions’ late season charge has been nothing short of spectacular. The man has been recording multiple assists every game in the latter part of the campaign.
Despite Maza’s goal putting the game all but completely out of reach for Hershey, San was able to pull back another two goals in the 84th and 89th minutes due to his aggressive dribbling and raw speed. He was definitely Hershey’s standout performer on the night. The game would go on to end 4-3 in Jackson’s favor.
This win means that if West Chester loses their remaining games, the Lions go through to the Keystone Conference playoffs. If they lose one and draw one, Jackson goes through on goal difference due to the fact that West Chester cannot improve theirs in that situation. The Lions faithful will have their fingers crossed as they watch WCUSC play out the remainder of their two matches.
No matter what happens, the Jackson Lions should be incredibly proud of their performance in their inaugural NPSL season. They overcame mountains of adversity in order to put themselves in a position where they have a chance to make the playoffs. At one point that looked to be a complete impossibility. This is a club that enjoys a challenge and is designed at its roots to fight until the very end.
Photo Credit: Jackson Lions FC